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About this book

Social work practice with children, young people and families is complex, highly skilled - and fascinating. Writing about social work increasingly acknowledges the complexities and uncertainties of practice but rarely features the voice of the social worker themselves. This book takes a different approach, that of Critical Best Practice: a constructive, realistic and strengths-based approach that takes as its starting point the telling and analysing of in depth stories about 'live' practice.

The reader is encouraged to join the social work practitioner or manager as they engage with the everyday dilemmas and uncertainties of 21st century practice. Ten narratives, based round the themes of relationships, risk, and negotiation & problem solving provide varied opportunities for critical reflection and learning about social work in different contexts. Insights are offered into social work with children, from young babies to adolescents, and families with differing needs in different parts of the UK: England, Scotland and Wales.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

There is a growing interest in bringing social work theory, research and practice closer together, so that writing about social work acknowledges and conveys the complexity and uncertainty of what is involved in doing it. Critical best practice (CBP) is perhaps unique in illustrating how practices and theories are ‘enacted’ by practitioners through an emphasis on the detail of ‘the very “work” that is social work, the actions taken, what gets said and done and with what consequences’ (Ferguson, 2003, p. 17). It has been argued that while ‘service user perspectives’ are an established and essential strand within social work writing, the voice of the social worker is largely absent (Beresford and Croft, 2004; Jones et al., 2008). In this book, we have set out to address this imbalance by focusing on practitioners’ own narratives and critical reflections upon the complexities and dilemmas of social work with children and families. The accounts and analysis of real case examples offer a new and engaging way of learning about practice as the reader is prompted to engage with and respond to the dilemmas and difficulties faced, encouraging them to ask ‘What do I think? What would I have done?’ The stories in this book offer an opportunity for the reader to accompany practitioners as they explain their struggles to find ways of making a difference in situations where there are few clear cut courses of action. The scope of the book is a wide one, with social workers from statutory, voluntary and private settings, with different levels of experience, describing their day-to-day work with families and children of all ages, from very young babies to adolescents on the verge of adulthood.
Andy Rixon, Barry Cooper, Jean Gordon

Telling Stories: A Journey into Narratives of Practice

2. Telling Stories: A Journey into Narratives of Practice

This chapter is about the significance of stories to social work practice. Roscoe and Jones (2009) propose that ‘In social work … we speak ourselves into existence within the stories available to us’ (p. 10). This is a profound thought. However, stories or narratives in social work are not unproblematic. By explaining some of the struggles and dilemmas that arose from writing with practitioners we aim to draw out some key arguments and theoretical insights into the relationship between story-telling and social work practice. Two key questions help to frame these discussions: ‘what story?’ and ‘whose words?’ Some of this discussion may seem complex. But this is only because social work practice is intrinsically complicated. So we would urge readers interested in these explanations to stick with it. However, the stories in the three sections that follow are self-contained and readers can choose to return to this and the more theoretical section introductory chapters at any time.
Barry Cooper, Jean Gordon, Andy Rixon



3. Relationships

That social workers require the ability to form relationships with the people with whom they work has always been accepted even, perhaps mistakenly, taken for granted. However the emphasis on the centrality of relationships to the social work role and what we really mean by this has fluctuated over time as the thorny debate about what it is social workers should actually be doing and how, has continued. This section explores, through descriptions of practice, some of the reality of how social workers view the idea of relationships and what they actually do and don’t do in their direct work to create, foster and then end them. No ideal will be proposed; so varied are social work encounters and the contexts in which they take place that this would be impossible. But this is not to say that learning cannot emerge from following the struggles of practitioners to form meaningful relationships as they search for the best practice they can achieve in complex situations.
Andy Rixon

4. Relationships in Intensive Short-Term Work

Niall has worked in the field for longer than he cares to remember, qualifying in 1991. He has been a probation officer, a substance misuse project manager, and a training and development manager. He is currently a consultant social worker working for an Integrated Family Support Team in Wales.
Niall Casserly, Andy Rixon

5. Relationships in a Therapeutic Context

Michelle is a social worker of over 30 years experience as a manager, supervisor and practitioner working with children, young people and adults whose lives have been affected by abuse and trauma. She is a practitioner in the NSPCC, a large voluntary organisation offering post-abuse therapeutic support primarily to children and young people but also, when required, sessions for their parents or carers. The team is in a large urban area of England.
Michelle Hyams-Ssekasi, Andy Rixon

6. Managing Relationships

Mike has been a qualified social worker for 15 years working in youth offending and residential social work. Mike has managed the Families First project which is a multi-agency team set up to work with fami­lies where parental substance and alcohol misuse has been identified as having a negative effect on the children and young people in the family. Mike was then seconded to project manage the setting up of an Integrated Family Support Team which he has managed since the pioneer areas were launched.
Michael Waite, Andy Rixon

Risk, Uncertainty and Judgement


7. Working with Risk: Fine Judgements and Difficult Decisions

Social work with children and young people, has always required an understanding of risk. Youth and adolescence, for example, a time of life that is ‘synonymous with transition’ (Cebula, 2009, p. 9) involve negotiating the often rocky path between childhood and adolescence and, almost inevitably, taking risks. Decision-making about risk — what constitutes a risk, whether the risk is harmful, whether it is right to intervene to reduce risk — is a core and enduring aspect of social work practice. Making these kinds of ‘judgement calls’, which intersect with individual, organisational and societal attitudes towards risk taking, has always been one of the most pressing and testing tasks faced by welfare professionals (Titterton and Hunter, 2011). This chapter provides a brief synopsis of some of the debates, dilemmas and difficult decisions that surround our understanding of risk. It can only give a taste of the extensive and growing literature on the subject of risk; the references at the end of this book will enable readers to go on to explore these interesting and important debates in greater detail. This introduction will set the context for a discussion of the place of risk in day-to-day social work practice, and for four practitioners’ stories about their experiences of working with risk in different practice contexts.
Jean Gordon

8. Assessing Risk of Harm: A Team Approach

The team in question consists of members of an assessment and support Team1 in England. It employs social workers, support workers and foster carers and works closely with a range of other organisations including adult community care and legal services. Its aim is to enable parents to parent their children ‘in a safe environment with a view to supporting and encouraging them to develop a better understanding of their child’s needs and how to adequately meet these independently and on a consistent basis’. The placements are provided by foster carers as near as possible to families’ local communities.
Suzanne Lyus, Wendy Wyatt-Thomas, Jean Gordon, Jayne Strange, Becky Hopkins

9. ‘Trying to Get It Right’ with David: Addressing the Risk of Sexually Harmful Behaviour

Jock has worked with sexual abuse since 1994: with children at risk of harm and, as a probation officer, assessing, supervising and treating adult men with convictions for sexual assault of children and adults. This dual perspective supports him in his current role as a specialist risk assessment and treatment worker for a local authority, working with adults suspected of, or with historical convictions for, child sexual abuse, and with young people who display sexually harmful behaviour.
Jock Mickshik, Jean Gordon

10. Myra: A Balancing Act

Clive is a senior social worker in a local authority Children in Need team in England. He has been a social worker since 1972 and has previously worked with children and families in a variety of different roles which have included a focus on advocacy, children’s rights, training and family group conferencing.
Clive Rosenthal, Jean Gordon

11. Taking Risks with Alannah

Marie works as a Senior Supervising Social Worker for an Independent Fostering Agency in Scotland. The Agency provides placements for children who are ‘Looked After’ by the Local Authority; placements can be short-term or permanent.
Marie Brown, Jean Gordon

Power, Negotiation and Problem-Solving


12. Power and Negotiation in Practice: From Problems to Solutions

The stories of practice in this section of the book illustrate some of the shifting patterns of power and negotiation in social work. In many ways these can appear to be ‘hidden concepts’ in practice as they are often tacit or unspoken about. In talking to practitioners for this book it was noticeable that, although the use of power and the processes of negotiation were rarely named as such, they nonetheless influenced the courses of events that were being described in subtle and complex ways. These links between power and negotiation are placed into perspective by examining another ever-present and debatable pair of concepts, that of problems and solutions. The rest of this chapter introduces these three themes to further explore and explain why the use of power is an inescapable aspect of social work. I will argue that although the purposeful use of power and negotiation is under-recognised in social work, these are not ends in themselves. The constructive, ethical and expert use of professional power and negotiating skills are only the means through which social work addresses the reasons for its involvement: identifying problems and finding solutions to those problems. The three stories of practice in this section and the narrative comments that accompany each story will help to ground these ideas in three very different practice examples.
Barry Cooper

13. Negotiation and Resistance: It’s All About the Child

Naomi qualified from University in 2007 and intended to work with adults with severe and enduring mental illness. Throughout her degree she concentrated on studying mental health and did not consider working within children and families teams an option. However, upon qualifying, there were few social work positions in mental health and so began in a long-term Children and Families team. Her experiences of working with children and their families were positive as her interest and experience increased across the range of child protection, children in need and the youth courts through working with teenagers who were remanded to Local Authority care. Naomi completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Working with Children, Families and Carers in February 2013 as part of her continuing development and is now a relatively experienced practitioner taking on complex cases and care proceedings. However, her work with Linda Smith and her family arose early in her professional development. The story is an illustration of best practice within an English local authority child and family social work team.
Naomi Gillard, Barry Cooper

14. Negotiation Without Power: Mediating Post-Adoption Contact Arrangements in a Facebook World

Jenny recently retired after a social work career of over three decades spent entirely within local authorities. When generic practice gave way to increasing specialisation she worked with children and families and then moved into the field of adoption and fostering. For the last 16 years of practice she worked within a local authority adoption service which pioneered the provision of a range of support services to all parties to adoption — adopted children and adults along with their birth as well as their adoptive relatives. For much of this time she took the lead role for contact issues which included responsibility for the service’s Letterbox scheme. This is a means whereby, if agreed to be in the best interests of the child, adoptive and birth families can exchange letters, usually once a year, without compromising the confidentiality of the adoption.
Jenny Jackson, Barry Cooper

15. Negotiating Solutions

Pat is an independent social worker and is appointed by the family court to assist in private law cases when parents or other family members are in dispute regarding contact and residence arrangements. Her career began in youth work after which she qualified as a social worker, first in the Probation Service, then Youth Justice and then in Family Court Welfare and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) while also contributing to training and practice teaching. After almost 30 years Pat took the opportunity to continue her work independently and during the last four years has specialised in working exclusively with families and individuals entrenched in the acrimony and bitterness that can follow separation and divorce and have such a detrimental impact upon children.
Pat Barrow, Barry Cooper

16. Conclusion

We set out in this book to bring together examples of social work that can be described as ‘best’ practice. As our Introduction makes clear, this is not to suggest that there is only one way to do social work, or an ‘ideal’ outcome in any practice situation. Instead the best practice described is about doing ‘the best’ the social worker is able to do at that time and in that place, in the context of that child and family. Crucially, as the accounts of the practitioners in this book demonstrate, best practice requires a facility for critical reflection, and the ability to act on that reflection to practice skilfully and learn from experience. Naomi, reflecting on her work with Linda, concluded that she could honestly state I could go back and manage that much better now. And Myra’s case was important to Clive precisely because of what he learnt about intervening with authority in a chronically harmful situation. This kind of reflection on the process of social work and learning from what goes wrong as well as right is as much part of best — and critical — practice as cases that have unequivocally positive outcomes.
Jean Gordon, Andy Rixon, Barry Cooper
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