Social workers need to be upfront about what we can and can’t do

by Viviene Cree I watched BBC Scotland’s Fife’s Child Killings: The Untold Story last night with some trepidation. Was this going to be another public humiliation of social work and social workers – another of the ritual slaggings that so often accompanies a child death? In the event, it was not. It was, for the […]

Source: Social workers need to be upfront about what we can and can’t do

A Young Person speaks about 2016: changing policy and practice

As someone who grew up in care in Scotland, 2016 will be a year that I never forget.

Currently I work in the policy team at Who Cares? Scotland. Who Cares? Scotland is an independent advocacy and campaigning organisation that works with and for care experienced people. We believe that care experienced people are the experts in their own lives and their experiences have the power to shape positive change. We know that when care experienced individuals are listened to, great things happen. The last time the Scottish Parliament listened directly to care experienced young people the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 was introduced and it included some of the biggest changes to the system in a long time. However, outcomes are still poor and we know that bigger changes are needed; a change that impacts on not just the system, but the world around care too.

With this in mind, Who Cares? Scotland launched the ‘1000 Voices’ campaign. ‘1000 Voices’ asks that 1000 care experienced people’s voices are listened to by the First Minister. We hope that by hearing from 1000 care experienced people the First Minister will understand how things can be improved. In September 2016 the First Minister, visited our national office in Glasgow. During this visit, I got to meet her alongside some of my care experienced peers. After she had spoken with us she announced her commitment to 1000 Voices and promised to realise this over the next two years. Not long after this, Nicola Sturgeon heard our calls for a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and announced a root and branch review of care in Scotland.

I remember the 15th October 2016 like it was yesterday, the day Nicola Sturgeon announced the independent root and branch review of care. I had recently not only spoken directly to the First Minister, but I had also shared my experience of care with Deputy First Minister, John Swinney. On the 15th, I was alongside my care experience peers. I remember feeling in awe as Nicola Sturgeon came onto the stage and started talking about care experienced people. It felt very surreal to me. When Nicola Sturgeon made the announcement, John Swinney was on stage looking at me with his thumbs up. In that moment, I couldn’t have been more proud of my care experience, and of the care experienced population within Scotland.

On the 16th February 2017, it was announced that Fiona Duncan will be the chair of the independent root and branch review of care. To have someone so successful, who has care experience herself, chairing this review means so much to me. She has a proper understanding of what care can be like as she has lived it herself, to me this is the most amazing thing that could have happened. I believe that Fiona is the best person to do this job and I think she will execute this review in a beautiful way.

I believe having the care experienced voice all the way throughout the review of care will be vital in making the future better for care experienced young people. Right now in Scotland, care experienced young people face some of the worst outcomes, despite being part of a system that was designed to make things better for us, and despite the hard work delivered by professionals all around the country. I hope that from this review, care experienced young people will always know that they are LOVED, VALUED and LISTENED to. That they won’t face a potential 10 moves within their care journey. That they don’t feel different or judged just because they don’t stay at home like everyone else. That they finally feel accepted and not ashamed of their lives. I believe that the care system can be a beautiful place to grow up, once our voices are heard. I am very excited to see what the future holds for the care experienced population.

Lynzy Hanvidge, Policy Ambassador, Who Cares? Scotland


Looking back on the Revisiting Child Protection in Scotland project: A View from the Field

In this blog, Trisha Hall, Scottish Association of Social Workers’ manager, talks about what the Revisiting Child Protection in Scotland project – and the TLC resources within it – have meant for her …

The Talking & Listening to Children (TLC) resources are a great set of tools and approaches which are of immeasurable value to social work, but also other professionals working with children and families.

For social workers to engage in the training sessions means such a welcome change from training in yet another system or procedure, assessment process, measuring tool, impact analysis or familiarisation of yet other professional framework, which at present appears to be the only training available to social work. We are operating within increasingly bureaucratic and procedural cultures, where there is little time for reflection and learning. This project takes practitioners back to why they wanted to be a social worker in the first place. It allows them to reconnect with the passion to make a real difference, through making the relationships with children and their families that build trust, that are non-threatening, but that may prevent an escalation from a child being in need to a child becoming at risk of harm.

The project’s overall impact has evidenced the need for a different culture, which allows for social workers to learn from academics but crucially also from each other, and the people they work with and for. We need to review CP practice in Scotland, not the systems which currently shape practice. We have so much evidence in the form of theories and in depth research, but very little sustainable practitioner based and informed activity.

The sessions have also shown us as the professional SW association how it is vital that we keep campaigning for the systemisation of evidence-based practice and associated tools. It is already evident that despite the very positive response to the workshops, the participants are not able to continue the activity as we had hoped if they have to do so in their own time. There is such an urgency in the day to day work and the frequently large caseloads that it is unlikely any continuation is possible in worktime. Yet this may be false economy. Children and families social workers, particularly those working in child protection, last an average of nine years before they seek another direction. We have to truly reimagine and revisit our child protection practice in order to make sustainable changes that will really “get it right for every child” as well as their families and communities.

Trisha Hall, SASW, Edinburgh
24th May 2017

A view from the inside: feedback on the training workshops

When I signed up for the ‘Communicating with Children’ training workshops, I was barely six months into my social work career. Having qualified back in 2016, I expected a course structured much like any other; provision of information by experts to the comparatively uninitiated, perhaps with some slideshows, group exercises and activities to stave off “death by Powerpoint”. Even for particularly good training courses I had enrolled on previously, it felt like my lack of experience could at times cause difficulty connecting to the source material and applying it to my own practice, meaning that while I could appreciate and make use of most information provided sometimes the best I could hope for was an epiphanic “so that’s what they were talking about” when I was finally confronted with certain scenarios in practice.

After just one session with the “Communicating with Children” group, I felt that they had managed to create something which transcended this potentially dry and impersonal structure and instead provided an experience which was informative, targeted and relevant, made all the more impressive by the fact that each session was merely two hours in length (coffee break included). I feel that this was less about trying to mastermind something earth-shattering, ground-breaking and likely to change the face of practice as we knew it forever, but rather taking things back to basics and allowing workers access to something that should be uncomplicated and readily available; a safe space to share thoughts, experiences, academic sources and (perhaps most importantly) fears, worries and past failures.

During a number of group sessions, I waxed lyrical about all manner of challenging circumstances, dilemmas and hardships I faced during my short time on the job, while colleagues and trainers alike listened patiently. Often, these exchanges did not yield solutions to problems or any sense of feeling any further forward in a practical sense, but inevitably in having talked them through and shared my journey with my fellows I felt lighter, happier and even enriched. Sharing those feelings with other people who could appreciate what I was going through was immensely powerful, and each time I did it I became more confident and more emboldened. Equally, the opportunity to share positive practice and outcomes provided a real sense of worth in the work that we have done and will continue to do with children moving forward, outside of the hustle and bustle of a busy and sometimes stifling office environment.

The articles and video materials were interesting, the conversation was thought-provoking and the provision of biscuits and muffins during sessions did a lot to enhance the experience! However, what these sessions achieved quite simply and effectively was bringing together a whole host of workers from different backgrounds, experience levels and personalities under a clear and common goal: making lives better for children. The simplicity of the interactions between professionals and the trust and respect that was shown highlighted for me an ultimate truth: with service users and professionals alike, the importance of being listened to and acknowledged cannot be overstated and it is through such interactions that the real work can be done.

Alex Gunn, April 2017


One of the most challenging questions I asked myself in coming into my current role was, what could I contribute to help build a stronger future for the social work/social care sector in Scotland during my time as Chief Social Work Adviser? Could I help build some cohesion, common purpose and direction to a sector of incredible diversity and complexity? This at a time of probably the greatest challenges and changes we have seen in public sector services for more than a generation. I don`t need to remind you of what these challenges are in terms of resourcing, demographics and the potential impact of governance arrangements on the delivery of services.

I wish I had an easy solution to some of the challenges we all face at this time. But I am absolutely convinced Scotland needs to have a strong, competent and well trained staff to face the future. Scotland`s citizens will depend on the 200,000 workforce, social workers, social care officers, occupational therapists and Chief Social Work Officers for high quality care and protection of our most vulnerable children, adults and older people.

To help further strengthen the sector, the Social Work Services Strategic Forum was established in late 2013, bringing together Scotland`s most senior figures from across the social services sector. It was from this Forum that a shared Vision and Social Services Strategy 2015 – 2020 emerged, tackling four key areas:

  • Supporting the workforce
  • Understanding service quality and performance
  • Improving use of evidence
  • Promoting public understanding

However, the purpose of this blog is not to familiarise you with the detail, as I am sure you are now well aware of it. The Strategy is about creating a focus through which the sector can begin to see links and connections either to existing work or emerging thinking. One such example is ‘Talking, Listening to Children’ (TLC) which forms part of a four-nation research UK project funded by ESRC. It is exploring how social workers communicate with children in their everyday practice and how social workers and children involved in these encounters experience and understand them. Over the past year, Scottish Government, in particular my own office and child protection policy colleagues, have supported the work of Professor Viv Cree and Dr Fiona Morrison by joining the impact project`s Steering Group and hosting three related child protection seminars last summer. As a result, a number of important connections began to emerge, which I hope will help strengthen the current work at the University of Edinburgh.

The ‘Pride in Practice’ conference last year brought practitioners together where a combination of speakers and workshops not only identified and shared evidence based practice in Scotland and beyond, but also connected to the Communities of Practice being developed by Trisha Hall from SASW – Trisha is also a member of the Social Work Services Strategic Forum. SASW and TLC project staff are now working together to run a series of training workshops for social workers over the next few months in two local authorities in Scotland as a pilot towards developing Communities of Practice in children and families’ social work across Scotland.

Focus on practice has been a key feature during my visits to local authorities and third sector organisations, as well as frontline engagement events with practitioners over the past three years. There is a great deal to be proud of in the direct work being undertaken with children and their families, both in terms of early intervention and also with those already engaged in the formal child protection system. However a number of themes emerge:

  • In current circumstances it is not surprising that social workers do not believe they have adequate time to spend in direct work with children – believing too much of their time is spent on computers and paperwork.
  • Effective Supervision. The importance of reflective practice through regular good quality supervision is paramount.
  • Good Practice. I would add a further observation to those of frontline staff which is that we do not share our good practice as effectively as we might.

Going back to the Vision and Strategy for Social Services and the significance of connections, I hope you can begin to see the significance of the four work-strands the sector identified as critical to strengthening and professionalising the sector in Scotland. None of these stand alone. You cannot have actions aimed at supporting the workforce without having an eye on the improved use of evidence and best practice or better public understanding without taking cognisance of quality and performance. What is fundamental to all that we do is to acknowledge, value and reward best practice in Scotland. I am therefore delighted that the Forum has announced the new Scottish Social Services Awards to take place on 13 June 2017 at Crieff Hydro. In launching the new awards, Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years said:

“The life changing and challenging work undertaken by the people who work across our social services should not, be underestimated. This valuable work is crucial to creating a more equal and socially just Scotland. The people in this sector should be justifiably proud of the work they do.”

The ten award categories, grouped under the work-strands of the strategy, include `Bright Spark`, `Silo Buster` and `The untold story`. I hope they will inspire some of the 200,000 workforce to nominate themselves, teams or organisations. Applications close on 28 February with further details at or follow progress of nominations @SSSAwards and #SSSA17.

The awards are one of the first outcomes from the 5-year Social Services Strategy and whilst it has an action plan to take the sector up to 2020, it is also a catalyst for wider change. This includes the work by Viviene Cree and Fiona Morrison which will enhance the quality of practice in those staff working with individual children and families and sits well with the `Improving use of Evidence` strand of the Strategy.

I wish Viv and Fiona continued success with TLC.

Alan Baird,

Chief Social Work Adviser, Scottish Government

January 2017


Exploring how social workers communicate with children – it’s a complicated business

Last week we launched our on-line practice resources for social workers about communicating with children. Our resources are framed around a ‘home visit’ and the interactions between child and social worker that take place in this context. They are the culmination of the Talking and Listening to Children study, and as well as using findings from our research and real-life practice scenarios from our data, they also include films of social workers from across the UK discussing and reflecting on their own practice.

The TLC study was a three-year project, funded by the ESRC, which explored how social workers communicate with children and young people in their everyday practice. It was developed amidst concerns that children are not seen or heard sufficiently by social workers and other professionals when there are concerns about their welfare. The idea that children may become absent from the gaze of professionals when there are welfare concerns, is brought into sharp focus when we consider a persistent finding from reviews of child protection or inquires following the injury or death of a child, that social workers have not effectively engaged with children. To help understand this, our research set out to explore social work practice as it unfolds – we wanted to get as close as we could to social work practice, so we could so that we could learn and makes sense of why communicating with children can be so difficult in a social work context.

Our research involved members of the research team being based in 8 social work teams across the UK, trying to get a sense of what it is like to be a children and families’ social worker. We accompanied social workers to the meetings they had with children and observed what happens in these encounters. In total we observed 82 meetings between social workers and children (from babies all the way to 17 year olds), interviewing social workers before and after each of these meetings. These observations and interviews allowed us to see up close how complex and nuanced social workers’ communication with children may be. We also filmed and observed a smaller number of meetings (10) between children and social workers and then interviewed children and social workers. This allowed us to explore both child and social worker’s experiences and perspectives.

When I talk about our research, I am often asked questions like: ‘what works when communicating with children?’ or ‘why do some social workers do it well and others don’t?’ or ‘what tools should we be using to make communication with children better?’ These questions are undoubtedly driven by a desire to improve social work practice and, importantly, children’s experiences of it. However, like so many other things in life, communication between children and social workers is complex and there isn’t a quick fix.

However, just saying something is complicated is unsatisfactory – and perhaps a classic academic thing to do. Stan Cohen made the important observation back in 1975 that while its ok for sociologists to ask questions, social workers must act as if they have answers. So we’ve developed a model from our research that we hope will be helpful to social work practice in this area. The Child-Case-Context Model© uses an ecological approach to help social workers understand and think about the communication that takes place between themselves and children. To be clear – our model is not intended to be a panacea for communicating with children. Rather, we hope it will encourage social workers to consider and articulate the complexity that exists in their communication with children,  and in doing so, critically reflect on their own practice in this area. The Child-Case-Context model© has been woven in throughout the resources we have developed, showing how it might be ‘a way in’ to consider and unpack what happens and why during the different encounters that social workers have with children. Let me explain:


During the course of developing our resources, Gillian Ruch (the Principal Investigator for our project) said, ‘When you’ve met one child, you’ve met one child’. While this might be something that sounds quite ordinary, it is incredibly important (and applies equally to social workers). Social workers work with a vast range of children – each with different personalities, at different ages and stages, gender, disability, those who have had previous relationships with social workers, likes and dislikes etc. etc. I could go on listing an infinite number of variables but suffice to say, each child will be unique and as we saw in our research, all of these factors and more affect communication.


Likewise, the nature of the ‘case’ affects communication. How you communicate with a child that you have a long-standing relationship before an up and coming LAAC review is very different to how you might communicate with a toddler on a duty visit following allegations of abuse. The relationships that social workers have with parents, siblings, wider family members and other professionals, all exert influence over communication with children. Being involved with a child on a statutory basis versus a voluntary basis matters and will affect communication. One of the marked differences between social work communication and ordinary communication is that as well trying to develop build rapport and relationships with children, social workers are always assessing, thinking and making decisions or at least recommendations about children’s welfare – and this, of course, has implications for their communication and relationships with children.


Spending time with social workers has really underlined to us that the political context, the organisation and the culture of social work permeate and affect the ways in which social workers and children communicate. Working in a team with low-staff turnover, where you feel well supported by peers and your manager makes a difference, as does having supervision where there is space to focus on the relationships you have with children and to explore how you communicate with children. If relationships and communication with children are not valued in things like supervision, casenotes or even in KPIs, then it seems obvious that this will affect the way social work is practised with children. Public service reform and the wake of austerity also bear influence. The advent of agile working involving hot-desking and having to keep all your things in a locker affects how social workers feel about themselves and the value placed on their work. Under these circumstances, opportunities to ‘offload’ to someone when you come back from a difficult visit – perhaps where you have been shouted and sworn at – becomes more limited and social workers can become isolated. Likewise, if you don’t have a budget or it’s not easy to access a budget for resources and materials for doing direct work with children, there is an extra hurdle to get over, before you can begin to do what should be core to social work practice. Having a high caseload, rushing from one visit to the next, not having a chance to pause and think about what is you are going to say or do with a child, or even how you are going to ask to speak with the child on their own, all have repercussions for practice.

So, if we want to support social workers’ practice and their communication with children, then we need to be open to hearing and thinking about the messy reality of practice and acknowledging how complex it can be. Unfortunately, that means that there isn’t a quick fix for communicating with children – rather we need to focus more on how social work is practised and place greater value on the relationships that social workers have with children.


Dr Fiona Morrison

Research Fellow in Social Work

17th November 16



Child-Case-Context Model©

Cohen, S. (1975) “It’s all right for you to talk”: political and sociological manifestos for social work action, from R. Bailey and M. Blake (eds) Radical Social Work, Edward Arnold, London, pp 76-95.



Making the case for Rethinking Child Protection Strategy: Findings from a large-scale study in England

We have just completed our two year, data collection and analysis of child protection and safeguarding referrals and assessment outcomes for the project ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant number ES/M000990/1). The large-scale, secondary data analysis covers data from the past 25 years in England, giving a picture of what has happened since the implementation of the Children Act 1989.  Although this study was located in England, its findings are relevant to all parts of the UK.

Since the passing of the 1989 Act, various strategies have been adopted by successive governments in England with the aim of reducing child abuse and improving children’s welfare. These approaches have attempted to reconcile the local authorities’ dual aims: to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in need’ (s.47) and to investigate whether action needs to be taken ‘to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare’ (s.17).

Our data findings indicate that the current intervention strategy does not meet either aim.  On the contrary, it is found that the amount of detected child abuse as a proportion of referrals has fallen from 24% to 7%. This suggests that either many abused children are failing to be referred, or that abused referred children are not being correctly assessed. Moreover, the findings suggest that a large number of families who require support services are needlessly ‘risk assessed’, potentially without their consent, causing resourcing issues for the social work profession and contributing to a fear of the consequence of missing a serious case of abuse. This scenario may be deterring families seeking services and damaging those who do.

Our data analysis concludes that the current strategy of treating need and abuse as a linear continuum is producing an outcome counter to the intention of policy, and also counter to the interests of children, families and society.

In addition to the data findings, another objective of ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’ was to investigate the explicit and implicit theory underpinning child protection and safeguarding strategy.  We established four new theoretical findings that can be widely applied to contribute to understanding the system:

  • The ‘Theory of Child Protection’;
  • The ‘Law of Diminishing Returns Ratio’;
  • The ‘Welfare/Policing Dichotomy; and
  • The ‘Outlier Paradox’.

We firstly identified a number of paradigms that, taken together, inform child protection and safeguarding strategy.  This resulted in identification of the Theory of Child Protection circuit.  Much of our data analysis involved investigating these individual elements to look at the strength of the evidential basis for these paradigms.  We concluded that the impact of basing strategy around the Theory of Child Protection decreases the efficiency ratio of the system in relation to child abuse, which is directly at odds with its aim.  We identified this phenomenon as the Law of Diminishing Returns Ratio. We investigated the reasons for this, which led to the identification of a fundamental problem at the heart of child protection and safeguarding strategy; the Welfare/Policing Dichotomy’ (Devine, 2015).  In addition, we observed a phenomenon we term the Outlier Paradox in relation to risk characteristics and the likelihood of effective social work for certain categories of the population.  This paradox refers to families at the extreme ends of the referral spectrum where we found that those who are incorrectly referred and resist social work interaction exhibit similar characteristics to those who are correctly referred because they are deliberately and systematically abusing their children.

These theoretical insights enable suggestions to be made for future strategic direction. In order to address the problems we have identified, we suggest a revised framework that respects the separation in the Children Act 1989 between s.17 in Part III and s.47 in Part V.  This new ethico-legal framework prioritises consensual work for s.17 referrals and a more robust and controlled forensic examination framework where the threshold for s.47 is met.

Dr Lauren Devine and Mr Stephen Parker, Senior Lecturers in Law at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and Principal and Co-Investigator of ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’.  Correspondence to

Further reading:

The ‘Named Persons’ Supreme Court Ruling – what does this mean?

Yesterday (28th July), the UK Supreme Court published its judgment on the so-called ‘Named Persons scheme’ provisions of the Children & Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which is due to come on stream across Scotland on 31st August.  Following a legal challenge to the policy, the Court made three important judgements. Firstly, it stated that the policy intention behind the 2014 Act was ‘unquestionably legitimate and benign’ and does not breach human rights. It also ruled that it was indeed within the Scottish government’s purview to legislate in this area without Westminster approval. At the same time, however, it ruled that information-sharing provisions included in the Act may result in a ‘disproportionate interference with the rights of children, young people and their parents under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)’. In light of this finding, the Scottish Government was invited to introduce amendments to the Supreme Court within the next 42 days. These amendments will have to make clearer how the competing demands of privacy, consent and information-sharing will be respected in practice.

The judgement was hailed as a victory by those for and against the provisions in the new legislation. Many of the children’s charities support the Scottish government, seeing the named person as “central to making sure that we get it right for every child in Scotland” (Martin Crew, Director of Barnardo’s Scotland, in a 28/07/16 press release)[1]. They were therefore delighted that the scheme had not been rejected outright by the Supreme Court. At the same time, the alliance of groups that has opposed the new legislation was ecstatic that the new provisions had (at least) been paused. In the words of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative Party leader in Scotland, “the scheme is illiberal, invasive, and deeply flawed” (Conservative Party website, 29/07/16)[2].

It is enormously difficult for all of us, whether inside or outside the child protection field, to express a view about any of this. Who would want to suggest that the protection of children isn’t our primary concern?  Who doesn’t agree that early intervention – uncovering neglect or abuse before it develops – isn’t a good thing? And who would disagree that we need to coordinate services better? So, if we are all on the same side (and it seems at least possible to argue that we are), what might be done to take this forward?

I’d like to suggest that there needs to be much more detailed work undertaken to examine how this scheme is going to work in practice. So, for example, let’s imagine that you, as a member of the public, hear a child screaming or see a child being hurt by an adult outside the home. What do you do? Presumably, you call the police or emergency social work services. Where is the named person in all of this? And what if this is July, when the schools are on holiday? How does the named person scheme function then? What if the child is a toddler – how many health visitors will it take to be ‘named persons’ for all of Scotland’s under-5s? And what about 16-18 year olds, who can, of course, leave school and even marry in Scotland? Is this the best way of supporting them? My biggest concern in the new world of the named person that, rather than speeding up help and making protection easier, we create uncertainty and confusion, and yet another bureaucratic obstacle – something that gets in the way of helping children and undermines the work of social workers who, under current legislation, are the ‘lead professional’ in child protection cases. There is also a risk of net-widening; as teachers and health visitors are faced with the responsibility of making decisions about the safety of increasing numbers of children, so more children and young people may be drawn into a child protection system that is already creaking under the weight of heavy workloads and financial cutbacks.

Our research on Talking & Listening to Children[3] has demonstrated that social workers do extraordinarily difficult and complex work. They manage to hold in mind and heart children and families who have multiple problems and massive needs – poverty and deprivation, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol problems, and a range of other social, economic and personal challenges. They do so, on the whole, very well – they build on strengths and help children, young people and adults to deal with all kinds of adversities. Moving forward, I would like to hope that we can find ways of giving credit to the ‘life-changing work’ that social workers do.[4] Let’s stop vilifying social workers and blaming parents and young people, and instead, see if we can truly create the more cohesive, compassionate, caring Scotland we want to be part of – with or without a Named Person scheme.

Professor Viviene Cree