Summary of the research
Little is known about how social workers communicate with children in their everyday practice. This research focuses on the routine communication between social workers and children. It aims to generate new knowledge that will enhance social work education, practice and policy. In doing so, we hope the research will improve children’s experiences of social work practice and policy. The research uses ethnography and video stimulated recall sessions with children and social workers.
When social workers assess allegations of child abuse, they are involved in potentially life and death situations. This work, along with the subsequent requirements to protect and promote the wellbeing of vulnerable children, from infancy to adolescence, through accurate and appropriate communicate with them, demands highly developed professional skills.
Whilst there is a substantial body of knowledge about the circumstances surrounding social workers’ communications with children in the extraordinary contexts of children being seriously harmed or killed, less is known about how social workers communicate with children in ordinary, everyday practice, the challenges they encounter in this process and the sense social workers and children make of these interactions. There is an urgent need for research to be conducted into social workers’ communication with children at key points and places in a child’s safeguarding and ‘looked after’ journey. Two such key points include the social worker-child interaction at the point of referral and assessment and in the course of longer-term relationship-building if children become ‘looked after’.
To date, we have relied largely on the retrospective reflective accounts of participants in these social worker-child encounters. We have some ideas as to what happens (research suggests that children may be overlooked or inadequately engaged with), how it happens (parents’ use of space, and physical presence to exclude a child from conversation) and why it happens (time pressures, power, intimidating emotional dynamics, exposure to risk, fear of what might be said and what to do with what is said). Currently, what is missing, and the central focus of this study, is the direct observation of social worker-child interactions. To address this gap in knowledge, this study will explore how social workers communicate with children in their ordinary, everyday practice and how the social workers and children involved in these encounters experience and understand them.
The research will take place in two specific settings to encompass communication that takes place across a range of key social work tasks with children: firstly, in the reactive domain of frontline assessment teams, where relationships with children have to be developed rapidly, and secondly, in the more controlled environment of teams working with ‘looked after’ children in foster, residential or kinship care, where there is the potential for longer-term relationships.