In considering the case study, this exercise will initially examine five of the principles of the Children Act 1989 looking at how they relate to the practice issues. It will then go on to discuss the actions the Social Worker might take. Finally, it will consider the areas for potential conflict and discrimination. All references to “The Act” and “Sections” are to the Children Act 1989 except where otherwise stated.
1. The Principles of the Children Act 1989 and the Practice Issues
Before 1989 childcare law was to be found in a number of acts and judicial decisions. The Children Act 1989 replaced previous legislation with more simplified law which, for the first time, brought the wishes and feelings of the child into the decision making process (Workbook 2 p 10).
The act is “…the most comprehensive piece of legislation about the upbringing of children…” (Workbook 2 p 9). Its key principle is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, the welfare of the child being the paramount consideration when the court makes an order in connection with section 8 of the Act (private law) and part IV (care and supervision orders). Other principles include minimum intervention by the courts and recognition that delay is likely to be prejudicial to the welfare of the child. Department of Health guidelines expand on these to include (among others) the philosophy that children are best brought up with their families. If this is not possible then every effort must be made to preserve continuity with their race, colour, religion and language (Workbook 2 p 14 -17).
Given that the primary concern for the Act is the welfare of children, this must also be the principle practice issue for the social worker in the case study. Essentially, the social worker is required to assess the situation; initially to consider if Olivia’s welfare is affected to the extent that she would be described as a child “in need” as defined by section 17 of the Act. Local Authorities have a duty to provide services for such children (Reader, Aldgate p 38).
Section 17 of the act is very important for social workers, providing them with “…an opportunity to take a proactive and supportive approach to meeting the needs of children and their families……It is the responsibility of social workers to attempt to interpret the notion of ‘welfare’ as widely as possible and to use the legislation to obtain appropriate services for children…” (Workbook 2 p 25). Olivia’s welfare would appear to be the main issue but there is also the welfare of Simeon to consider as he is not having any contact with his mother or half sister. Welfare in the wider context includes Joyce’s welfare as she may well be a victim of domestic violence. By promoting Joyce’s welfare the social worker can support the welfare of the children. (Workbook 2 p 26)
A further significant principle of the act is that of minimum intervention. Section 1 (5) of the Act states that “…no order should be made unless the court considers making an order to be better for the child than not making one…” (Workbook 2 p 14) and in practice, this means that the court will only make an order if it believes it will have a beneficial impact on the welfare of the child. For the social worker in the case, this is an example of how the law can inform practice. Several courses of action are open to the social worker supporting this family and these will be discussed later, however, where the principle of minimum intervention is adopted in social work practice there are favourable outcomes. For example, research has shown that “… forty-three percent of children placed on a child protection register could have been dealt with by voluntary means…” (Reader, Aldgate p 41).
Minimum intervention also supports the requirement of the Code of Practice for Social Care Workers to work in a way that promotes the independence of service users while protecting them from harm (Update Supplement p 5). Empowerment is a key element here, practising in a way that recognises the limitations of the social work role; enabling service users to receive services “…within a context of consent and co-operation…” (Workbook 2, p 33). A significant contribution to the achievement of empowerment is to work in partnership with families (Workbook 2, p33).
Although the word “partnership” does not form part of the Children Act, it is implicit because of sections 22 and 61 that require local authorities to “…consult with the child, the parents and any other relevant persons before making any decision in relation to the child…” (Workbook 2 p 32). The concept of partnership working is a relatively recent one in social work, and it represents a shift from a situation where workers tried to solve problems on behalf of families and impose solutions on them, to one involving a great deal more consultation, consent and co-operation.
It requires the use of a key social work skill which is the ability to ask “…about and listen to the wishes and feelings of families and children…” The shift to partnership working was partly influenced by practice experience and research that demonstrated how a more co-operative approach can ultimately help to promote the welfare of the child (Reader, Jordan p. 56).
Linked to the principles of minimum intervention and welfare is the principle in Section 1 (2) that “…delay in determining issues is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child…”. Whilst courts may make every effort to adhere to this, legal proceedings can become protracted, particularly in relation to private law disputes (Reader, Cull p 83). In this context, mediation has a role as an alternative to court proceedings in order to facilitate minimum delay (Workbook 2, p 141).
The principle of minimum delay applies to this case as action may need to be taken to protect Olivia and this can often be achieved quickly by the provision of voluntary accommodation under Section 20. However, there is evidence to suggest that this can be seen as a diversionary tactic which, while satisfying the ‘minimum delay’ principle, at the same time compromises the ‘no order’ principle by seeking to circumvent the courts (Reader Aldgate, p 37). Read about approaches to challenge discrimination in health and social care
The practice issue for the social worker is to avoid falling into this trap.
Another key principle of the Act is that wherever possible, children should be brought up with and by their families and the word “family” means in its broadest context (Workbook 2, p 15). The ethos is based on “….a cumulative knowledge of the importance of families to children’s sense of identity and the relevance of secure, continuing attachments to children’s development…” as well as the negative effect of the alternative which is to grow up cared for by outsiders. (Reader, Aldgate pp 31/2). Linked to this is the principle that if children cannot be with their families, every effort must be made to ensure continuity with their race, colour, religion and language. (Workbook 2, p 15).
Historically, discrimination and stereotyping have meant that black and mixed race children are over represented among those looked after by local authorities (Reader, Dutt p 24).The needs of black children are not necessarily the same as those of white children; a vital practice issue for this case, where racism may be a feature and working in an anti – oppressive way is therefore essential (Workbook 2, p 51). The practice issue here is to adhere to these principles in the event that enquiries reveal that it is no longer an option for Olivia to live at home with her mother.
2. Possible Courses of Action
A number of courses of action are open to the social worker, dependent upon the outcome of the visit to Joyce. It is clear in the case study, that at the time of the visit, Olivia appears to be happy and well and it also needs to be borne in mind that Joyce has come forward voluntarily even if a little late. Partnership work includes engagement with other professionals and enquiries with the health visitor have revealed no grounds for concern. Nevertheless, the bruising, the allegations of neglect and domestic violence are matters that should give rise to unease for the social worker in this case.
The initial assessment will lead to a discussion of the case to consider whether no action is necessary, or if the child is “in need” and support for the family should be provided under Section 17, or if matters are more serious and formal investigations under Section 47 are necessary (Workbook 2 p 46).
If services are to be provided under Section 17, it is important to work in a way that is empowering and in partnership with the family. Although there is estrangement within the family, it may be possible to arrange a family group conference “…to use the skills and experience of the wider family as well as professionals…” (Workbook 2 p 34). It may be possible to refer Joyce for assistance if there is a problem with alcohol and help with anger management may be of use to John. It is conceivable that the couple may need time without caring responsibilities and accommodation could be provided for Olivia under Section 20 of the act (Workbook 2 p 82). A further option might be for Olivia to be with her grandmother for a time, this could be done voluntarily or, with the leave of the court, Mrs Henry has the right to apply for a contact or even a residence order under the private law provisions of Section 8. A period of residence with Mrs Henry complies with the principle that children should be with their families and allows Simeon to meet his half sister.
Whilst the softer approach of section 17 can be beneficial, this has to be balanced against the sometimes conflicting duty of the local authority to investigate circumstances where a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. Enquiries may reveal that this is happening to Olivia. This duty is cited in section 47 of the act. The words “significant” and “harm” are very important. Section 31 defines “harm” as “…ill treatment or the impairment of health and development…” and “health” as “…physical or mental health…”.
The word “significant” is not defined and is left for the courts to decide. However, associated Department of Health guidelines suggest it can be a single event or “…more often…a compilation of significant events…” (DOH, quoted in workbook 2, p 72). Of particular relevance to this case is that the definition of harm has been augmented by the Amendments to the Children Act that are incorporated into the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which makes it clear that witnessing domestic violence can constitute “harm” in the context of Section 31 (Update Supplement, p 18).
In the event that significant harm is a feature in this case, then the social worker and her/his Manager will need to commence legal proceedings because intervention of the court will be necessary in order to protect Olivia. The orders most likely to be made by the court are known as Care and Supervision orders and are described in part IV of the act. A Supervision order allows the authority to intervene in a child’s care to safeguard its welfare, in this case, effectively instructing Joyce regarding Olivia’s care (Workbook 2, p 77), and a Care order gives the authority parental responsibility for the child, including the right to determine where it shall live, at its extreme, this could involve permanently removing Olivia from her parents’ care (Workbook 2 p 73).
It is important to bear in mind the minimum intervention principle because a court will only grant an order if it is satisfied that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm and that the harm is attributable to “…the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give him, or the child being beyond parental control…” The extracts quoted above are known under the act as the threshold criteria and no order will be granted unless they are met. (Workbook 2 p 72). Even if such action is necessary, it is still essential to work in an anti-oppressive way, “…the principles of partnership continue to be important…keeping families informed about what is happening, recognising the unequal nature of the power between the parents and the professional…” (Workbook 2 p 55).
3. Conflict and discrimination
There are significant areas for conflict and discrimination in this case. The social worker needs to be aware of her/his own values and prejudices and not allow these to influence the assessment (Workbook 1, p 72).
Discrimination against black families because of negative stereotyping has been a feature in the past and must be avoided when dealing with this family. However, there is evidence of institutional racism in social care and research shows that whilst black people are over-represented in the control aspects of social care, they are under-represented in the supportive aspects. (Reader, Dutt, p 23). Discrimination against Joyce because of the allegations about her drinking could also be a feature.
Mrs Henry has rheumatoid arthritis, how this impacts on her life is not known, but she faces discrimination on two levels, firstly because of her colour and secondly; because of her disability, inadequate access provision for people with disabilities could impact on her ability to care for Olivia should this be necessary. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 goes some way towards countering this form of discrimination, but it can be argued that it “…does little to challenge restrictive attitudes and able bodied assumptions…” (Braye & Preston-Shoot cited in Workbook 1, p 62).
The issue of racial discrimination is linked to the practice issue around the conflict between the use of Sections 14 and 47 of the Act mentioned above. Resources for providing services for children are limited and at times of particular constraint, services available under Section 17 may be curtailed in order to concentrate on the children at risk of significant harm who would receive Section 47 services. There is a temptation in these circumstances for families and workers to “…slant the content of their problems to fit the child protection agenda…” in order to get help (Reader, Aldgate p 40).
There is potential for conflict within the family. Whilst the suggested action of a family group conference may be beneficial, conflict within the family might make this difficult. There is already tension between Joyce and Mrs Henry who are not speaking; there may well be tension between Joyce and John as there are allegations of domestic violence. There may also be conflict between Joyce and Robert Watts. Simeon has not seen his mother for two and a half years. We are not aware of Joyce’s feelings about this but it may be against her wishes and she may need to use Section 8 of the act to get access to her son. (Assignment Booklet pp 8 & 9).
Whilst the welfare of children is an important issue and sometimes the paramount one it is not the only issue. The needs of the parents and children can conflict. “…Where children are living with their families a balance has to be struck between the short-term needs of parents and children to ensure the children’s welfare is safeguarded and promoted in the long term…” (Reader, Aldgate, p 35). This would be very relevant if it became necessary for Joyce and Olivia live separately for a time.
In conclusion then it can be seen there are a range of options for the social worker as well as a number of complexities. The social worker needs to understand and apply the law in a way that is compliant with the Code of Practice for Social Care Workers. What parents appreciate in social workers is “…honesty, reliability, respect and support…” (Reader, Jordan p 60). With these values in place there is a good chance for partnership working to succeed in this case.