Me? Adversarial?

I had an interesting experience the other day. During a discussion about child protection and the recording of meetings a participant cautioned us to refocus on the children who were, it was said, getting lost. The recording of meetings was “all about the needs of the parents” and a dangerous distraction from the need to focus on the child’s needs. Well, yes, possibly. But that depends a little on whether you view the world in binaries – parents v child, them v us, important v distraction.

Although I understand the sentiment and acknowledge the problem (children DO sometimes get “lost” somehow amongst all the feverish adult activity to help them – and some parents are skilled in distracting professionals from the real issues / their own behaviour), I’ve realised that “it’s all about the parent’s needs” and “focus on the child” are phrases that can sometimes used to shut down attempts to challenge social work professionals who are not prepared to work hard enough to engage, work with and support parents – or who just experience challenge as a threat. I’ve often been told by an irritated social worker that they are there for the child not the adult.

Well, I’m sorry to say that I disagree with that limited way of seeing things. It’s just NOT as simple as parent versus child. A social worker is there to help make a child safe, to help ensure the child has a functional family unit in which to thrive and grow. You can’t do that without taking the parents with you, without helping the parents to make change, without building trust. And sometimes that means continuing to work with parents even when they make you want to bang your head against the table repeatedly (trust me, I have this urge with many of my clients). There is of course a time, for some families, when professionals have to hold their hands up and say “Enough. We cannot make this work.” But that time is not as soon as you’ve identified the problem, it’s after you’ve worked damned hard to resolve it. I’m pleased to see that the new head honcho of the ADCS seems to think so too.

In my view a child’s social worker has a DUTY to try and engage parents who are on the edge of the rabbit hole, ready to leap head first into a world of conspiracy theories about corrupt social workers and adoption bonuses if nobody gives them another way. To give up on distrustful and suspicious parents is an abnegation of that duty to a child. Because some of those parents have the potential to draw back from the brink (See for one such parent). And all parents who are working with child protection professionals are so very, very vulnerable to the negative stories and dangerous information out there on the internet – we have to help them see another way. This is why conversations about recording meetings are so important (as one piece of the puzzle) – a parent who wants to record meetings is probably fearful. This should be a flag to social work professionals that they need to work extra hard to build trust. We can’t help all parents, but we have to help those who are capable of being helped. And just because a parent is suspicious, fearful of engaging or even unpleasant and hostile does not mean the potential is not there. I’d be all those things if you wanted to take my child.

I set out a precis of the above during the discussion, and indeed the momentary positing of “parents needs” as necessarily in conflict with those of the child DIDN’T shut down debate – but I still left the session with an odd sensation – which I realised was actually quite familiar : the sensation that it can sometimes be the child protection professionals who see things in an adversarial way, rather than the lawyers. That it can be social workers who wheel out the false dichotomies about “the needs of the child” versus the parents “demands”. None of which is to say that we shouldn’t continuing to check in on how well we are focusing on the child, or that raising that issue was wrong (or that some parents might not use recording inappropriately and not at all for their child’s benefit) – but rather than using concern about what *might* happen to halt or stymie a discussion, how much better to thing about ways to reduce those risks? I guess that lawyers are used to switching sides, to seeing things from a range of different perspectives. If I ONLY acted for parents or ONLY acted for LAs or ONLY acted for children I guess I might get a bit “stuck” too.

It was a really constructive discussion, and together we went some way I think to better identifying the risks and difficulties and to thinking about how to overcome or avoid them – we moved from hand wringing about the possible risk of child suicide to considering what practical steps might reduce risk or prevent misuse of information. I think the guidance published by The Transparency Project was well received – and most importantly generated some genuine open thought about how we might do things better. It also gave me some new ideas about some of the legal and practical complexities that would need to be worked through if recording were to happen and to happen more regularly.

So it was just a momentary sensation, before we moved on and rolled up our sleeves and talked nuts and bolts – but it is odd as a lawyer, who often has to listen to social work professionals bemoan the adversarial approach of lawyers and the tendency of court process to lose focus on children, to realise that sometimes it is the lawyers who are least adversarial of all. It is so important that everyone involved in the child protection and family justice system is able to listen to the perspectives of all participants – we criticise parents for failing to see things from a child’s perspective, but we must be able to imagine the reality of a parent too if we are to be effective in helping them to engage and through doing so to do better for their children. And we also ought not to assume that when a lawyer (speaking in a learning environment rather than acting for a client) is suggesting something that may assist parents they are doing so with disregard for the potential advantage or risk to the child too. I had actually thought of that! In spite of the stereotypical reputation of lawyers, the family lawyer is nothing if not solution focused. We have to be. We all secretly enjoy a little forensic dust up now and again, but if all we wanted was the VERSUS bit we’d be in another field of law. We are actually all on the same side!


11 thoughts on “Me? Adversarial?

  1. I too have felt the urge to bang my head on the table.

    I have also felt the urge to use my opponent’s head for the same purpose.

    And haven’t we all longed to bang the client’s head on a tablet of rough granite, again and again and again, until the mouth is switched OFF and the ears and whatever pea-sized fragment of brain may be concealed between them are switched ON . . . ah, dreams!

  2. Winston Smith

    I’m sorry Lucy, but Uufortunately these are not “conspiracy theories” and some local authorities DID foolishly pay adoption bonuses until the 2008 scandal.

    Parents are not prey to these theories out there on there on the net, they are frequently true. The even more foolish attempt to revive the SRA theory is an example of this, fortunately thrown out by the court.

    All too frequently “child care professionals ” are concerned with their own needs and not those of the child or children,. but then blame it on the parents when allegations may or not be true.

    Then there is the equally unfortunate attempt at the FII THIRD Relaunch with equally dangerous results.

  3. Some good thoughts within your rant. kindly add this to your next though session.. Will the LA ever be accountable for the failure to follow the agreed care plans without then deciding on their own that they need changing regardless of any impact on any one else contained within the court approved plans?. And will the LA’s “best endervours” ever be defined to be enforcable or accountable to someone when they sit back and do nothing?

  4. TotallyConfused

    I found this a very helpful and insightful piece.

    I have encountered far too often, the lawyers are the reasonable ones; the ‘social workers’ have a mind set and nothing is going to change it. I have witnessed social workers jumping with joy ‘Yeah, I win! I got my way!’

    I have witnessed social workers being asked ‘And what have you done to work with the parent(s)?’ And in a questioning voice respond ‘But that isn’t my job’. (I have even seen it in writing.)

    In that example situation, the parents sit there frustrated, angry, and eventually hostile. ‘What process and who exactly was I supposed to engage with?’

    I applaud survivingsafeguarding and she is an example of how to ‘work the system’. However, it is more difficult for a parent who states ‘What is it you want me to change/do differently?’ and all they get is ‘Be nicer to me.’

    It becomes even more frustrating for a parent when all they require is ‘please prove to me you are competent and know your job description and can prove you can work with me; that I can have confidence you really are working in the best interests of the family and by that in the best interests of the child.’ And all that parent gets back is ‘Oh, no. I don’t have to do that.’ To make it worse, the LA lawyer is in the background shaking their head saying ‘Yeah, but I get where the parent(s) are coming from.’

    (I tend to find the lawyers are easier to deal with than the front line staff. You can get a sensible and rational discussion with them.)

    I look forward to meeting you at conference in June Lucy and keep up your excellent and thoughtful work.

  5. If only the lawyers and courts would concentrate on the present rather than the distant past or the unpredictable future when deciding if parents can keep the children they love.Parents disqualified because one Partner has a years old criminal record,moderate Learning difficulties, or was once in a violent Relationship and may or may not take it up again when the offender comes out of jail…….Grandparents ruled out as kinship carers because they have a close Relationship with the parents or sometimes because they have a bad Relationship with them !
    Does it never occur to social workers and judges that parents who are willing to go through months of distressing court cases fighting to keep their children must really love them and should at least be given a chance to look after them under a supervision order? Alas the babies and young children nearly always lose their parents outright and they not the parents are the ones who suffer most…………..

  6. A Social Worker

    As a manager of a social work team I am not very impressed to hear some of your experiences Lucy. I expect all of my social workers to bed over backwards to engage with parents and work with them, no matter what. I am not convinced it is possible to separate parents needs with those of the children in such absolute terms as you have encountered. Our starting point has to be that they are one and the same and if there is an imbalance then we need to do direct work with the parents to make sure the focus is right but the support is there.

    Personally, every time I leave court, no matter how much I believe in what I am arguing, I am depressed and sad that things have got to this point. If any of my social workers presented as happy or jubilant, I would have serious reservations about their mindset. I have seen workers (barristers included) with an adversarial mindset and drawn to think in absolute ways but thankfully most of the professionals I work with are able to hold in mind the humanity of what we do and the terrible impact of the process on not just the children, but also the parents and family members around them.

    • A Social Worker, I’m encouraged to hear your dismay (if you get what I mean) – this is not of course my experience every day, but I’ve seen it often enough for it to be depressingly familiar when I encounter it. I *think* that in the main it is not the product of malice but of overwork and the need of overwhelmed workers to protect their own emotional wellbeing by shutting off – it’s hard to reflect on the parents’ perspective when you are under pressure. I think it’s a survival mechanism – I’ve seen it in lawyers too – no profession or group of people is immune from being human.

    • “bed over backwards” is a pleasing and vaguely indecent typo ????

      • oh, and I thought it was just MY embarrassing typos you liked to correct. I don’t feel special any more….

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