Learning From Practice
Central to all social work courses is field work, with a requirement that half the course be practice-based, a factor that distinguishes social work education from the majority of degree programmes. It is placements that allow students to make the connections between theory and practice and for many students it is the placements that are the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of the course.
My final social work placement was in a city-based child care team. It was a busy closely-knit team, who made me feel welcomed and involved from day one. Involved is not a euphemism for frantic, as I was well supervised, supported and taught by a very experienced and competent student supervisor.
A Case For a Student?
Like many students starting a placement I was keen to please and willing to take on new cases. What often happened on these occasions is that the student is often given an ‘old’ neglect case, with the expectation that as a keen new practitioner the student could provide new insights and potentially a new sense of direction for a family that had been on the team’s cases for many years. I was no exception and from reading the files that were presented to me I realised the case I had been allocated had been managed at some stage by what seemed like all members of the team and many of the students that had been before.
The family I was allocated had been open to the team for years. It had generally been managed by the team more as a holding operation rather than a case that had the potential for change. As a diligent and committed student I quickly made contact with the family and worked out an intervention plan. The period I am talking about was when the Children Act 1969 was still in operation.
This allowed me to explore the delights of ‘intermediate treatment’ (or I.T.) and involve the two young people in an activity-based group work programme which the team was running for children and young people who were under 10. For those of you young enough not to remember I.T., it was that seen as intermediate between care and supervision. In my memory there were some very interesting projects, albeit most of them were never evaluated.
Recognising Neglect as Child Abuse
Reminiscence is a wonderful thing, though in this situation it takes me away from the central element of my thesis which is that neglect is a category of abuse that is not given enough attention – which is rather odd, given that it is the biggest problem in child protection and with some estimates that up to 10% of all children in the U.K. suffer from neglect.
Neglect in this context is defined as follows:
“Child neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs – from providing a secure environment, food and clothing to making them feel loved and safe”[i].
Neglect is so often seen as something that is about the ‘state of the house’ – the quality of the carpets and bed linen, for example – so often concentrating on physical aspects of care rather than being specific as to what type of neglect are we talking about and how culpable are the parents or carers in the situation.
The latter may seem a strange comment given the importance of the subject; however, in some neglect cases the abuse that has taken place may be due to omission rather than commission, due in large part to the lack of knowledge of the carer(s) rather than any deliberate act to perpetrate abuse. There are a number of definitions of abuse, including physical, emotional and social, and being clear about what constitutes the element of neglect helps social workers to avoid drift and allows for a more focused intervention.
Another aspect that needs to be considered in this area is that because the family may be known for some time, in many cases for years, standards may slip, i.e., what is deemed acceptable for a neglect case may on occasions be unacceptable in other cases. Longevity may lead to drift and an acceptance of poor quality child care, and in part this may be because neglect cases are often seen as lower priority than other types of abuse such as physical abuse or child sexual abuse.
The Prevalence of Neglect
A recent report by Action for Children on child neglect[ii] highlighted the fact that “The majority of frontline professionals interviewed have come into contact with a child they believe has been neglected”. The size of the sample used was 1,926 made up of professionals from:
• primary school teachers
• primary school assistants
• nursery workers
• nursery assistants
• health visitors
• primary school and nursery-based nurses.
Although this was not a survey that included social workers and even secondary school teachers, it is significant in showing the potential numbers in this area. It also shows that if the issue is to be addressed it requires a multidisciplinary holistic intervention. These families require considerable skills to be managed properly to avoid drift and complacency and not merely ‘holding cases’. They are not cases that should be given to the least experienced but the most experienced with good quality supervision that keeps practitioners focused.
[i] Action for Children (2009) Child Neglect Experiences from the Frontline http://videos.icnetwork.co.uk/nejournal/full%20report.pdf (accessed 26/11/2009)[ii] Action for Children (2009) Child Neglect Experiences from the frontline http://videos.icnetwork.co.uk/nejournal/full%20report.pdf (accessed 26/11/2009)