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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry

The inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair is starting to open up some distressingly familiar themes in the world of social work.

What we are beginning to hear about include high caseloads, demanding work schedules, frequent turnover of staff, a child not seen, a case that appears to have relied heavily on self report by the family and social workers who didn't build enough of a relationship with the family to really know what was occurring. For many of the social workers who have testified at the inquiry, this case was not so severe when compared to others they were trying to manage.

For Justice Ted Hughes, an experienced commissioner in child protection inquiries, the task in front of him will be to look beyond the obvious concerns - social workers who didn't get the job done - to the very broad issue of the systemic issues that made it impossible to do the work needed to protect this vulnerable child ---- and many others like her.

Justice Hughes will need to think about the poverty; the intergenerational problems in Canada's Aboriginal Communities (strongly linked to the story of Residential Schools in Canada) and the failure to properly fund child protection. The Phoenix Sinclair case can too easily be framed as a failure of individual social workers. That is easy. They become the convenient scapegoat. Hughes should look at how we fund child protection; how we fund prevention services; how we address real healing and - most of all - whether we in Canada want an effective child protection system or do we want the feel good of having one but not spending too much on it. It is a deep moral question.

I fear that Canada, like many Western countries, are not prepared to pay what real child protection and prevention would cost.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The rule of Optimism

I have recently been reading the work of Brandon et al., (2012) on learning from Serious Case Reviews in the UK for the period 2009-2011. It reminded me of the "Rule of Optimism" that exists within social work - indeed most of the helping professions.

In essence, we want things to work out. After all, we go into these professions seeking to make a positive difference in the lives of our clients. We want to believe that what we are doing is working.  The rule of optimism can blind us to what is really going on. This can lead to several areas of practice concern:

1. Believing that what we are seeing is progress;
2. Filtering out or minimizing areas of concern;
3. anticipating that the intervention will work;
4. Believing that "one more try" and the family will get it;
5. Focusing only on strengths and ignoring what is not working and the risks that arise from that; and
6. Overly positive interpretations of what is going on.

This is not to say that we should be looking only for the negatives. But it does tell us that we need to ensure a balanced view. When a client is not doing well, it is fair to ask if we are providing the correct services. It is also important to ask if the issue is that the client is not progressing - and if not - why not? There can be many reasons that are not associated with the worker - client refusing to see the problem; poor engagement in change; feigned compliance to make it look like they are working.

Disguised compliance can look like:

lconflicting accounts from family memberslconflicting accounts from different professionalslconflicting accounts from neighbourslpersistently unmet needs of childrenlrepeat incidents of harm/neglect to children (Community Care 2008)

Good child protection practice allows workers to see that their optimism may not be reflective of what is going on - this is where good supervision can make a difference. Our role is not to take on responsibility for the success of the client. The rule of optimism means that we are likely to give clients too many chances which is an adverse outcome for children in far too many cases. It exposes them to ongoing instability as child protection comes and goes without achieving successful outcomes.

The rule of optimism is also about professionals who do not want to acknowledge that things are not getting better and that they need to make the hard decisions about the case.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The voice of the child in court - Is it working?

For a possible research project, combined with some thoughts that have been brewing during some recent court cases I have been involved in, I have been thinking about the ways in which children are represented in family courts. It seems that the two most common methods are through a Guardian ad Litem (a person appointed to represent the views of the court) or through a lawyer appointed to represent the child. Some writers have framed that allowing the child to have a voice in court is a matter of their human rights.

The role of the Guardian ad Litem has been described by one such person in Florida as having 5 principle roles.

  • Investigator
  • Monitor
  • Spokesperson
  • Reporter
  • Protector
This seems a good way to view what should be happening. Yet, I have seen some rather odd representations of children in court these days. Some of the problems include lawyers representing children too young to properly give instruction. For really small children, that can be quite problematic. For pre-elementary and elementary school children, that means developing a relationship with the child and really getting to know what the child needs. That takes time and may be beyond the availability of a busy lawyer.

Not long ago, I was involved in a case where I felt that the children's voice was completely absent even though a lawyer was appointed. Virtually no questions were asked by this person who appeared to have never even seen the children who were young. I worry that children in those cases have no voice at all. Perhaps even worse, they may have a voice of the lawyer who simply represents what that person thinks should happen, perhaps based on personal beliefs.

In another case, I have seen a lawyer representing a child in what appears to be the voice of one of the parents. The statements made are highly reflective of that parent's views, even down to the specific perspective. One wonders if the lawyer has taken time to really speak with the child and if the concern of an unhealthy alliance between the parent and the child has been considered.

I very much like how a court in Utah framed the role:

"It is the Guardian ad Litem's duty to stand in the shoes of the child and to weigh the factors as the child would weigh them if his judgment were mature and he was not of tender years."
      - J.W.F v. Schoolcraft, 763 P.2d 1217, 1222 (Utah Ct. App. 1988)

As social workers, we might need to begin talking about the quality of what happens for children in court. I am struck that I have not been able to find anything but a tiny body of literature that has bothered to ask the children how did it go. How well did they feel represented? Let's start asking!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jimmy Savile - Power and Domination

If you follow stories regarding sexual abuse, you would be had pressed to have missed the one about Jimmy Savile. He is the former BBC music icon who is now thought of as one of the most significant serial sexual abuser of our time. It has been reported that his victims may number 300 or more. It is a staggering story but one where prestige, money and power are at the centre.

What struck me is the common thread in so many sexual abuse cases - those who saw that something was wrong failed to act. Because of this, there were more victims. The Guardian newspaper in the UK notes that:

Doctors and managers at Stoke Mandeville hospital were afraid to challenge Jimmy Savile over the free access he enjoyed to wards, out of fear that he would take his fundraising millions elsewhere, a former director of nursing has said, as fresh claims emerged of abuse at the hospital and elsewhere.

It is gaining a position of power that allows abusers to get away with what they do. It gives them access to victims; it creates room for them to groom victims and they do so with the immunity that comes when others fail to act. We saw that in the Jerry Sandusky case in the United States.

As in the Sandusky case, there were a few occasions when someone would tell, but they lacked the power to force action. Like Sandusky, those who could have acted with the information that they were given failed to do so. The Telegraph reported

Jimmy Savile's former director on Jim'll Fix It reveals he saw the presenter having sex with a 16-year-old girl in his dressing room and informed BBC officials who 'did nothing'.

The story adds

David Nicolson, 67, said he reported the incident to his bosses at the corporation in 1988 but was rebuffed and simply told: "That's Jimmy".
He told The Sun newspaper: “I was revolted by his behaviour. They just shrugged it off, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah — that’s the way it goes’.”
“Everyone knew what was going on. That includes senior BBC people — chiefs at the highest levels. 

These are illustrations that organizations become invested in the image, prestige and money that comes with characters such Jimmy Savile and Jerry Sandusky. They become wilfully blind to the reality of what is going on and fail to act ethically. Such organizations need to be held accountable, as has happened with Penn State University in the Sandusky case. Will the BBC also be held accountable? Let's keep a close eye.

Additional Note: reports that there are further charges in the Sandusky case against those who covered up his behaviour. Former Penn State University President Graham Spanier was charged related to a conspiracy of silence. The report notes:

“This was not a mistake by these men. It was not an oversight. It was not misjudgment on their part,” Ms. Kelly (Attorney General) said. “This was a conspiracy of silence by top officials, working to actively conceal the truth, with total disregard for the children who were Sandusky’s victims.”

Mr. Spanier is, of course, innocent until proven otherwise. This step does send a message that covering up sexual abuse by another brings its own accountability.

You may also find this story on the role of silence to be quite relevant.