Towards Intimate Child
Embracing Children and Keeping
Them Safe
Harry Ferguson
Professor of Social Work
University of Nottingham
[email protected]
Twitter: @harr_ferguson
ACWA, Sydney, 20th August 2014
Focus of the Masterclass
• What happens when practitioners are
face to face with children, families
• Learning about good practice
• How children are missed, become
invisible (Part 1)
• How children are engaged with,
related to effectively (Part 2).
Forgotten experience
• Huge literature on child protection
• Little attention given to the detail of
what CP profs actually do, where they
do it and their experience of doing it
• Series of crucial questions opens up:
• What do professionals actually do in
performing child protection?
• Where do they do it?
• How do they do it – what do they
say? How do they act?
• What is the lived experience of doing
child protection – how does it feel?
• What supports are needed?
Core assumptions
• Keeping children safe requires getting
close to them
• To have authentic, close relationships with
children in child protection of the kind
where we see, hear and touch the truth of
their experience and are able to act on it
• Intimate child protection practice.
On a first visit to a case involving
concerns about a mother’s misuse of
alcohol and neglect you are the worker
and have already spoken to mother,
with her best friend for 40 minutes.
You gain mother’s consent to see 6
year old ‘Melanie’ alone. Where and
how would you relate to Melanie? How
long would you want to spend with
• Social worker: ‘[Your] dad is a bit worried
about how your mum looks after you…. Do
you, do you ever have any, are there any,
ever any problems at home with how your
mum is looking after you?
Melanie: No.
SW: Okay.
Melanie: She’s looking after us good.
SW: Great, okay. I mean does, cos he’s
worried that sometimes your mum has a
bit of a drink and then gets really drunk.
• Melanie: No. She doesn’t drink very a lot.
Well, the only thing she drinks like lots is
energy drinks.
• SW: Have you got any worries at home?
• To which the child said no, but then began
to talk about someone worrying her.
------• They were then interrupted by the child’s
mother who knocked & entered to say
Melanie’s lunch was ready.
• The encounter lasted 6 minutes.
Stages in relating
• Introduction, building-rapport, making
an agreement, confidentiality etc
• Clarification of role and methods
• Working with the child’s feelings,
information by reassuring, clarifying
• Therapeutic containment
• Endings, consequences.
The struggle to get close to children
• 40 years of child death reports
• Professionals not getting into the home
• Or, getting in but not properly moving
towards, seeing, hearing or touching
children – when in their presence.
How can this happen?
• ‘At times, Daniel appeared to
have been “invisible” as a needy
child …’
(Daniel Pelka Serious Case
On 30th July 2007 all the children were seen on a
planned home visit by the social worker on their own
and with Ms A. Peter was in the buggy, alert and smiling
but overtired. His ear was sore and slightly inflamed.
He had white cream on the top of his head and Ms A
thought the infection had improved. Peter’s face was
smeared with chocolate and the social worker asked that
it be cleaned off. The family friend took him away to do
so and he did not reappear before the social worker left.
Ms A said she had a GP appointment and mentioned
grab marks on Peter. She was worried about being
accused of harming him.
(Haringey, 2009, p.13)
Researching Child Protection Practice
• Research needed to get as close as
possible to practice
• Shadowed practitioners on home visits, in
the car, in schools, family centres
• Observed & recorded their encounters
with service users
• Only when consent given by all parties.
Practice Cycle
“When you are
on duty in the
morning you
have a sort of
duty head on.”
• Getting to the child & family
Inside the world of practice
• “It’s like stepping into another
• Impact of the home, smells, dogs,
chaos, hostility, atmospheres…
• Emotions, senses
• Need a language to describe
these experiences.
Patterns of practice
1. Get ‘stuck’, immobilised, lose
authority, don’t follow through on
seeing child …
2. Move (run!) faster out of it …
3. ‘Intimate’, child centred pattern.
• ‘As soon as I walked in the house I just felt
utterly uncomfortable. I don’t know. There
were lots of things I didn’t say or do that I
think, I think the dirty house just kind of
overtook me, to be honest. I’ll have to go
back because I don’t believe half of it… I
just felt uncomfortable with the house as
soon as I went in’.
(SW, following a 51 minute home visit)
The process of invisibility
• Limited time / organisational targets –
create systemic pressures towards
superficial practice
• Emotional defences –
against parental anger, child’s suffering,
atmospheres of disgust, menace,
• ‘I suggest that another reason why we
often hold back from direct work with
children about their problems is that the
needs of many of the children who come
our way seem overwhelming. …To work
effectively with children, the first and most
fundamental thing we have to know about
is the strength of our own feelings about
the suffering of children. … But we
[professionals] too are only human, and
we shall find that our own tolerance level
will fluctuate.’ (Clare Winnicott, 1963, Face
to Face with Children).
Distracted / intimidated by friends
Workers flooded by anxiety
Sensory overload
Personal avoidance, ambivalence about
• Little or no organisational help to make
sense of experience
• Without talk, reflection on feelings, the
child stays out of mind
• So remains invisible …
Part 2: Aims
• Learn from practice where the risks of
children becoming invisible were
• How they were overcome
• What good, even best practice looks
Mindful intimate practice
Time for thoughtful preparation
Support from managers/peers
Strategies for parental resistance
Spatial awareness
Able to get beyond disgust,
• Maximising time in children’s lives,
rooms to try to understand them.
• Skilled at communicating – including
playing - with children
• Knowing the places, ‘things’ that
make communication effective
• ‘I prepared a box for such occasions
containing a blanket, a cuddly duck
from my childhood, some sweets and
some paper and pens’ (Student S/W).
• SW: So I’ll come and see you next week,
yeah? Do you know what my job is? And
you know [family support worker’s name]
that you have as well? I’m like [family
support worker], okay, and I’m called a
social worker. Yeah? Do you know
Tracey Beaker on the telly?
• Beth:
• SW: She’s a social worker, and what my
job is, I have to make sure that you are,
and these are what I have to do: safe,
I’ve got to make sure you’re happy, and if
you’re not, I have to do things to make
sure that you are safe and you’re happy.
And I am Beth’s social worker, and who
else’s social worker?
• Beth: Edward’s.
• SW: Edward’s, yeah. And some mummies and daddies, or
aunties and uncles, sometimes they find it really hard to be
a mummy, yeah? Sometimes it’s really hard to be a
mummy, and sometimes they need some extra help, yeah?
So that’s what [family support worker] has been doing,
isn’t it? Yeah? So sometimes you’ll see me talking to
mum, sometimes you’ll see me talking to John, because he
comes to your house, and I need to see you at school. And
I think I need to Beth, and where you go to school, that’s
when I talk to you about how you’re feeling and if there’s
any jobs, sometimes you can give me lots of jobs you want
me to do. So it might be you want me, one job I’m going
to do is try and get you new curtains. So that might be a
job we could do, is to get your curtains, because it wasn’t
very nice to have them curtains pulled down, so that might
be a job that we could do together and get some help with,
okay? So that’s what my job is. So, let’s see if you’ve
really listened. What’s my job?
Beth: To make me happy, happy & safe.
SW: Good girl, wow, how clever are you!
John: You’re clever, aren’t you?
SW: Well done, Beth. I didn’t think you
would remember all of that. I thought you
were just being nice and saying, ‘Yeah,
yeah, yeah.’ But really you listened, didn’t
you? Are you a very clever girl! Very
clever. And what about if I come and see
you at school? Let me see when I’m
coming to see you at school.
• Self-awareness of own attachment
style, use of touch
• Charismatic use of self to bring
inspiration & comfort to the (suffering)
• Ability to bear the child’s suffering.
An ethic of care
• Every contact with children can
have a positive therapeutic impact
in promoting safety and helping to
heal trauma, build resilience.
Practical / ethical dilemma: 1.
• Where is the best place to see
children on their own?
• Beware of dynamics of power in
domestic spaces
• Children can be too fearful, inhibited
to speak openly
• Practitioners can become captives to
resentful parents
• Best for children also to be seen in
school, office, clinic, family centre ...
• …car
Being intimate & clear about
what it is ethical to do: 2.
• Is it okay to get close to, touch
• What stops such closeness?
Reasons for avoiding closeness/
• Organisational - “I don’t have time”
• Fear – “I’m afraid of being accused of child
sexual abuse”
• Culture – “I don’t touch because I’m
• Disgust – “I don’t like snotty children”
• Personality – “I’m not a touchy-feely kind
of person.”
Keeping the child in mind
• Organisational – Enough time, coworking, help with planning
• Knowledge – communication skills…
• Personal – worker’s own attachment
style & ability to get close to children
• Emotional – Fear, bearing suffering
• Organisational – Quality support.
• Supervision / workplace cultures
that provide space to think,
process feelings, to know your
• ‘Emotionally informed thinking
spaces’ (Ruch, 2007)
• Recognition of complexity & the
good practice achieved everyday.
Ferguson, H.
(2014), What social
workers do in
performing child
protection work:
evidence from
research into faceto-face practice,
Child and Family
Social Work,
[email protected]

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