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Child protection: the parental experience

    Picking up pace in the early 1990s, for nearly thirty years, the experiences of parents in child protection processes have been gathered and documented. Some papers are wholly given over to the experiences. Others include these in broader studies of child protection practices. Reports are from parents in a wide variety of Anglophone countries and include a variety of research methods from small-scale studies to more survey-based data collection (Diorio 1992, Farmer 1994, Department of Health 1995, Farmer and Owen 1995, Westcott 1995, Bell 1996, Corby et al 1996, Fernandez 1996, Mason and Selman 1997, Croghan and Miell 1998, Booth and Booth 2004, Dale 2004, Kapp and Vela 2004, Spratt and Callan 2004, Dale et al 2005, Palmer et al 2006, Dumbrill 2006, Cameron 2009, Smeeton and Boxall 2011, Dominelli et al 2011, Ghaffar et al 2012, Maiter et al 2012, Birmingham Strategic Research Team 2014, Walsh and Douglas 2015,  Memarnia et al 2015, Bilson 2016, Mellon 2017, Featherstone et al 2018a, Featherstone et al 2018b, Morris et al 2018, Robbins and Cook 2018).  Though the following review of the literature is not exhaustive, there are key emergent themes in our knowledge of parental experiences of child protection processes. 

    No Power, Not Heard, Judged and Injustice

    The theme of powerlessness is consistent from early on (Diorio 1992). Accounts of decisions already arrived at, being excluded, judged in intimidating, embarrassing and humiliating manners, blamed and on trial feature (Farmer, 1994; Corby et al, 1996; Maiter et al, 2012).  The mothers and fathers in the study by Corby et al described hearing statements made about them by professionals in the conferences that were factually incorrect, but not feeling able to challenge these (1996, p. 480). Birth parents in Featherstone et al echoed this: ‘We felt so powerless in the whole process – even when the judge said there should be contact – it did not happen. SSD [Social Services Department] just wanted adoption – at any cost’ (2018, p. 23). Over half of the fifty-one parents in the Corby et al study reported being unheard.Kapp and Vela refer to this as ‘the unheard client’ (2004).  Being judged or feeling on trial is frequently referred to. In Featherstone et al’s study one mother felt ‘unfairly judged/ labelled (“the report said I was ‘hostile’ so he could not stay, but I was not hostile – I am ‘loud’’) (2018, p. 22).

    Unfairness is a consistent thread throughout but keenly felt by parents with special needs. In the case of parents with a learning disability, Booth and Booth found that:

    So far as the parents were concerned, they were undone by what went on before the court hearings, not what went on in them. The strong sense of injustice so many of them nursed focused on their conviction that they had been ‘fitted up’ and misrepresented by the evidence put before the court (2010, p. 117).

    Threatened and In Fear

    ‘Threatened’ was the feeling of parents in the research by Birmingham’s Strategic Research Team:

    The power of SWs and lack of parental influence, combined with the ultimate fear their children may be removed, left parents feeling almost ‘threatened’. The result was compliance: ‘I’ve basically been told if I do anything they don’t agree with, they’re going to go for custody of my son. So, I can’t afford to annoy them in any way’ (Parent) (2014, pp 47-48).  

    Fear of ‘the enormous amount of power that practitioners exert over their lives’ was also expressed by Canadian fathers (Dominelli, et al, 2011, p. 355). In Dumbrill’s study of the experiences of eighteen parents, sixteen described experiencing child protection services as using power over them in ways they perceived to be ‘absolute’, ‘tyrannical’ or ‘frightening’ (2006, p. 30). These powerful emotions were ‘…evoked by their sense that workers held pre-conceived and narrow views of their family, that they were not necessarily acting in the best interests of the children and that decisions had already been made, making any negotiation futile’ (ibid).  An earlier Scottish report included similar feelings particularly surrounding the ‘fear of child removal (which) is pervasive and amounts to a hugely influential block on decent relationships with child protection workers’ (Scottish Executive, 2002 p.114).

    Punished and Harmed

    The parents in the Birmingham study by the City’s Strategic Research Team also described feeling punished: ‘…it feels like all the failures that Social Services have been having with other cases…we’re being punished for the failures. They’re being overzealous with us to make up for the mistakes…’’ (Parent)’ (2014, p.94). The Birmingham study concludes by recommending that ‘Parents left in the CP process – who feel they have removed the risk (other parent) – can feel they are still being stigmatised, monitored and punished even after doing the right thing’ (2014, p. 93). Being punished also surfaced in the experiences of the birth mothers in Featherstone et al (2018a). ‘Harmed’ has been expressed elsewhere (Department of Health, 1995, Croghan and Meill, 1998). In fact, Bilson, discussing rising levels of suspicion of abuse, suggests that unfounded investigations are in themselves harmful (2016).

    Anger and Conflict, Hostility and Cynicism

    Corby et al observed ‘… a good deal of non-verbal behaviour signifying tension and disagreement. With regard to parents, such behaviour included angry or despairing looks and shaking of the head. Professionals often looked knowingly and disbelievingly at each other when parents made comments with which they disagreed’ (1996, p. 481).  In their study of child protection cases that have led to adoption, Featherstone et al found feelings of being deceived (2018). One consequence of negative experiences is hostility and cynicism, summed up in: My warning to people now is that if you need help the last people you should go to is to social services. We warn anybody we can. They are not there to help” (Croghan and Meill, 1998 p. 454). Cynicism is also obvious in a 1986 publication by the parent self-help organisation, PAIN in chapter headed: ‘Things The Authorities Say’ that goes on: ‘Even if you haven’t done it (child injury), it would be better if you say you have’ quoted in Crane (2015, p. 465). One parent in the Birmingham Council study echoes that of other parents who fear that vehement reactions categorise them as hostile (Featherstone, 2018a): ‘Very annoyed…It made me feel like the kind of person that they were making me out to be… they were making me out to be this big horrible mad…aggressive kind of person…’ (quoted in 2014, p. 84).  Schofield et al’s study of parental experiences across three countries noted that:

    For some parents, anger was the dominant emotion. What the child welfare services did to them felt like harassment and they actively tried to document the treatment they and their family were said to have suffered, storing boxes of papers. They saw the fight to get the child back as restoring their self-esteem, because they never gave up. As one mother said ‘Even if I am knocking my head against a brick wall, I cannot stop’ (2011, p. 81).

    Anger (at a lack of apology over being assumed to be guilty) was expressed by Canadian fathers in their experiences of child protection (Dominelli et al, 2011) and in a later study, also of fathers’ experiences, by Brandon et al, 2017, in which assumptions of guilt and mistrust by social workers played a part in initiating angry feelings.

    Social Worker Qualities

    In the literature under review, there is mention of good, and for want of a better word, poor skills. An alarmingly negative picture of practice behaviours and processes is described with very few examples of positive social work involvement: ‘Negative characteristics were commonly referred to as ‘arrogant’, ‘snotty’, ‘bossy’ and ‘couldn’t careless’ and were seen as precipitating uncooperative client responses…not having telephone calls returned, were a major source of frustration for many parents’ (Dale, 2004, p. 150). Dominelli et al, 2011 found fathers making the same complaint. In addition to failed telephone calls, Buckley et al observe that ‘Punctuality was also considered important by service users and several commented on how irritating they found it when appointments were broken’. They quote a parent: ‘They’d make an appointment, and you’re waiting, and they wouldn’t turn up, you know . . . like, ‘I’ll come on Tuesday at three o’clock’ we’re still waiting for her on Friday at three o’clock, you know . . . you’re left hanging there’. Buckley et al continue: ‘Frustration with the apparent indifference shown by workers was compounded by the perception of service users that they would not ‘get away’ with the same type of inconsistent and unreliable behaviour themselves’ (2011 p. 106). Frustration over this lack of consistency and courtesy has also been voiced in fathers’ experiences: “They say, ‘right it is 4.59, I finish in a minute so we are going to cut the meeting short’…. you can’t just be a Social Worker from 9 till 5, what happens if a kid gets beaten up at 6 o’clock?” (Brandon et al, 2017, p. vii). 

    The seemingly minor etiquette or organisational deficiencies of failure to return calls, unpunctuality or postponing meetings and home visits with no or short notice amount to a clear message of uncaringness. Thorpe and Thomson observe that:

    From the body of parental perceptions research, there is a worrying indication that child protection practice may increasingly be perceived as ‘inhumane’—patronising, provocative and punitive: ‘Many parents feel judged as totally bad and, as a result, are treated with disrespect, and denied even basic courtesies of civil human interaction (2003 cited in Dale 2004, p. 153).

    In addition to the description of workers as ‘inhumane’ (also in Featherstone et al, 2018), the word ‘cold’ comes up frequently. 44% of the sixty-one parents in Maiter et al’s study spoke thus about their workers (2012).  Morris et al use ‘cold-hearted’ and quote one parent about the social worker in the case of her child: ‘She saw me sobbing in reception and she walked past me twice and then said there were nothing wrong’ (2018, p. 17).  Of the image of Irish child protection workers in their study, Buckley et al are brief and brutal:  ‘hostile, powerful and to be avoided if possible’ (2011, p. 104).

    There are a few examples of caring skills: “This guy treated me with respect, he didn’t raise his voice… He was very low-key, he didn’t question any of my answers, let me speak, helped me find solutions to the problem that just arose.  And it wasn’t rushed on me, I did break down quite a few times, he handed me a tissue, which I thought was very nice, and just more or less told me not to give up hope, that things were going to work out if I did things that they wanted me to do” (quoted in Cameron, 2009, pp. 179 – 180).  Cameron goes on to quote one accolade from a parent about her social worker: “She even offered to clean one day.  She said well, I’ll help you clean no problem…” (ibid., p. 69). Appreciation of concrete help crops up regularly (Palmer, 2006, Birmingham Strategic Support Team, 2014). Amongst this type of help that was appreciated Maiter et al note These workers made special efforts to support them during crisis periods, and provided instrumental help such as organizing Christmas gifts and bringing groceries, baby formula, and baby food’ (2012, p. 7).   The Focus Group in Robbins and Cook felt that ‘instead of  maybe threatening all the time through social services, saying so we’re going  to put your children on a protective register, maybe go and help a bit more and show some awareness’ (2018, p. 1673).

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