Judging parental competence: A cross-country analysis of judicial decision makers’ written assessment of mothers’ parenting capacities in newborn removal cases

By Jenny Krutzinna and Marit Skivenes (University of Bergen, Norway)

Child and Family Social Work, volume 26, issue 1, pages 50 – 60

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

This paper reports on a study from England, Germany and Norway, in which the authors looked at how mothers’ parenting capacity was assessed, understood and justified in relation to the removal of new-born babies. 

How did they study it?

The data consists of written court judgements from the three countries, made in relation to new-born babies. In total, the paper includes 117 such cases – 27 from Germany, 76 from Norway and 14 from England. The authors looked at these written judgements and sought to analyse the information and justifications they contained relevant to the final decision. They also interviewed a small number of judges (or other court decision-makers) to help ensure that their analyses were reasonable. Using the court judgements, they i) mapped the characteristics of the cases, ii) identified discussions of parents and parenting capacity, iii) coded them for parent-related risk factors and iv) looked for discrepancies and took steps to ensure their analysis was reliable. They focused only on mothers, and not fathers, due to their “relative importance with regards to newborns and the widespread absence of fathers [from the court cases]” (p. 53). 

What did they find?

Many of the mothers were very young, with nearly-half (41%) being aged 21 or less. Nineteen of the mothers had a previous child already in care, and over one-third (36%) had a history of child protection involvement of their own. One hundred of the cases (86%) resulted in the removal of the new-born baby. A mean average of more than three ‘risk factors’ were identified in each case (3.6 in England, 3.3 in Germany, 5.6 in Norway). These included a lack of empathy for the child (in 60.7% of cases), poor parenting competency (59%), mental illness (58.1%), abuse in childhood (53%), lack of compliance (50.4%), denial of problems (47%), substance misuse (28.2%) and learning disability (28.2%). A number of ‘risk-reducing factors’ were also identified, including willingness to engage with services (58.1%), competence in some areas (24.8%) and recognition of problems (23.1%). The court judgements overall contained more information about risk factors, than risk-reducing factors, and there were clear differences between the countries in relation to which factors were most often and rarely mentioned. The judgements often lacked an attempt to balance between the risk-increasing versus the risk-reducing factors when justifying the decision. 

What are the implications?

It may be that in most, if not all, of these cases, the risk to the new-born was so high, that a balanced consideration of risk-reducing factors was impossible or irrelevant. It is also the case that because the baby was new-born, the decision was made necessarily on the basis of predicted future harm, rather than an evidenced-based assessment of actual parenting capacity. Nonetheless, the authors do invite practitioners to consider the importance of risk-reducing factors and the interplay between parenting problems and social support measures that are or could be provided. Of course, in the short-term there may be little option but to prioritise child-safety – whether the same applies to longer-term planning, or indeed when the child is older, may be less obvious.  


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins

Implementing Routine Outcome Monitoring in Statutory Children’s Services

By Thomas Mackrill and Idamarie Leth Svendsen 

Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, doi: 10.1007/s10560-020-00734-9

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on? 

This paper reports on a study from Denmark, in which one service implemented the use of routine outcome measurement. Such measurements are often used in counselling services but are much less common in social work.  

In this case, social workers were asked to gather two types of feedback every time they met with a family member. At the beginning of each session, the worker completed an Outcome Rating Scale, to monitor well-being, and at the end of each session, a Session Rating Scale, to obtain feedback on how the meeting went. You can watch a short 1-minute video of how these scales were used in practice here (the video is in Danish but has English subtitle).   

How did they study it? 

The study ran for two years. The researchers observed training and supervision sessions and helped develop a manual for implementing the new approach. They also interviewed social workers and managers about the perceived benefits and challenges of measuring outcomes in this way.   

What did they find? 

They found that social workers were more used to thinking of themselves as case managers, rather than considering how their interactions with the family could be an important mechanism for facilitating change. By obtaining regular feedback, workers become more aware of their practice, of their strengths and their areas for improvement. Workers also found they were having more conversations with family members about whether things were getting better for the child or not.  

Some workers worried that by asking parents directly and more often about their views, this could undermine their statutory authority. Some were also concerned that if the outcome measures showed things were not getting better for the child, this would reflect poorly on them and on the wider service. Workers also felt that the outcome measures were too simplistic to accurately measure the complexity of family life, and that they could detract from a focus on risk and on structural problems such as poverty.  

What are the implications? 

These findings show the potential benefits of implementing routine outcome monitoring in social work, and some of the challenges. The study also shows how making these kinds of ‘simple’ changes is not always straight-forward and can have unintended consequences too.  


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins

Work and resilience: Care leavers’ experiences of navigating towards employment and independence

By Rosemary Furey and Jean Harris-Evans (Sheffield Hallam University)

Child and Family Social Work, doi: 10.1111/cfs.12822 

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

This paper reports on the perspectives of care leavers in relation to obtaining employment and independence after leaving care. It looks in particular at a scheme in one local authority to support care leavers via the provision of an internship within various different departments of the council. 

How did they study it?

Young adults with care experience took part in interviews, and workplace supervisors of the internship programme attended a focus group. One additional supervisor was interviewed, as they were unable to attend the focus group. The interviews and focus-group were audio-recorded and transcribed. Thematic analysis was then used to explore the perspectives of the participants and identify common themes across the data. 

What did they find?

The care leavers spoke about the importance of making a genuine contribution via their internships, but also about the need for an emotionally supportive working environment. The workplace supervisors were also aware that some of the care leavers needed additional emotional support, compared with other members of staff, and most felt they could provide this – but not all, some feeling that they lacked the specialist knowledge required. Within the wider internship programme, care leavers could also access support from an education support worker, a dedicated worker as well as a supervisor to help support them and continued to have a statutory personal advisor. For some, this caused role-confusion and care leavers were not always sure who they should ask for help. 

What are the implications?

All of the care leavers in this study successfully completed the internship programme and wanted to continue in education or training afterwards. Although only small-scale, this study does show the potential for internship programmes to help facilitate future employment-related activities and promote care leaver independence. It also shows that supporting adults with care experience into work can be as much about providing emotional-support, as it is about workplace support per se.   


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins

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Strengths-based practice in social work with adults

Price A, Ahuja L, Bramwell C, Briscoe S, Shaw L, Nunns M et al. (2020) Research evidence on different strengths-based approaches within adult social work: a systematic review. Southampton: NIHR Health Services and Delivery Research Topic Report. 

Review written by Professor Jonathan Scourfield

What question does this study focus on?  

This study summarises existing published research on the effectiveness and the implementation of strengths-based approaches within adult social work in the UK. These approaches are well-known in children’s services and are supported by recent legislation for adult care but little is known about their effectiveness and they are thought to be difficult to implement.

How did they study it?

They did a systematic review – that’s the most robust approach to summarising existing research. They looked in academic journals, with no restrictions on date or language, and they did some limited searching of ‘grey’ literature such as policy reports, although they acknowledge they may have missed some of these. They were only looking for studies from the UK, which is understandable given they wanted the research to be very relevant to UK services, but they will no doubt have missed some international studies that could also be relevant and important. Fifteen studies met the criteria to be included in the review, six of which were assessed as good quality.

What did they find?

There were seven studies of Making Safeguarding Personal – an outcomes-focused and personalised approach whose aim is for safeguarding to be done with, not to,

people. The other eight studies covered a range of approaches: Local Area Coordination, Solution Focused Therapy, Family Group Conferencing, Asset-based Community Development, Strengths-based with Relationship-based Approach, Asset-based approaches, and Motivational Interviewing.  None of the studies allowed the researchers to answer the question about effectiveness.

For Making Safeguarding Personal, the implementation issues were these:

  1. It was seen as demanding on practitioners at first but as having advantages over the longer term – e.g. improved personalisation and reduction in future referrals and burden on the range of services involved in safeguarding. Significant practice change was needed. The model needed adaptation for specific localities, which sometimes caused implementation problems.
  2. The approach required cultural changes in organisations, to move away from older practices such as being risk-averse and not engaging people in conversations about what they want from safeguarding. MSP requires a shift from process-led to user-focussed social work. More outward-facing and smaller local authorities tended to be most successful in implementing MSP.
  3. The knowledge, skills, creativity and confidence of service providers were important for delivering MSP. Practitioners’ willingness to embrace the model made a difference. 
  4. Successful implementation needed strong leadership – sound planning, engagement of staff across service boundaries and the active involvement of people receiving services.

What are the implications?

We need more evidence, which is so often the conclusion of systematic reviews! For this topic, there is a real need for comparative studies, to look at whether consciously strengths-based approaches actually result in different in the positive differences they would claim to bring, when compared with usual practice. The points about how MSP was implemented are useful for services that want to bring in practice changes.


Review written by

Professor Jonathan Scourfield

Article Reviews

At ExChange we know that busy practitioners do not have the time to find and read the latest research.  Finding interesting and relevant articles, evaluating the quality of the research and making sense of the implications for practice are all time consuming activities – and most workers are busy dealing with the challenges of working with people. 

To help you we are launching a new part of our website – regular Article Reviews. In Article Reviews academics from CASCADE will identify an important recent article, summarise its findings and provide some critical thinking about the research and its implications. 

We hope that these summaries will be useful – some may answer important questions, others may challenge your thinking or offer new ways of thinking about an issue or problem. 

We also hope that the Reviews will help you decide whether or not you want to read the article itself – we are going to pick Reports and articles that are freely accessible whenever possible and provide links. 

We hope that our Reviews will provide interesting, expert introductions to important current research that will help you find out the latest evidence in adult and children’s social care. We look forward to hearing from you whether you have found it helpful and how we might improve the service.  

Child protection social work in COVID-19: home visits and digital intimacy

By Sarah Pink, Harry Ferguson and Laura Kelly – Anthropology in Action, 27(3), 2020, pp. 27-30.  

What question does this study focus on? 

Social work is a public service, but social workers very often do their work in private (Bostock et al, 2018). In much of his most important research to date, Professor Harry Ferguson has used observational methods to explore what social workers do during home visits and how their work involves negotiated movement in intimate physical spaces. In this article, Ferguson and colleagues consider the impact of Covid-19 on this kind of work, and how social workers have adapted their practice using digital and virtual methods of communication.  

How did they study it? 

To do this, the authors spoke to social workers already involved in their studies about how their work has changed as a result of the pandemic and associated lockdowns and social distancing. As the authors note, there was no existing template for shifting social work practice online in a working-from-home context” (p. 28) and so each local authority, and to some extent each individual practitioner, had to develop their own new ways of working.  

What did they find? 

For some workers, having to work remotely from children and their families involved not being able to do the things they normally would. For example, one social worker talked about how they would engage with babies by touching them, and another described how they would use their sense of smell to help judge whether a child was being washed regularly enough. Virtual communication allows one to look and hear, but not to touch or smell. On the other hand, another worker described how some children find it easier to communicate with them digitally, either on a video-call or via text messages.  

What are the implications? 

While the disruption and ongoing harm of the pandemic could not ever be described as positive, there might nonetheless be some positive things to emerge from it. The authors of this article suggest that for some children and families, even after the pandemic, a hybrid approach combining in-person home visits with some forms of virtual communication might be more desirable and more helpful than either approach in isolation.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins.

What the Public Think About Social Services, A Report from Scotland

Trish McCulloch and Stephen Webb, British Journal of Social Work, 50(4), 2020, pp. 1146 – 1166.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

In relation to social services, there is often expressed the view among social workers that, by and large, the public dislike them – or at least, they dislike the services they represent. But how accurate is this view?

How did they study it?

In this article, the authors report findings from a survey of 2,505 adults in Scotland, selected to represent the wider Scottish population. The survey was undertaken in 2016 / 17, and comprised of 43 questions, organised in relation to six themes – i) impressions and perceptions of social services, ii) understanding of social services, iii) issues associated with social services, iv) experience of social services, v) trust, value and confidence in social workers and vi) influences on perceptions. 

What did they find?

Half of the respondents had a positive view of social services, and one-third had a negative view. Readers of The Guardian newspaper had the most positive views, while readers of The Daily Express had the most negative views (make of that what you will). The most positive overall findings were that ‘social services play an important role in supporting the most vulnerable people’ and that ‘social services provide a valuable service to the people of Scotland’. The majority of respondents also said they had a good knowledge and understanding of social services, and generally felt that social workers support older people and work to keep children safe. Most of the respondents agreed that social work professionals could be trusted to do their jobs well. It is reasonable to ask how many of these respondents would have had personal experience of social services, particularly in relation to children’s services – yet the authors report that although first-hand contact did influence perceptions of social services, in general there was “nothing compelling in the results to suggest that access in itself is a consistent predictor of perceptions” (p. 1159). 

What are the implications?

These findings should help challenge the belief that the public primarily or even uniformly hold negative views of social work. As this survey shows, at least in Scotland, this is not the case. Perceptions can more reasonably be described as mixed, tending towards the positive.  

What a similar survey would find in Wales remains an open question.


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins

My Life My Choice – The right to a relationship

My Life My Choice – The right to a relationship: Addressing the barriers that people with learning disabilities face in developing and sustaining sexual relationships In our fourth webinar of the DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) series, we share this research project led by the National Development Team for Inclusion (NTDi) in coproduction with My Life My Choice (MLMC). MLMC is a self-advocacy organisation for adults with learning difficulties, based in Oxfordshire.

People with learning difficulties have a right to develop sexual relationships. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) states that people with disabilities have a right not to be discriminated against in all matters relating to marriage, family, parenthood and relationships. The reality is that adults with learning disabilities face institutional and attitudinal barriers that prevent them from exercising and enjoying this fundamental right.

In 2018-19 NTDi and MLMC coproduced research looking at the multiple barriers people with learning difficulties face in developing and sustaining sexual relationships. The research considered the impact of policies and practices of support services, to identify barriers as well as examples of good practice. This webinar, presented by NTDi and MLMC, gives excellent insight into the coproduced research, the findings and recommendations.

Use of secure accommodation for welfare purposes in Wales

Secure accommodations are residential homes with approval to restrict the liberty of young people who are believed to be a serious risk to themselves or to others. Many young people are placed in secure accommodation for welfare reasons and there is little sign of this practice diminishing. This troubling situation is further complicated by a scarcity of secure placements in Wales which sees many young people being placed outside of Wales or having no bed in secure care due to a lack of availability.

At present there is little research evidence of what has led to this or what can be done to improve matters. To give better insight, a recent project commissioned by Social Care Wales and conducted by CASCADE at Cardiff University explored the experiences of young people from Wales prior to, during and following a referral to secure accommodation.

A recent webinar, presented by Dr Annie Williams (research lead) gave practitioners and managers an opportunity to hear about the study. The resources from the webinar are as follows: