By: Marte Tonning Otterlei and Ingunn Studsrød
Review written by Dr David Wilkins
What question does this study focus on?
This study explored how child welfare workers talk to parents about the decision to issue care proceedings, and how workers cope with these difficult conversations.
How did they study it?
Interviews were completed with twelve experienced child welfare workers from Norway. Workers were asked to reflect on their meetings with parents in which they had told them about the decision to seek a care order for the child.
What did they find?
Telling parents about the decision to seek a care order was perceived as a ‘brutal and devaluing act’. Workers knew it would cause parents considerable emotional pain. As a result, they avoided talking about the parent’s failures, downplayed the reasons why the care order was needed and kept meetings short. Workers struggled to be direct and thorough, without being inhumane. One strategy was to provide information, without inviting a dialogue. Many workers, but not all, felt responsible for taking care of parents and children during and after the meetings. However, workers often found that parents were too angry to accept their offers of help, or suggestions about who else might support them. The workers also noted that the child’s safety was their ultimate priority, not the parent’s well-being.
Many workers talked about finding these meetings exhausting, and emotionally draining. Some talked about being scared of parents, particularly if they had a history of violence. Workers felt desperate, angry, frustrated, anxious and confused. Some workers described themselves as being like a traitor to the family.
What are the implications?
From the study itself, the implications are that workers need to prepare well for these meetings, in order to ensure they know what they need to say, and how. Some of the coping strategies employed, such as downplaying the need for the care order, may ‘work’ in the short-term to protect the parent (and worker) from emotional pain, but in the longer-term are unlikely to help the parent understand what is happening. Seeking support and advice from colleagues and supervisors before and after the meeting is one important way of coping with and preparing for this task.
More broadly, the study highlights just how difficult the role of child welfare or child protection worker can be – and how under-prepared many workers feel for some of the most important tasks involved. Because of the nature of these meetings, we are often reliant, as in this study, on retrospective self-reports of what happened. It is difficult to know how we might more directly observe and learn from these meetings, and about what makes them more or less effective. Hearing more about the parent’s perspective would be one way of creating a more holistic understanding.
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