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Working with Parents whose Children are Looked After Joanna McCann

NCB promotes the voices, interests and well-being of all children and young people across every aspect of their lives. Published by the National Children’s Bureau. Registered Charity Number 258825. 8 Wakley Street, London EC1V 7QE. Tel: 020 7843 6000 © National Children’s Bureau, June 2006 ISBN 10: 1 905818 01 7 ISBN 13: 978 1 905818 01 3


Working with Parents whose Children are Looked After

Joanna McCann

Contents Acknowledgements ..........................................................................................3 Introduction .......................................................................................................4 What does research say about parents’ participation in care planning? ....5 Parents’ contribution to this report.................................................................7 How the parents were recruited ..........................................................................7 How the interviews were conducted....................................................................7 Validity of parents’ views.....................................................................................8 What do parents want from social workers?..................................................9 Honesty, approachability and partnership...........................................................9 To be available and to return parents’ calls ......................................................11 Information about their children.........................................................................13 To have the same social worker for as long as possible...................................14 Help to build family relationships and have direct contact with their children....15 Practical support and services ..........................................................................16 Competent social workers.................................................................................16 Age and gender of the social workers...............................................................17 What do parents think of other services and resources? ...........................18 Education ..........................................................................................................18 Residential care ................................................................................................18 Foster care........................................................................................................19 Other services...................................................................................................20 How do parents participate in care planning? .............................................21 Review meetings...............................................................................................21 Venues for reviews ...........................................................................................23 Review reports ..................................................................................................24 Consultation forms ............................................................................................25 After children are placed permanently ..............................................................26 What advice would parents give to social workers and other parents? ....28 Parents’ advice to social workers......................................................................28 Parents’ advice to other parents .......................................................................28 Conclusion ......................................................................................................30 Recommendations..........................................................................................33 At senior manager level ....................................................................................33 At line manager and social worker level............................................................34 Bibliography ....................................................................................................36

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Acknowledgements National Children’s Bureau gratefully acknowledges the funding from the Department for Education and Skills and the Welsh Assembly Government, which enabled this work on parents’ participation to be carried out. Particular thanks go to all the parents who were willing to talk about their experiences, their pain and their learning. Thanks also to all the social workers, their managers and other staff who facilitated the process.

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Introduction Just be aware that for the parent you’re speaking to, this is heart-rending, heartrendingly sad. You know, be aware of their emotional state, it’s a tense situation … be sensitive to what the parents go through. (Parent) Parents’ accounts may often have been factually inaccurate or misleading, but what they conveyed most powerfully was a sense of desperate unmet need which it would be both inhumane and counter-productive to ignore. (Freeman and Hunt 1998, p. 21) It is a central principle of both the Children Act (1989) and the Adoption and Children Act (2002) that young people and their parents should be consulted before decisions are made about their care plans. Research and practice, however, show that parents’ participation in decisions about their child’s life may diminish once their child becomes looked after. There may be a number of reasons for this and relatively little research about parents’ participation has been undertaken with parents of children who are, or have been, in public care, in comparison with parents of children involved in child protection proceedings. In 2003/04 the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) interviewed 29 parents in six different local authorities, as part of the NCB Care Planning project. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Welsh Assembly Government funded the project. This NCB report summarises this group of parents’ experience of participation. It identifies what they found helpful and unhelpful in their contact with professionals and during the care planning process. It includes parents’ advice to social workers and other parents and concludes with actions needed to improve parents’ participation.

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What does research say about parents’ participation in care planning? With reference to parental attendance at reviews, Grimshaw and Sinclair’s (1997) research found that parental attendance at reviews had increased significantly since the early 1980s. They noted that parents were more likely to attend meetings for young children and if the child was on the Child Protection Register or an Interim Care Order (compared with being on a full Care Order). They also found parents were more likely to attend reviews if the child was in a short-term placement. They had reservations, though, about whether attendance at reviews necessarily meant parents were participating in care planning: The observational data indicated that there was a range of participation among parents; encouragingly some parents who were opposed to the plan were able to participate in discussion. However it must be questioned whether participation was soundly based if parents were inadequately informed, or the reasons for decisions were not sufficiently explained. (Grimshaw and Sinclair 1997, p. 162) They also considered ethnicity and gender differences in parental participation at reviews: No difference was found in the attendances of parents with white children compared with other ethnic groups. Mothers’ attendances were more frequent than fathers’. (Grimshaw and Sinclair 1997, p. 168) Thomas and O’Kane (1999) also noted gender difference in frequency of parental attendance at meetings about children in public care, finding that in their survey, fathers comprised 15 per cent, compared with mothers, who comprised 38 per cent. The overall picture is of lower rates of participation by fathers than mothers. There are inevitably a number of reasons why a father, or a mother, may not have contact with, or play an active part in their child’s life, while their child is being looked after. Local authorities must ensure that levels of parental participation are not determined by administrative or incidental reason, for example because a parent has moved home and so does not receive information about their child’s circumstances, or they are not aware of their child’s situation because of literacy or other communication problems. The imaginative use of tracing techniques will often provide a current address or means of approach, and a personal approach by a social worker, another professional or a family member is likely to be more effective in engaging with some parents about their children, than letters alone. The research finding that parents’ participation often decreases with the length of time their child is in public care, and which again may be for many different reasons, must also be actively addressed. Most children do return to their families at some point in their childhood, or as young adults. As Ann Wheal points out:

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For all these children and their parents it is important that professionals involved at times of great stress and crises in their lives, ensure that as far as possible the conditions for them to continue their relationships are fostered. (Wheal and others 2000, p.37) In the context of the Human Rights Act, there may also be a growing number of legal challenges by children or parents who feel their parental participation has not been promoted.

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Parents’ contribution to this report How the parents were recruited The parents interviewed were those who responded to an open letter from the National Children’s Bureau, which was sent out to parents of children in public care by the local authorities involved in the NCB Care Planning project. A link person in each of the authorities identified any parents it would be unwise to contact, for example, because it could jeopardise plans for the child, or would be contrary to the well-being and safety of the child, parents or interviewer. The link person also had responsibility for translation or verbal explanation of the letter, where appropriate. Thirty-seven parents responded to the letter and arranged to be interviewed. Some parents responded to say they were happy about their experience and gave no contact address. Some others were not contactable at the address/telephone number they gave, or within the timescale for the project.

How the interviews were conducted Of the 30 interviews arranged, 26 took place. Most interviews were held at social services’ offices or premises, and a few in parent’s own homes, or by telephone, because of mobility or other difficulties. Twenty-three mothers and six fathers or stepfathers were interviewed. Most of the parents came to be interviewed alone but there were three couples. Of those who gave details of their ethnicity, six parents described themselves as from minority ethnic groups and the remainder as white UK or white Welsh. The parents’ ages were from 18 to 51 years. Seven of the parents identified themselves as having been in care themselves, although, as they were not asked this question, the actual number may have been higher. Between them the parents had 69 children, aged from under one to 25 years. Five of their children were living independently, 19 were living with one or both parents, eight were placed for adoption, and the remaining 37 children lived with foster carers, including kinship carers, in residential and secure settings, or had shared care arrangements. Most parents interviewed had experienced some form of family or personal difficulty leading to their children becoming looked after but a minority were parents of children who were looked after primarily because of the child’s and/or the parent’s disability. All parents received payment for their time and expenses to travel to the interview. Many of those who were interviewed asked for a copy of the final report. www.ncb.org.uk

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Validity of parents’ views When professionals and researchers ask children and young people in public care what they want from social services, there is often some anxiety that they will ask for things that will involve significant expenditure on resources. In practice, this has not been found to be the case; for example, in one consultation with fostered young people, the most common request was for more contact with their families (National Foster Care Association 1999, unpublished). There may be a similar anxiety over asking parents about their experiences of participation and what they would find most helpful, particularly where there have been adversarial care proceedings. This anxiety may be well founded but many of the themes emerging from these interviews were about relatively modest changes, such as social workers returning phone calls. Given that their children were in public care, often against the parents’ wishes, it could also be anticipated that most of the parents interviewed would be bitter and angry about the professionals involved, particularly social workers. Although this was the predominant tone of some of the interviews, many parents also made positive comments about social workers, foster carers, residential staff and others. In summarising the content of the interviews, the report draws out the key themes that emerged, using quotes to illustrate them. Minor changes have been made to the quotes to protect confidentiality; for example, where a parent said their son’s or daughter’s name, this has been replaced with ‘my son/daughter’.

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What do parents want from social workers?

Honesty, approachability and partnership Ann Buchanan writes: So working with parents is like walking on eggs. The challenge is to support parents without fracturing their already fragile confidence. Add poverty, poor housing, racism and all the other stresses that disadvantaged families face, surviving is hard enough without well-meaning professionals telling parents where they are failing. (Wheal and others 2000, p. 21) Where children are looked after as a result of care proceedings, social workers could perhaps be said to be ‘walking on broken eggs’, as the proceedings will almost inevitably have necessitated social workers writing detailed descriptions of where parents have failed to meet their children’s needs. Even when children are in public care as a result of disability and their parents are not disadvantaged in other ways, parental confidence takes a massive knock. As one such parent said: When you have a child in care, you absolutely always have to justify that you are a good person, even though you’ve got a child in care. (Parent) It is sometimes difficult to support and promote participation with parents while protecting their vulnerable children. Some social workers, though, in parents’ opinion, had succeeded in the challenge of balancing these sometimes contradictory tasks. When parents had a sense that social workers did support them and promote participation, they were keen to praise their social workers. The following quotes give some indications about what the parents valued: She’s just so helpful and if I’ve got a problem, she’ll help me solve it, if she can’t she’ll do as much as she can. (Parent) He sat down and tried to see where it all went wrong … obviously he’s not a psychologist but he tried to see basically where it went wrong. (Parent) She gives me choices and not so much tells me what to do but sort of guides me what to do. (Parent) He is the best social worker because he is on both sides, he has given me a chance and I’ve not let him down, I’ve not let the children down. (Parent) One of the themes about support that emerged from the interviews was of the importance of honesty in the relationship between social workers and parents, for example:

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He’s honest, he tells me straight, he’s direct with me, and I’m straight with him. (Parent) I feel as if they are going behind my back. Talking to other people and not coming to me. They are still my children. (Parent) Social workers are afraid to commit themselves, they are not prepared to admit what is going on, it’s like going round in circles. (Parent) It is common practice for concerns about children to be investigated and dealt with on a duty basis and then closed, without any longer-term intervention or support being provided. This can lead to a misunderstanding in the social worker’s assessment of the parent’s capabilities: It’s often the case that parents have interpreted the actions of the investigating social workers as a vote of confidence in their parenting. The implicit message received by parents, though often not intended by social workers, is that their parenting is good enough. When eventually the growing number of incidents of concern leads the local authority to institute legal proceedings, parents can feel betrayed and let down by those they previously felt positive towards. (Wheal and others 2000, p. 31) As could be predicted, some parents did identify a sense of betrayal and victimisation: Other people had chances, I never got that chance. People like us, they take our children even though we don’t hurt them. (Parent) It was just an attitude as if she really didn’t want to help me at all. Half the time I felt she was out to get me. (Parent) They never did anything to help us. Now he’s had an assessment for education, they could have assessed him before, could have offered some respite, done more work with us. (Parent) Drawing on research about parental participation in child protection investigations, Ruegger identifies that: Parents in Shemmings and Thoburn’s study (1990) were more likely to view the help offered more positively if they were fully involved in the decision making process. It was thought that only 20 per cent of parents studied were working in meaningful partnership with their social workers … it was shown that the skilled work necessary to bring such partnership about paid clear dividends in that it was shown to be associated with good outcomes. (Wheal and others 2000, p. 33) Some parents identified with this theme of partnership strongly, even if it was partnership against other agencies; for example: She [social worker] fought education. (Parent)

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He’s straight with us and pushes for things like support on our son’s special needs. (Parent) Approachability was another theme raised by parents, and often linked with partnership: We were actually like two mothers talking, rather than a social worker up on a pedestal and me being a mother who has someone in care. (Parent) I found her to be patronising. Judgemental towards myself. (Parent) She is down to earth, there are a lot that don’t really know what family life is like. If you have a problem, you can talk to her about it. (Parent)

To be available and to return parents’ calls The most frequent complaint about social workers from the parents interviewed was that they did not return telephone calls. Conversely, social workers who did return calls promptly were often identified by parents as helpful: He was there at the end of the phone, if not, he’d ring back next day. (Parent) Rings me back same day or next day. (Parent) One of the things I like is that she will always answer your call, if you ring up and leave a message, she will get back to you straight away. (Parent) I think the returning of calls is a big thing, that is what I don’t get at the minute. It’s always me ringing them. (Parent) Parents said they particularly resented it when they felt they were being deliberately avoided; for example: Either he’s never about or he’s always very busy. I think they just fob you off, it’s the same with the manager. (Parent) You phone up again. ‘Oh yes I’ll come and see you.’ Nothing happens. (Parent) They said he’s out to lunch. I phoned the next day they said he’s on a course. I phoned the next day, they said he’s got your message. I went over there and saw him walking round the corner. He said, ‘Oh I can’t stop, I’m on my lunch break and then I’ve got to go out.’ (Parent) When social workers accommodate or take children into care, they have a huge workload, supporting each child, identifying placements, liaising with families, schools, foster carers, completing all the necessary documentation, etc. This is only increased when for any reason, or out of necessity, siblings are moved to different placements. Understandably then, social workers may struggle with the challenge of meeting parents’ needs fully at this point in the care planning process. Several parents mentioned their wish that social workers would keep in contact more after children had become

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looked after. Sometimes this was directly in relation to their need for information about their children, which is dealt with later in the report, but several genuinely felt the loss of the social workers’ care for them: Maybe someone, a social worker or someone, should have phoned to say how are you now, this happened two or three weeks ago, a bit of support. (Parent) They don’t even ask me if I’m going to see the drug and alcohol team now. It would make you go more if they asked. (Parent) When I was going through depression I wouldn’t phone anybody, not friends and that was the hardest thing to try and talk to anybody … When they ring you it’s a lot easier than picking up the phone and saying ‘I’m having a really tough time today.’ (Parent) I liked it when she rang every week to ask how everything was going, now it’s just to say when the review is. (Parent) Some parents mentioned the heavy workload social workers have and the shortage of resources and were sympathetic: I know they are very busy, they are weighed down with lots of really heavy cases.’ (Parent) What I don’t understand is why say, instead of having ten clients, they don’t just give them seven. (Parent) Others felt that this and staff illness were used as excuses: I know they have child protection things. Well, it always seems to be on my appointments. (Parent) Off sick. They say they can’t do nothing until he gets back. (Parent) The social worker may be the ‘bridge’ in the relationship between a child and their parent, at the early stage of the child coming into care. At times this role may be neglected on the grounds of shortage of time or resources. It may even be understandable if, at times, social workers feel that parents do not ‘deserve’ such consideration or effort, especially where they have harmed their children. However, as Reugger says: … not only would this be unethical, it goes directly against the child’s interests. (Wheal and others 2000, p. 37) Parental support and promoting participation after children are accommodated or received into care should arguably be given a higher priority, for the benefit of children and their parents: The provision of help might be seen to be taking us back to the days of preventive family-orientated casework or alternatively forward to assistance to parents in their own right as troubled adults, alongside or perhaps independent from, the www.ncb.org.uk

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provision of child welfare services in the form of Section 17 legislation and general family support … It is skilled, time-consuming and demanding work, which sits rather badly with the pressurized and increasingly managerial climate in which public agencies now find themselves functioning … It may be impossible for Social Services to achieve with parents who are bitter about their own childhood in care and who may feel they are being victimized for something which was beyond their control. In such cases the involvement of another agency may be the only hope of achieving a workable relationship. (Freeman and Hunt 1998, p. 22) It requires creativity, as suggested above, to work out ways in which social workers or other professionals can support parents better. They may need to be released from some of the other social work tasks, or to involve other people in supporting parents after children have moved. This has to be achieved within the constraints of limited resources and the emotional impact of removing children on social workers, as well as parents. Preventive intervention and family support are particularly important to avoid care leavers having their children taken into public care. As some such parents suggested: I think people coming from care they are half children, they should be given parenting skills and taught how to look after themselves. (Parent) I left care when I was 16, I had to cope with a baby when I was 17, I had nothing. (Parent)

Information about their children Thoburn, Lewis and Shemmings’ (1995) ladder of participation identifies one of the lowest rungs on the participation ladder as ‘informed’. Parents whose children live away from home are often dependent on social workers and others for information about how their children are getting on, particularly if they are not allowed to have, or for other reasons do not have, direct contact with their children. A number of parents interviewed commented on the importance of getting this information from their social workers: She took time with me and gave me updates on my daughter. (Parent) She gets back to us with a telephone call after she has been there, that his behaviour is the same, or better or whatever. She rings every time she sees him, it’s brilliant. (Parent) The only time I hear from the social worker is when a review is coming up or when my daughter is playing up. (Parent) The social worker visits every month, they could send me a letter saying they have been there, they are fine, they are OK. (Parent) Several of the parents had children living in residential settings. Some of their positive comments about this related specifically to communication and information-sharing by residential staff; for example:

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They let you know everything that is going on. (Parent) They let her phone whenever she wanted to and they’d talk to me on the phone as well. (Parent) I ring them every night and they tell me what sort of a day he’s had, any appointments. And twice a week they ring me to ask how I am, how things are going. (Parent) Parents also appreciated foster carers who provided information about the child: She used to tell me things what was happening and I used to tell her things and we’d communicate really well. But social services would tell her things but they wouldn’t tell me and she ends up telling me. (Parent)

To have the same social worker for as long as possible The national social work recruitment crisis has been partially alleviated by recruiting locum and agency staff and social workers from overseas. While the workers themselves may be skilled, inevitably some social workers stay in post for only short periods. Children who are looked after tell us that they do not like it when they repeatedly get different social workers. Parents also find it difficult: I’d just built up a relationship with her and then she left. It’s the same for my daughter, she feels like she’s been bounced around and it’s affecting her behaviour. (Parent) They didn’t know about us and you had to explain yourself all over again. It’s tiring, to be honest. (Parent) The thing I get from social services is ‘it’s best not to disrupt the children’ and I think why do you change the social worker so many times? That disrupts them. (Parent) The parents interviewed estimated they’d had 90 social workers between them. Most had at least two and some had known more than 10. Some of these changes were accounted for by changes in the child’s situation, for example, introducing a new social worker when the child was placed for adoption or moved to the leaving care team, or because each child in the family had their own social worker. This may have made sense managerially but did not make sense to parents: He is getting a new social worker because she is leaving and there will be a new one when he moves from child to adult services. It’s supposed to be a smooth transition, but it isn’t. I have to explain myself all the time. (Parent) Even with the inevitability of some changes of social worker, parents were sensitive to how the change was handled with themselves and their children: I met the new social worker at the review, I think he should have come to see me first. (Parent)

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They have just changed the social worker and they never even told my son. (Parent) Some were therefore very appreciative of ‘good good-byes’: On her last day she phoned me up, the case was being handed to one of her colleagues and she wished us all the best for the future, she hoped it all worked out. (Parent) On her last day, she actually came round and took my son and I out to dinner. (Parent) One parent knew that they could still contact the social worker they had had in the past and was pleased about this: I can still get in touch with my old one I really like, if I need any advice and I’ve got any problems. (Parent) Continuity of relationships with social workers is clearly important to parents, as well as to children.

Help to build family relationships and have direct contact with their children We know that the majority of children who are in public care for a period of their childhood return to their parents, or choose to return to them, in early adulthood. The relationship between children and their parents therefore usually needs to be promoted even when a period of separation from their parents is the best way of meeting the child’s needs. Some parents commented on the important role of social workers in helping to build good relationships with their children and the efforts social workers made: He’ll come out on Christmas Day to bring the kids to me and arrange for a taxi to come back for them. (Parent) Takes us all out for a treat, or with the dog for a walk. (Parent) She has got our family together, given me a chance to get close to my kids. (Parent) Others talked about the importance of the social worker to their child: He’s good with the children, if he says he’s going to see the children, he goes to see the children. (Parent) My child didn’t like any social worker but he likes him. (Parent)

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If there was anything wrong, she goes straight away, like there was an allegation with the foster parents. (Parent) I think they could have been more supportive to the children. Even if it was just passing, pop in and say how are things going? They only had contact if there was something negative going on. (Parent)

Practical support and services Most parents of children in public care experience high levels of material deprivation. Research with looked after young people indicates that the improved standard of living was perceived by the young people as a major benefit of being looked after (Ward, Scuse and Munro 2005). Social workers who were perceived by parents to provide practical support for themselves or their children were appreciated and regarded as helpful in this study too: She was one of the best, she got me a buggy. (Parent) She provided family support during the holidays, it’s only about two hours a week but it’s enough really to give us a break. (Parent) Me and the social worker don’t get on but she is the only one who has got things done for him, actually got him some counselling. (Parent) He told me about Sure Start, helped me move to a safer environment. (Parent) Other parents were resentful because they felt services had been promised or needed and not been delivered: I have asked for help from when he was young. (Parent) They talked about anger management classes but he never had it. (Parent) Freeman and Hunt (1998) also found that parents wanted more attention paid to the practical realities of their lives: Inadequate, unsafe or squalid accommodation in particular was identified as a major stress factor adversely affecting the parents’ ability to cope. (Freeman and Hunt 1998, p. 22)

Competent social workers The question of being properly listened to by social workers was raised by almost all parents, in one context or another, and for some it defined the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ social workers. When asked what advice they would give to social workers, which is detailed later in the report, this was a consistent theme. Other aspects of competence raised by parents related to punctuality and late or missed appointments:

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She is normally late. (Parent) To me it’s a big thing when you have a visit from a social worker, and to my son. So he’s worked up, I’m worked up and the social worker doesn’t come. (Parent) We got to the headteacher’s office, it must have been four o’clock by then. My son was crying because no one had collected him. They forgot him. (Parent) I traipsed over on the bus. ‘Oh, we cancelled the review and forgot to send you a letter.’ No apologies or anything. The foster carer had all the tea laid out for them. (Parent)

Age and gender of the social workers A small number of parents raised these as important to them: She’s so very young and it’s not her fault but she hasn’t got the experience. (Parent) Talking to them, I would rather a woman. (Parent) She was too young, she’s read it all in text books but she didn’t understand. (Parent) None of the parents raised the ethnicity of the social worker as an issue for them, although social workers from some countries came in for special praise: The Australian social workers are the best, they listen to you more. (Parent) Although there are no consistent themes in relation to age or gender from this study, it was an important issue for a few parents. It would therefore seem advisable to ask parents if they have a strong preference, particularly in respect of gender, prior to allocating the case. If this conflicts with the child’s needs or wishes, a co-worker or professional from another agency could be involved.

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What do parents think of other services and resources? Parents interviewed made comments about a range of different services and resources that may be involved before or after their children are in public care. Some of their messages in relation to participation are identified and illustrated here.

Education The main comment about education was that teachers did not attend reviews, and this point is dealt with later in the report. On a similar theme, one parent explained why they did not attend personal education plan (PEP) meetings: It was between the school, social services and the carers. So I thought I won’t go and poke my nose in something I don’t really have a say in. (Parent) Other comments were positive about the help they had received from teachers; for example: The teachers have been very supportive of my son. (Parent) I get all her school reports. I have a school photograph. (Parent) An example of helpful communication with teachers given was a home/school book. Other parents had a more negative view of teachers: I never hear any good from the school at all. (Parent)

Residential care A number of parents whose children were in residential care commented positively about staff understanding their children or about positive changes in the child’s behaviour: My son is not screaming down my ear and threatening. The roles have actually swapped, now I am the parent, he is the child. (Parent) They are very, very good. They understand his needs and have been very supportive. (Parent) They have rules about what he can do at certain ages and stuff, if he breaks something he has to pay for the damage. (Parent) One parent raised concerns about the contrast between the child’s experiences in residential care and at home: They take him out three times a week but that’s not the real world. I can never match up. (Parent) www.ncb.org.uk

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Even more concerning was a comment by the parent of a disabled child that she could tell who dressed him in the morning by how her child was washed and dressed: Sometimes I pick him up, his teeth are terrible, he stinks. I can’t complain in case they hurt him. (Parent)

Foster care Most of the parents interviewed had experienced having a child in foster care, although in some instances, their child had been fostered by their own relatives. Some of the positive comments about foster carers were about carers meeting their child’s needs; for example: She doesn’t treat her like a foster child, more like her own, she’s lovely. (Parent) She would protect him to the end of the world. (Parent) I sort of knew by looking at her that she could handle my son and she wanted him so much. He settled really quickly with her. (Parent) Other positive comments were about the foster carer’s relationship with them as parents; for example: She is understanding, knows I wasn’t a bad mum, she knew I loved my children. (Parent) I said I wanted to go any time she’s got an injection. And they said yes and I went with the foster mother. (Parent) She let me bath my daughter and things like that. (Parent) As would be expected there were different levels of satisfaction with communication with foster carers; for example: She’s always there, on the end of a phone. (Parent) She just said ‘yes he’s fine’. I would have liked to know what they did during the day, do they go out places and things like that.’ (Parent) Some parents had met carers before their child was placed, or had a say in the choice of placement; for example: We have been with her [social worker] to be introduced to the foster parents. (Parent) He [social worker] recommended them and said they were a really nice family and everything. Every placement he went to, he always came and explained. (Parent)

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Other parents minded that they had not been given information about foster carers, said there had not been any choice of placement, and that they had not had the opportunity to meet foster carers in advance; for example: They just said we have got a foster placement and she is going there. I would have liked to have met the foster parents first. It would have put my mind at rest that she was with safe people. (Parent) They’re going into foster care so you’ve got no choice but to give them up, you know that’s what it feels like. (Parent)

Other services Some parents talked about their experiences of other services, for example family centres, psychiatric services, Sure Start, health visiting, drug and alcohol services: They made me go for anger management; they sorted out the psychologist for me, paid for him. At the time I was like, why do I need to go, but it did help me a lot. Sometimes I wish I could go back and talk to him about different things. (Parent) My worker from Sure Start is fantastic, she talks to me, she comes to the house, she knows when I’m down. She’s put me on a cookery course. (Parent) Where they mentioned helpful professionals they quite often contrasted this with their experience of social workers: The family centre worker gives me more support than my social worker. She sits down and talks to me, asks if I need help with anything, tells me the best thing to do. (Parent) She [drugs worker] has done a lot more than all the social workers put together. She’s helped me get appointments; she listens and gives me advice about the children. She works with children and families all the time. (Parent) Perhaps these comments indicate that there are opportunities for promoting parents’ participation through the workers that parents find they get the most support from. It also highlights the importance of a multi-agency approach to care planning for the benefit of parents, as well as for their children.

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How do parents participate in care planning? Some parents clearly felt that the responsibility for outcomes and decisions about their children rested with social workers, courts or independent reviewing officers (IROs) and was outside their control or responsibility: I just couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t give me access. (Parent) The social workers make all the decisions. (Parent) Others held themselves responsible; for example: I decided to put him in care, social services decided where. (Parent) Now when I look back I sit here kicking myself … there are loads of things I could have changed but at the time I didn’t know how to. (Parent) Only I could have made a difference. By stopping drinking. (Parent) I don’t think I could have handled full responsibility. I thought I could at the time. (Parent) They felt to greater and lesser degrees that their children had been listened to in the care planning process and this had influenced outcomes: She decided she didn’t want to come and live with me … it was hard for me but she made a good choice I think. (Parent) I think they should listen more to the child than the parents because it’s the child’s needs isn’t it? (Parent)

Review meetings Nearly all the parents interviewed as part of the NCB project had attended at least one review, and some had attended many. Some found it difficult to distinguish between child protection review meetings and care planning review meetings. Most talked about finding the reviews difficult and feeling vulnerable: When a lot of pressure was on, it was very hard for me. (Parent) Reasons they gave for not attending care planning reviews were practical or because they felt there was no point; for example: They pick some funny times, like three o’clock, and we have got two other children to collect from school. (Parent)

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I didn’t go to them because it’s like everyone has made up their minds what is going to happen for the next six months before you even get there. (Parent) I don’t go because I tend to lose my rag because they bring up the same things every time. (Parent) Many of those who did attend said speaking out was difficult, for a variety of reasons: Sometimes it’s a bit awkward to say something in front of the foster carer. (Parent) I felt like I was just a dumb parent … I couldn’t say what I wanted because I was just his mother. (Parent) I think the situation I’m in they’ve got the upper hand, so I’m careful what I say. (Parent) Feels like they are ganging up on me and my child. (Parent) They are upsetting because they talk about what I’ve done wrong and they are thinking I’m not trying to sort myself out, and I am. (Parent) They also talked about their children finding review meetings difficult; for example: My daughter clammed up the whole time because it felt official for her. (Parent) My eldest said she’s not going any more because they have the same things over and over. (Parent) I lose concentration when my son gets upset and it’s a question of who’s going to deal with him. (Parent) A number of parents suggested they could have separate parts of the meetings for different people; for example: They did arrange once that I went separate from his father because he intimidates me … I think they are too busy to do it all the time. (Parent) They should have one meeting for parents, one for professionals … it’s horrible having to sit there and listen to them arguing, usually about who pays for things. (Parent) Some parents also made suggestions for how reviews could be made more ‘childfriendly’; for example: Perhaps all that information should be given in advance and at the meeting you are just informed how things are going, and you can have your say if you think they should be doing something else and all that main serious stuff should be discussed away from the actual meeting. Because kids aren’t interested in it, are they? They just sit there like, and stare at the ceiling. (Parent)

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Some parents had been offered the chance to meet with the IRO beforehand or felt the IROs understood their point of view: I always talked to the chairperson first, talked about what is going to be happening. (Parent) I am always impressed that the reviewing officers take on board our views. I have been more listened to by them than social workers. (Parent) IROs do listen. (Parent) Another said they would have liked the opportunity to meet individually with the IRO: They would be able to understand you more as a person and get your views. (Parent) Some had also been prepared by their social workers; for example: My social worker gives me a summary of what she expects to be brought up at the meeting. (Parent) The social worker tells me the agenda, comes out and goes through it. (Parent) I spoke to the social worker a couple of days before the meeting and he asked me what he needed to know. (Parent) Preparation and understanding (or perhaps misunderstanding) about the purpose of reviews run as themes through many of the comments about reviews. NCB has produced booklets for children and young people to help them understand care planning processes and reviews (Lanyon and Sinclair 2005). Many local authorities also have their own resources or have identified people to help children and young people prepare for reviews, but there is much less information for parents of children who are in public care. None of the parents interviewed could confirm that they had seen the Department of Health booklet, You Can Help, for parents of children in public care.

Venues for reviews The most common venue for review meetings was social services’ offices. The next most common were foster carers’ homes or residential homes and a few took place at school or other settings, such as Sure Start. A number of parents disliked social services as the setting; for example: It was an office with paperwork everywhere, I would have preferred a nice comfortable room. Maybe a bean bag for my daughter. (Parent) It felt like we were in a courtroom being judged. Whereas at the foster home, it is much more relaxed and I suppose the children are. I suppose the child should have the choice. (Parent)

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However, a few liked the impersonality that social services premises provided: I feel more in control sitting at a table, especially if the head teacher is there. I prefer that. (Parent) I like it impersonal at the office. I go there for a purpose and would hate it at the foster carer’s house. (Parent) Discussions with parents about size of meetings and non-attendance of professionals also elicited contrasting responses, with some parents saying the meetings were too big and others saying that key people were missing. The most common complaint about non-attendance was about teachers; for example: You give them six months’ notice and they don’t turn up. And it’s not just once, it’s every time. (Parent) Not school, they only send a report. (Parent) These and other comments illustrate the fact that a number of parents did not understand reviews as the ‘child’s meeting’ or the reason why teachers and others send reports rather than attend, in order to keep the meetings small enough for children to feel comfortable. It was clear from the interviews with parents that they needed more preparation for, and information about, the purpose of reviews: I was expecting to go in and sit with a load of people but there was only four and I knew them all. (Parent) Looking back, if I had been better informed about what happened at reviews, perhaps I would have attended more. I suppose it’s a big circle, they never informed me so I never went to it, so they never bothered to inform me about the next one. (Parent)

Review reports Most of the parents interviewed said they received the review report within about two weeks (although the interviews were conducted before the implementation of the Independent Reviewing Officer Guidance, Adoption and Children Act 2002). The next most commonly mentioned time was ‘about two months’ and a small number either said they didn’t get the report or they said it only came with the invitation for the next review meeting. Most of those who said they received them, thought they were useful; for example: You get a report of what was said. If you haven’t been taking it all in, she types it out and you get a copy afterwards. (Parent) I look back at the old ones. It helps me know what I have done, now I know I’m not going back down that road. (Parent)

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The feedback that comes back to me, when I eventually get them, is what I remember has been said. (Parent) One parent said that the report recorded decisions but not reasons: They should at least have in writing what they have considered and these are the reasons that they are not going to do it … it should be written down why they think it is not the best thing. (Parent) Some parents who received reports said that they found them hard to understand and that their needs had not been met: They could write it more so I could understand it. (Parent) I can’t actually understand it. If it was recorded down on a tape, it’d be easier for me. I did tell them a few times, I kept telling them. (Parent) I think social services should take the time to sit down and explain it to me properly. (Parent) During the Care Planning project, examples of good practice in making reports more relevant and accessible for children were found. These included carers or social workers going through the report with the child, or IROs sending a card or one-page summary of key decisions, written in simple language. Similar good practice in relation to parents was not found, although in principle, if the report is written in a way that enables the young person to understand it, it is likely parents and others will understand it too.

Consultation forms Young people and their parents clearly stated that they had been consulted. But they had not received information which might have enabled them to play a full part in the review. (Grimshaw and Sinclair 1997, p. 106) Equal numbers of parents interviewed said they had, and had not, received consultation forms. Some of those who said they had, and had filled them in, did not think much attention had been given to them; for example: The first time I got it, took me two hours to fill it in. I gave it to the chair of the meeting and he never mentioned it. I never filled in another because they never even bothered to look at the first one. (Parent) Some of the parents, though, did feel they were useful: It’s helpful that I could write it down without having to say it in the meeting, without looking like I was pointing fingers. (Parent) I fill them in and they read them out. I do think they take notice of what I’m saying. (Parent)

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In the case of the parents who said they received the consultation forms but didn’t fill them in, various reasons were given. Some parents felt that as they were attending the meeting, they did not also need to write down their views; for example: I can have my say when I get there. (Parent) If there is anything I will tell them at the review or I will ring. (Parent) Another group of responses indicated that the parents thought the consultation forms were irrelevant to them or that they did not want anything to change; for example: Asking questions I didn’t really think I could answer, like what do I think of the home and I haven’t been to the place. (Parent) I didn’t fill anything in because I didn’t have any problems. I only fill them in if I want something to change. (Parent) One parent of a disabled child felt that questions on the form were really only relevant to children who are not disabled, for example about their achievements: Nowhere on the form can we say he can roar like a tiger. And we’re really proud of him. It just asks about things going badly. (Parent) For other parents, the written format was a barrier because of literacy problems: I am not very good at spelling and writing. (Parent) We just sign our names to say who’s at the meeting, can’t read. (Parent) There are examples from practice of imaginative ways of consulting with children and young people, including disabled children, which have developed from a commitment to their participation. Consultation with parents also requires imaginative approaches and commitment to participation.

After children are placed permanently This is surely one of the most painful issues for parents to accept and discuss. Some of the parents interviewed talked about their experience and feelings concerning their children being placed for adoption or other permanent family placement: He is going to think if I’m not seeing my mummy does she still love me or does my mummy not love me? I don’t want him to think that. (Parent) She said, ‘I’m coming back to you mummy.’ She was in tears, I was in tears. (Parent) I can’t have photographs of the children up because it makes me sad. I keep them away and look at them when it’s their birthdays and Christmas. (Parent)

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Some of the parents also commented on what had been helpful for them in these circumstances: We get photos of the boys once a year. About their health, the school, friends, how they are settling down. (Parent) I usually get an album of photos and a letter off each of the children. (Parent) We know the photos are coming certain months and look forward to them. When they don’t come for a month or two we get anxious. (Parent) The importance to parents of sibling contact being maintained (when siblings were in different permanent placements) was also commented on by some; for example: They arrange for the children to meet up once a year even though they are adopted in different areas, which is good. And we get a photo of it. (Parent)

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What advice would parents give to social workers and other parents? Parents’ advice to social workers When asked what advice parents would give to social workers, most of the responses were linked to being more caring and to issues of communication, such as listening, honesty and taking parents seriously; for example: There are parents that really need help. Sit and listen. (Parent) They should listen, not judge. (Parent) Give more support to parents for what they’ve been through. Don’t make promises, don’t be false, be straightforward. (Parent) The next most common advice was about fulfilling commitments made; for example: Do what you say you will, or at least try to. (Parent) Don’t say you are going to do things if you aren’t. Don’t mislead anybody. Be honest with them. Don’t be hypocritical. (Parent)

Parents’ advice to other parents Most of the parents interviewed had advice for other parents who might find themselves in similar situations to themselves. The most common themes were communication and persistence, which were specifically raised in over one-third of the responses; for example: Keep getting on the case and phoning them up all the time. (Parent) Ask a lot of questions, otherwise you’ll be in the same position I was. (Parent) Be more persistent with social services because they don’t come to offer you help, you’ve got to really push them. (Parent) I would ask for more communication. I did get it in the end but I wish it had been from the beginning. (Parent) Making complaints was also recommended by a number of parents; for example: If you have a bad social worker, complain. Write it down. (Parent) Some of the other advice offered was about how to personally survive the experience of having a child in public care:

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Don’t build your hopes up, just do it day by day. (Parent) You have your days where you just wish the children were home but they can’t be at the moment, so you just have to get by. Thinking for the future helps me but everyone is different. (Parent) I would say they need to not go under, stay strong. (Parent) On this theme, one of the parents offered to speak on the phone to parents in a similar situation: Let them have my number because I just feel it helps having someone in the same position to say ‘I feel lousy today’. (Parent) Some parents also made comments about how to help your child when they are looked after; for example: Keep in contact with your child as much as you can. (Parent) Keep your distress to yourself, don’t pass it on to your child. (Parent) A minority of parents felt they were not in a position to advise either social workers or parents: I’m the one needs advice, I can’t give it. (Parent) When I look back, I think ‘Oh God, how come you still want me to be your mum’ kind of thing. (Parent) They [social services] understand that [children] need love and caring and they are getting looked after, and they have put them in the right place. (Parent)

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Conclusion Legislation (Children Act 1989 and Adoption and Children Act 2002) sets children’s and parents’ participation in a statutory context but, in practice, children’s and parents’ participation is influenced by the practitioners, service managers and policy-makers. There is evidence of some increase in children’s participation, which has been developed through genuine commitment and imaginative approaches to facilitate it, although there is still scope for improvement. Parental participation also requires commitment, imagination, and a ‘bespoke’ approach to engage with individual parents, as well as structures, workload management and practical arrangements that promote participation. Less comfortable and perhaps more difficult to address is the issue of how social workers may feel about actively engaging with parents who have, usually unintentionally, but sometimes deliberately, seriously neglected, injured and emotionally damaged their children. In the context of research findings that children and young people continue wanting to belong to and have contact with their birth families, this is a necessity as well as a moral responsibility. As one residential worker put it, ‘The mum and dad may be awkward, difficult and demanding but he or she is this child’s awkward, difficult and demanding mum or dad, and we have to help them survive and thrive with the mum or dad they’ve got.’ In this survey, some difference was noted between the experience of parents of a disabled child (which was the main reason for placement) and other parents, but a common theme was the need to have their pain about the situation acknowledged and to be treated sensitively. The survey’s findings regarding parents’ expectations can be compared to those revealed in surveys about customers of unrelated services, such as utilities or household services. In common with users of other services, parents of children in public care want to talk to someone who is helpful and straightforward, who does what they say they will, who is accessible and who keeps them informed about what is happening and about any delay. They also want their calls to be returned within 24 or 48 hours as standard practice, and punctual and reliable appointments. Inevitably there will be times when social workers are not available to respond to calls or able to keep appointments, but how the reasons for this are communicated to children and parents has an impact, as does the frequency with which it occurs. Some parents of children in public care have been in care themselves and almost all are vulnerable and have fragile confidence, even though this may sometimes be communicated by aggressive and or threatening behaviour towards professionals. One of the many challenges of skilled social work is to engage with and form relationships with parents who are difficult to engage with. One of the findings of this survey was

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that parents appreciate it when they have a sense that the social worker respects and cares about them, as well as their children. In recognition of the particular vulnerability of care leavers who have children, it is important to target them for preventive work and support, while avoiding stigmatising them. Parents in this survey appreciated workers from different services, and a multi-agency approach that utilises the strengths of each agency in relation to participation will be more effective than the use of a variety of approaches. Making telephone calls to find out how parents are getting on, or asking after them when ringing to give information about their child, may be a step towards effective engagement. The quotes from parents in this report illustrate that they really do appreciate social workers who ‘go the extra mile’ for them and their families. Clearly this is a workload issue as much as one of personal commitment. The question of whether helping parents takes us back to family-oriented casework of the past or moves us forward to giving assistance to parents in their own right as troubled adults, alongside provision of family support, has been raised by Freeman and Hunt (1998). Their suggestion that where adversarial proceedings have made it impossible for the social worker and parents to engage, it may be possible for another professional to help achieve this, is ultimately in the interests of the child. This may also be useful where parents express a strong preference about the gender of the social worker and this request cannot be met or is over-ridden by their child’s preference. Social worker recruitment and retention affect many of the issues highlighted above, as does the length of time individual social workers retain responsibility for a child and their family. Case management also has an impact; for example, how transitions are managed and whether there is scope for flexibility. Where a change of social worker is inevitable, there is a need for sensitivity about how the change is communicated. Other practical issues highlighted by this survey are the need to explain and prepare for reviews, and that parents need to know that their views – for example, those expressed via consultation forms – are heard and taken into account. Explanation and transparency in decision-making are also important, as is providing parents with information and support regarding what they have to do in order to change plans they do not agree with. Information about their children’s well-being, even when there are no plans for rehabilitation, remain very important to parents. Freeman and Hunt (1998) point out the problems that can result from not responding to such parents’ needs: We are also concerned that more attention should be paid to parents’ needs once proceedings are over. The inadequacy or inappropriateness of the support available to those who had lost their children permanently was most obvious. Frequently it seemed as if parents had been left to cope alone with their grief and loss, cut off from their families, stigmatized in their neighbourhoods, sometimes retreating into depression or addiction. (Freeman and Hunt 1998, p. 96)

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They go on to point out that there are pragmatic arguments for addressing this need, in terms of the welfare of future children of the family and of the demands likely to be made on the mental health services. Parents of children in public care, as well as their children, need to be listened to, at all levels of the organisations they are involved with. It is a challenge for those who work directly and indirectly with them, but it is more of a challenge for the children and parents themselves, to come through the experience of the looked after system. Through implementing the recommendations in this and other relevant reports, social workers, managers and policy-makers have an opportunity to improve parents’ experience and ability to participate positively in the life of their child.

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Recommendations At senior manager level •

• •

• • •

Senior managers and elected officials need to be aware of the trends of decreasing parental participation, particularly fathers’, in relation to the length of time a child is looked after, and the mismatch of this with the fact that most children at some stage do return to, or want to re-establish a relationship with, their parents. As with children’s participation, there must be some ownership and sense of personal responsibility to families, at the highest level. This then needs to inform decisions about policy, and resource allocation. More inclusive, creative and empowering ways of working with parents of children in public care are needed, for example, drawing on practice and participation models from parents of disabled children and family group conferences, focus groups, etc. Senior managers and practitioners can also learn from examples of good practice with parents in other agencies, for example, education and health. Continued efforts are needed to reduce the turnover of social workers, which has a detrimental effect on children and their parents. More information (for example, about reviews and how parents can challenge a care plan) is needed for parents of children in public care. It should be available in several formats, not just written, and in languages of the local community. Parents whose children are or have been in public care could be actively involved in devising such materials. Local authorities need to actively target care leavers who have children, for additional multi-agency support to prevent family breakdown. Social workers must be released from administrative work to be able to offer time to listen and work with children and parents. Nearly all services now have targets and performance indicators, which can be seen to have improved performance, for example, the number of reviews that happen within timescales and the current focus on improving educational achievements of children in public care. A target for parental participation could be another incentive for local authorities to make this a priority. Independent reviewing officers and others need to encourage parents to participate in care planning and reviews. They should supportively challenge practitioners to engage or re-engage with parents who are hard to reach. Local authorities should not underestimate the value of practical support in establishing positive working relationships with parents, who experience a whole range of disadvantages, stresses and exclusions. Resource allocation needs to reflect this need. There is potential for more multi-agency co-operation and support for parents of children in public care, for example in identifying who can best support parents who have mental health, addiction and other problems, to participate in planning for their child. There needs to be senior-level multi-agency commitment to

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practitioners taking on this role where appropriate, and to close collaboration between social services and other services.

At line manager and social worker level •

Where parents have a problematic relationship with social workers, line managers can be instrumental in identifying another professional who may have a less contentious role with a parent, such as a Sure Start worker or family centre worker. This worker may be able to facilitate contact or other ways in which parents can meet the child’s needs, and support parents whose children are away from home. Social workers, their managers and independent reviewing officers need to be alert to the potential for parental change. This may be unconnected with social services’ intervention or the child’s situation, for example, parents who after years of substance abuse give it up, or parents who experience years of domestic violence before eventually breaking free of an abusive relationship. If it has been a long time since a parent has seen their child or participated in planning for their child, they may not be able to initiate contact but may respond when encouraged to and offered support. There are a range of ways and tools available to trace parents who are ‘missing’ from their child’s life. Sometimes, time invested in tracing a parent will meet the child’s needs for information or contact, and also identify a previously unknown resource for the child and family. Social workers need to be in a workload position to be able to return parents’ phone calls within 48 hours maximum, and also have a commitment to doing this. This could be written into a service agreement. For some social workers, it may require a shift in perspective as well as practice. Social workers need time and commitment to make calls or write letters to/email parents. Workers can be creative in providing information for parents, for example, giving the child a disposable camera and helping them make an album to show their parents about their progress and placement, or the use of webcams, etc. Common courtesies such as phoning to say you will be late can get forgotten when working under pressure, but make a big difference to parents’ perception of how supportive their social worker is. Parents also need to be informed when appointments or arrangements change, and be given as much notice as possible. Social workers need time to listen, which is a workload issue. They also need to have a commitment to fostering positive family relationships, which can be challenging when parents have harmed their children. There has to be sufficient time to address this process supportively in supervision. Practical help, although often time-consuming to arrange, is highly valued by parents and may be a way of helping the parent to engage with others who can support them or to initiate positive changes in their life. This can be particularly crucial if a child moves from the family home and the parent has an existing supportive relationship to depend on during this distressing time. In most situations, children and their parents should know where the child is moving to. Social workers need access to information they can give the child and parent about foster or other placements; for example, a photo and short description of the foster family, which the child and parent can see, even if this

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only happens during the car journey to the placement. Foster carers could be asked routinely to provide these. Similarly, wherever possible, and probably more than currently occurs, children and parents should have met the carers prior to the placement being made. Practical considerations for reviews and other meetings are important. As children are increasingly involved in deciding where and when reviews should be held, who should attend, what refreshments will be available, etc., parents could also be consulted. While the final decision will reflect the child’s needs and wishes, it may be that consulting with parents about similar issues will enable and encourage them to attend, and this may directly meet the child’s needs. Social workers in assessment and referral teams, undertaking seven-day assessments and brief interventions, need to make it clear to parents the circumstances that will lead to more intrusive intervention. This may go some way to addressing parents’ misunderstanding that case closure equates to a vote of confidence in their parenting.

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Working with Parents whose Children are Looked After

Joanna McCann

Bibliography Contact a Family and Council for Disabled Children (2004) Parent Participation. Contact a Family. Department for Education and Skills (2004) Independent Reviewing Officers Guidance Adoption and Children Act 2002. London: DfES. Department of Health (1991) The Children Act 1989. London: HMSO. Freeman, P and Hunt, J (1998) Parental Perspectives on Care Proceedings. London: The Stationery Office. Grimshaw, R and Sinclair, R (1997) Planning to Care. London: National Children’s Bureau. Lanyon, C and Sinclair, R (2005) My Turn to Talk (for aged 12 and older and for aged 11 or younger). London: National Children’s Bureau. National Foster Care Association (1999) Consultation with young people towards the UK National Standards. Unpublished. Thoburn, J, Lewis, A and Shemmings, D (1995) Paternalism or Partnership? Family Involvement in the Child Protection Process. London: HMSO. Thomas, N and O’Kane, C (1999) ‘Children’s participation in reviews and planning meetings when they are “looked after” in middle childhood’, Child and Family Social Work, 4, 221–230. Ward, H, Scuse, T and Munro, E (2005) ‘The best of times, the worst of times’, Adoption and Fostering, vol. 29, no. 1, 2005. Wheal, A and others (2000) Working with Parents. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing. Williams, A and McCann, J (2006) Care Planning for Looked After Children. London: National Children’s Bureau.

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© National Children’s Bureau June 2006

Working with Parents whose Children are Looked After  

This comprehensive review looks at parents' participation, in care planning and in the provision of services for looked after children. It...

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