Barriers to learning: Why social workers are struggling with child sexual abuse cases

Published November 27, 2014 by JS2

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Social workers have criticised training and supervision on child sexual abuse. Community Care looks at the problems and solutions.

Challenging and distressing child sexual abuse cases have come under scrutiny from social workers who say they need better supervision to manage the emotional impact of working on such cases and access to more and higher quality training.

Practitioners from six local authorities shared their views with Coventry University, commissioned by the NSPCC to produce a report on social work responses to a subject coming under increasing public attention: child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Recent high profile cases and an ongoing historical abuse inquiry in Westminster have pushed the problem up the child protection agenda.

So, why have social workers now criticised their training and supervision, and how can their concerns be remedied quickly?

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, believes issues in child protection are subject to “fashions and trends” in practice and claims that is exactly what has happened with child sexual abuse.

Pre-qualifying training

“Neglect and emotional abuse have been really key talking points for the past two or three years, so inevitably if local authorities believe that’s what they are going to be judged on…there will be a greater focus on those issues,” she says, also arguing that areas under the category of abuse appear to have a “hierarchy”.

Social workers speaking to the NSPCC called for more, and better, training both before and after qualifying to keep their skills and practice up to date. But, with practice ‘trends’ and authorities facing resourcing problems, Mansuri believes training is moved to the backburner.

Brigid Featherstone, a social work professor at the Open University, says training and the organisational cultures must work together. “I think you have to have the proper training and the organisational context [to support the work],” Featherstone says.

Producing specialist isn’t what qualifying is about, says Kate Morris, a professor in social work who at Nottingham University. “We’re equipping our qualifying students to go out and engage sensibly and seriously in continual professional development, you can’t produce specialists at qualifying level,” she says. “What you can do is ensure that they have a real solid awareness that they have the right set of capabilities and competencies and a real willingness to learn.”

Barriers to learning

The goal of qualifying courses is to produce “generic newly qualified social workers” with a grounding across a range of subjects, she says.

She puts specialist learning down to how embedded social work services are in their communities. “Know your community and the issues your community faces and that means you’ve got to have arrangements and systems that make that possible,” she says.

The sensitive nature of child sexual abuse cases, and working directly with service users, can make it difficult for social work students to gain the relevant experience they need.

Ricki Steed, a social work student on the Step Up To Social Work programme, explains: “It’s quite hard to get the shadowing opportunities because it is personal and people don’t want a lot of people around… That’s kind of a barrier to your learning.”

The NSPCC report raised concerns that social work training is too procedural. Steed noticed this in her practice placement, adding this can limit the help practitioners can offer children.

Featherstone acknowledged this too, saying the child protection system has been procedure-driven, but is “slowly developing”.

Space for reflection

Sherry Malik, director of children’s services for the NSPCC and a former director of adults and children’s services at Hounslow council, said it’s important to make sure social workers coming out of education are fit for purpose and properly equipped to do the tasks.

That, Malik says, is “about leaders, directors, assistant directors and managers creating the conditions where people can reflect”.

Key issues for social workers interviewed in the report include: the quality of post-qualifying training; how pressures and caseloads are limiting their opportunities for reflection and how to maintain their own emotional wellbeing.

The student world, argues Mansuri, is limited in terms of having direct influence on cases, but is vital for providing students with the foundation of knowledge for working with these cases. “It’s so important that when social workers are first coming face-to-face with it that they are getting really good support and supervision so they can talk about their own feelings,” she says.

Organisations must ask how they can improve the experiences of social workers and how they can create the right conditions to work in, says Malik. “The whole reason for doing that of course is to be able to support young people who haven’t been listened to.”

Emotional support and early help

David Jones, chair of the independent association of Local Safeguarding Children Board chairs, points out emotional support is “fundamental” to social work practice in all areas. Some services don’t understand this, he says, causing long-term problems with levels of staff morale.

While Mansuri welcomes the recent focus on responding to child sexual abuse, she warns of the “trend” habit in child protection developing and becoming another barrier to learning and practice. Trending issues could also deflect attention from other key areas, she says.

Jones agrees the issue is “very important”, yet warns of getting the child protection focus “out of balance”. Which is a problem that develops from social work being “more at the sharp end” of child protection, according to Mansuri.

If social workers had the freedom to intervene early and give children and families early help, they would be able to identify, and respond to, child sexual abuse in a more constructive way, she concludes.

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