‘It was like reading a doctor’s prescription’; 5 tips to improve communication with families in child protection practice

Dr Sarah Bekaert, Senior Lecturer Child Health, OBU

Parents are acutely aware they are not equal partners in the child protection process.  Child protection staff ‘call the shots’; prescribing action, obedience required.  Families may respond with hostility and anger to social care involvement in their lives.  However, if practitioners are mindful of the quality of their relationship with family members during assessment and ongoing plans, outcomes are improved. A literature review by #ERICA highlights the value of communication in the family/practitioner relationship. This blog presents 5 areas where family members say practitioners can improve their communication:

  • Listen to families
  • Explain what is happening
  • Give timely information
  • Provide written information
  • Be courteous.
  1. Listen

Many parents feel they aren’t being listened to. They are given little opportunity to discuss with workers, the interpretation of events, or ongoing plans for their families.  Parents with specific needs such as a learning difficulty, mental health diagnosis or drug and alcohol use, often relate that plans are decided based on preconceived opinion of their situation. Children and young people feel ignored, and sometimes worse, disbelieved.  In a study by Gaskell (2010) one young woman said: ‘I was being abused by my mum’s boyfriend, but everyone thought I was making it up’.

  1. Explain

Workers need to help parents and children navigate the child protection process.  Parents and children say both the safeguarding concern and the follow up process is not clear. Initial police contact or social worker involvement, or in some cases the knock on their door, was often the first they were aware of a concern. In a study by Booth and Booth (2005), mothers with learning difficulties said they had not had an assessment, or could not recall ever having one, showing a lack of openness with which the process was carried out.  They likened this with ‘playing a game without being told the rules’.

  1. Timely information

Family members want accurate and timely information.  Parents and children need to know what is happening and why, and what future plans are in place.  The case conference was a particularly stressful event for parents who were expected to absorb an overwhelming amount of information in a short period of time.  Parents should therefore be given information in advance of the meeting, and the opportunity to ask questions.  As one mother said in a study by Smithson and Gibson (2017); ‘If I had (the information), it might have prepared me emotionally a bit better for the way it (the case conference) was going to happen’.

  1. Written information

Parents stressed that written information would have helped them understand the process.  They wanted this information to be free of professional jargon. A mother in a study by Ghaffar et al (2012) stated ‘I attempted to read it, but it didn’t make any sense… it was like reading a doctor’s prescription’. Children and young people should have information that reflects their developmental stage.

  1. Basic courtesy

Be courteous. Family members repeatedly gave examples of an organisational culture that seemed to place a low priority on basic courtesy. Social workers were difficult to contact, telephone calls not returned, and were late for appointments.  Parents in a study by Buckley et al (2011) noted that parents would not ‘get away’ with such ‘inconsistent and unreliable’ behaviour. A consistent relationship with a trusted professional was particularly valued by young people.

Parental and child involvement in processes that affect their lives is a human right. Guilt and shame can be provoked when confronted with a safeguarding concern; the response – defense and fear. The child protection worker holds the legislative power within the relationship and therefore they should also be aware that they hold responsibility for proactively developing partnership with parents and children. Taking time to listen, explain, provide information and basic courtesy are key to family engagement in the social care process.