Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Blogpost: How can the child protection system be more helpful to parents?

BLOG: Research suggests that respect and care from social workers and professionals is crucial for positive experiences with the child protection system. The fact that many parents report experiences of the opposite is alarming.

Blogpost by Professor Marit Skivenes, Director of Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism.

In child protection, one must work with children and parents to succeed, and therefore the quality of relations between professionals and the family (parents and child) are essential for the effectiveness of the services and help that is provided. However, we have surprisingly little research-based knowledge about parents’ perspective on child protection. How do parents who have their child in care experience the child protection system, its measures, its decision-making and its staff? How about their experiences and views on court proceedings and the interactions with experts and various assessors? Examinations of social science research show very few studies that focus on these questions. So, the first message in this blogpost is that more research on parents is required.

When reading news articles and following policy debates, overwhelmingly critical and negative views on the child protection system dictates. Parents who feel frustrated, sad and violated by a strong state power, express these sentiments and experiences. It is easy to sympathize with these feelings considering the obvious asymmetry of power: The child protection system has the state authority to limit parents’ freedom and to make intrusive interventions to protect the child’s well-being. However, the information from mass media has one purpose and often reflect one side of the issue. Child protection work is complex, and parents are different and have various experiences. In fact, research indicates that many parents are satisfied with the child protection system. A study of about 700 parents in the Norwegian child protection system reported that “40.6% of the parents reported exclusively positive experiences, 30.7% of the parents reported solely negative experiences, while 24% of the parents described both positive and negative experiences.”[1] The second message from this post is that parents have both positive and negative experiences with the child protection system.

What can we learn from existing research? I have not found a systematic literature review, but there is a scoping review published in 2018 by the Australian researchers Tilbury and Ramsay. This review is titled “A systematic scoping review of parental satisfaction with child protection services”. A scoping review is a preliminary overview of what has been done on a research topic without having a critical assessment of the quality of the research. In the Tilbury and Ramsay review, they identified 52 relevant studies in the period 2000 – 2016 that focused on parents’ satisfaction and experiences with the child protection system. It was an overweight of qualitative studies (63.5%), and the remaining was quantitative (17.3%) and mixed methods (19.2%). Nine out of ten studies were from English speaking countries: USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK, and the remaining ones were from Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Israel. Most of the studies were about parents’ views and experiences with the child protection system (n=33); some were about parents’ opinions on specific parts of the child protection system (n=11). A handful of the studies focused specifically on parents with children in care (n=8). Articles were excluded if they did not report original data from parents or caregivers related to dissatisfaction/satisfaction and/or positive/negative experiences of services within the child protection or child welfare system. In the 52 studies included, multiple terms were used to describe parental perceptions including dissatisfaction, satisfaction, engagement, perceptions, perspectives, experiences, views, and voice.

Parents report on both negative and positive factors and features with the child protection system. First and foremost, parents’ experiences and opinions were about the social workers. Parents point out as positive that staff:

A. have good attitudes,
B. are skilled, and
C. act in a professional manner.

And negative experiences when staff had:

A. bad attitude,
B. were not skilled, and
C. did not act in a professional manner.

Going into detail on what parents mean when they report on their experiences around these three interwoven features and factors, research displays the following: the social worker’s attitude was perceived as positive when they showed parents respect, trust, and honesty, with respect being the most important feature. The negative experience related to social workers’ attitudes was mentioned by relatively few and concerns mostly parents who experience stigmatization or labelling by social workers. For example, they often felt that their apprehensions were not taken seriously.

Parents’ positive reflections and experiences about the social worker’s skills were primarily about having good interpersonal skills, which includes being a good listener, having a sense of humor, and being approachable. Furthermore, it includes workers being trustworthy and efficient, keeping their promises and being organized. Some also mentioned that experienced social workers were a positive feature. What stood out as something parents felt bad about were social workers’ lack of trustworthiness and efficiency – for example, not returning phone calls, repeatedly canceling appointments, or being late. Furthermore, it was also pointed out that parents experienced some social workers to be incompetent or unqualified, for example not having sufficient understanding of the dynamics of family violence, poverty, or mental health issues. Parents also experienced social workers with poor interpersonal skills who did not listen or could not provide comprehensible explanations.

Parents’ positive and negative experiences with social workers’ professionalism or ability to act has two important positive findings. 1) a majority of the studies report that parents have positive experiences when social workers collaborate with them (workers valuing their involvement, providing information and enable involvement) and provide practical support (referral to services, financial support, transport etc.). 2) social and emotional support were also something parents appreciated and pointed to as positive. The negative experiences with professionals reveal three critical issues: lack of collaboration, lack of information and disempowering of parents. Thus, the third message in this post is that professionals’ interpersonal skills, ability to collaborate and show respect and care towards their service users are key components for good parent experiences in child protection.

In the feedback from parents, there are, in my view, some clear lessons to be drawn for discussions about what professionals in child protection and educational programs should prioritize. Well-functioning services and measures that are helpful, and professionals that are skilled and competent, should obviously be in place in all child protection work. Equally, the ethical dimension of professional practice must be be given an even stronger emphasize in child protection. Parents praise social workers who can make them feel respected and valued, and who work together with them. They are, not surprisingly, critical of workers that do the opposite. Surely, these observations are not only valid for staff in child protection, but also for research on health professional and service user experiences. I think these straightforward insights should be taken to heart by professionals and judges, urging them to use their education and training to do high-quality work sensitive to these feedbacks.

In child protection, respect, care, and warmth, are especially important because the core of the issue is the family and its inner workings. Family values and traditions are strongly held and immensely important for most individuals, representing embedded and taken-for-granted values and practices that are part of the individual’s personality and lived experiences. Parents and children in child protection receive help and assistance not only on pragmatic matters, but also on ethical and moral dimensions of life – and sometimes the help and assistance are not even asked for and against the explicit will of involved parties. From research we learn that many parents feel they are met with respect and care, but many report the opposite. This is alarming, and must be the priority for educators, professionals, managers, decision makers, as well as policy makers, to improve. 

[1] Studsrød, Ingunn, Elisabeth Willumsen & Ingunn T. Ellingsen (2014) Parents’ perceptions of contact with the Norwegian Child Welfare Services.  Child and Family Social Work 19(3): 312-320. https://doi.org/10.1111/cfs.12004

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