When ‘knowing your rights’ equates to ‘sense of entitlement’ and what this says about child protection practices today.
It is a frequent complaint made to me that parents from poor backgrounds are targeted in care proceedings because they are poor. That the struggles they have in parenting are reflections of their alienation from more affluent society and that they need support for this – not condemnation. There is very worrying evidence that rates of child protection intervention shoot up in the more deprived areas of the country which certainly demonstrates a link between poverty and increased likelihood that your child will be taken into care.
Can this really all be down to ‘bad’ rather than ‘sad’ parents? Are wealthier parents not exposing their children to any kind of harm worthy of state intervention? Or are they just better able to hide it or to avoid professional scrutiny?
So it was very interesting to read Professor Claudia Bernard’s research ‘An Exploration of How Social Workers Engage Neglectful Parents from Affluent Backgrounds in the Child Protection System’.
This research was commissioned by the City of London to find out what is known about child neglect in affluent families. There is little current research on this issue and Professor Bernard wanted to investigate what factors arise for social workers in responding to child neglect in affluent families.
How is neglect defined?
Working Together to Safeguard Children (2015) definition of neglect is used:
“The persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health and development” (DfE 2015).
‘Neglect’ is still the most common reason for child protection proceedings. Most investigations into ‘neglect’ focus on those families already known to the authorities and who are likely to be members of lower socio-economic groups. Issues of neglect in more affluent families is generally off the radar. A child who comes to school dirty and smelly is pretty easy to spot – but the child who lacks emotional attunement with a wealthy and largely absent parent is less immediately visible. Lack of immediately visible harm can flow from those parents who do not spend enough quality time with their children, pressure them to be high achievers and thus create psychological and emotional problems for the children in adulthood.
Such harm is recognised as an ‘ACE’ – an adverse childhood experience. As the study points out:
Adverse childhood experiences refer to physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, being exposed to domestic violence, substance abuse, and other early life stressors (Felitti et al. 1998). While many ACEs are disproportionately found in economically disadvantaged communities, it is important to note that research has identified that ACEs are far from absent in more affluent families (Bellis et al. 2014).
What did the research set out to do and what did it find?
The research posed three specific questions to participants from 12 different and diverse local authorities. The limitations of this work are recognised – it is small scale and exploratory and was not trying to elicit statistical or generalisable data.
- How do social workers identify risk factors for vulnerable children in affluent circumstances?
- Which factors inhibit or enable social workers’ engagement with affluent parents when there are child protection concerns?
- What kind of skills, knowledge and experience is necessary for frontline social workers to effectively assert their professional authority with affluent parents when there are concerns about abuse and neglect?
Key messages identified
- The findings revealed that thresholds for neglect are not always understood, which posed challenges for effectively safeguarding children at risk of significant harm in privileged families.
- The vast majority of the cases described by the participants concerned emotional neglect, although other forms of maltreatment, such as sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation and emotional abuse, were also identified.
- Commonly-encountered cases involved struggling teenagers in private fee-paying and boarding schools,
- Participants gave many examples to show how parents had the financial resources to access psychological support through private care providers to address their children’s emotional and behavioural problems; some practitioners viewed this as a positive outcome for the child, but some saw this as a way for the parents to opt out of the statutory child protection system, and to thus slip under the radar of children’s services.
- Participants consistently cited that highly resistant parents were more likely to use legal advocates or the complaints procedures to challenge social workers.
- All of the participants also experienced the challenges of inter- agency working with private fee-paying and boarding schools when child protection concerns were raised.
- Considerable experience, practice wisdom and knowledge of neglect were essential in relation to working with highly resistant parents who had the resources to challenge social workers’ decision-making.
- Skills, knowledge and competence: all of the participants highlighted the important role that supportive managers and good supervision played in helping them to effectively intervene in affluent families.
Conclusions and comments
One problem here is that the ‘vast majority’ of cases involving affluent parents involved ’emotional neglect’ – a phrase which almost every parent I have ever spoken to reacts to with baleful suspicion. Unsurprisingly, as the research noted: ‘Participants stressed that the vague and ambiguous nature of emotional neglect was one possible factor making it difficult to interpret and assess indicators of emotional neglect’.
But the much more troubling issue was the apparent assumption that parents’ knowledge of and willingness to act upon their legal rights was a Bad Thing.
The key question identified in the study is how to assess the psychological and emotional availability of parents and when and how the state should intervene, particularly as we are now embedded in a culture of ‘neoliberalism‘, where hierarchies are seen as based on competence and those who do not strive to achieve will fail and be left to fail. How can we criticise parents for wanting their children to adapt and thrive in this environment?
I am sure many parents would be taken aback at the notion that their wish for their child to do well and their decision to push a child to achieve should be seen in the same category of the child who is not fed or clothed well enough, who has no toothbrush or no clean bed to sleep in. However, while relative affluence may mean it is easy for parents to avoid obvious physical signs of neglect – for example, by paying someone else to take care of their children’s physical needs – it does not mean that their children escape from emotional or psychological harm.
However, if we want parents to get on board with this we have to be able to explain it clearly and engage them to listen. What does the study tell us about this?
The comments I found most interesting were these:
All of the participants described difficulties in maintaining focus on the child because of the way that parents used their status and social capital to resist child protection intervention, and many also displayed a sense of entitlement to do as they pleased and that they know best.
One participant commented:
“Those children are quite hidden, because parents know their rights, they are articulate, and they can be quite avoiding. I would say that social workers are quite often concerned that working with affluent parents rather than with other parents because they are educated and they are very challenging”.
The report notes
in some cases, their obstruction towards social workers manifested in formal complaints to senior managers and elected councillors and the threat of legal action.
Participants elaborated the ways that the parents’ class backgrounds gave them an unspoken advantage, which meant that they were generally knowledgeable about the workings of organisations such as children’s social care and the safeguarding process; perhaps more crucially, their sense of entitlement, brought a greater confidence to challenge the child protection decision-making processes.
The point is that the vast majority of parents resist social work intervention when the allegations made about their parenting are serious and are made in a clumsy or belittling way by someone the parent does not know and trust. The vast majority of parents who contest these matters in court will say ‘they know best’ – so, of course they will ‘do as they pleased’ – a revealingly pejorative way of referring to parents acting on what they think is the right thing for their child.
The use of phrase ‘know their rights’ as if this was somehow a criticism – ‘a sense of entitlement’ – was a chilling echo to my earlier conversations with social workers about the law merely being ‘an aspect’ of what they do and Louise Tickle’s examination of long standing and extremely serious failings on the part of social workers to understand their legal obligations behind the use of section 20 accommodation. Not all formal complaints are made to ‘obstruct social workers’. I often advise clients to make formal complaints about some piece of bad practice – but of course to parents in the middle of proceedings, how many of them have the time and space to do this? They tell me they are worried what will happen to them if they are seen to complain – it looks like they have a point.
Parents resist intervention because they deliberately wish to evade detection to carry on abusing their children (a small minority) or – much more likely – because they lack the skills or insight to accept that they are in fact doing harm to their children. it is easier to resist intervention or criticism than accept that you might be doing something to hurt the person you love very much.
Rich parents use status and social capital to dodge intervention; poor parents use other blunter techniques. But the common thread to all successful interventions with families must be social workers with the time, space and skill to build relationships of trust. And I am not sure that this time or space exists anymore. Its useful to focus on a group who may be escaping necessary intervention and to ask some questions why – but not if that takes away proper consideration of how the fundamentals of social work are being neglected and degraded.
Its not about money. Its about trust, its about relationships, its about working together. I am not sure how helpful it is to set up another group of parents to potentially demonise for their horrid neglectful ways .
When asked what helped, participants replied:
Participants cite the organisational cultures of support, purposeful informal conversations about the case with colleagues, good supervision, knowledge and confidence and responsive managers, themed learning activities, as key to their ability to work in this complex field.
It is both sad and revealing that ‘building relationships of trust with the parents we work with’ did not feature in that list.
It is high time we grappled with the increasing push in social work to see the child in isolation from family and community and that any indignity heaped on a family can be justified on the basis that the social worker is ‘there for the child’. Issues of neglect and abuse which do not involve immediate and substantial harm – the broken bone, the sexual assault – are always going to be tricky to identify, define and deal with in the right way at the right time. The key to all of this will be working together.
I leave you with one final comment from the research
For example, some participants spoke of being belittled and humiliated by parents in meetings, leaving them feeling as if they had to prove themselves and establish their credibility
This is what parents tell me they feel in care proceedings. Time and time again. This is what happens when you set each other up in opposition. When the culture is one of blame and shame. It cuts both ways – and it hurts everyone.
- Note the comments left by parents on this article – How to Work with Challenging Parents. Its clear that relationship building is far from easy and clumsy attempts will probably make a situation worse. Read a parent’s response to the article here.
- And of course there are situations where it’s just not possible to establish a relationship – too much damage has been done or the parent is too far along the road of denial. See this case from 2015 for a particularly sad example.