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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Providing services to parents - which services matter

While the court decision is Canadian, there are some principles in it that will apply to virtually any jurisdiction that gives family preservation or reunification a priority. The Honourable Madam Justice C.S. Phillips of the Court of Queen's Bench (Alberta) has indicated that services provided to a family must focus on what is needed to increase the probability of parenting successfully. Thus, it is not the provision of services that matter but the actual purpose of those services. She states in para. 86:

It is important to remember, therefore, that it is not the number of services that are provided but the quality of the services and their "fit" in relation to the needs of the family that are critical.
This decision is a reminder that "cookie cutter" case plans can be challenged. It is clear that this decision helps us to see how case plans need to be catered to the demands of the particular case. A core question becomes, "What will possibly make a difference to the needs of this family to better parent these children?"

In her decision, Justice Phillips also looked at expert evidence. One thing that struck me was her concern with assessments that had been prepared long before trial. The implication seems obvious that the more dated they are the more they should be viewed cautiously. Yet, in many jurisdictions, the legal process can move slowly with trails being booked some months away. Must then CPS be constantly seeking to update assessments, including Parenting Capacity Assessments, as trails loom closer? Must CPS then amend case plans to reflect changing circumstances as seen in revised assessments? Decisions need to made in the lives of children expeditiously but that often is not the case as the courts plod along with their process. The rights of parents to be heard can be at odds with the right of the child to permanency in their lives. Brown and Ward (2012) have made a cogent case for case planning to be done with the child's needs in mind which have more urgent developmental requirements. The longer that a child experiences instability, the harder it will be for the child to do well over time.

Courts need to make their decisions faster. To help the courts, case managers also need to get their case plans right reducing the room for appeals of permanent guardianship orders. Good case plans have, in most cases, tried to provide the interventions that will make a difference in the ability of the parent to parent to meet the specific needs of their children.


Brown, R. & Ward, H. (2012). Decision-making within a child's timeframe: An overview of current research evidence for family justice professionals concerning child development and the impact of maltreatment: Working paper 16. London: Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre.

RS v Alberta (Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, Director), 2012 ABQB 715

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Child Maltreatment Fatalities - Questioning Assumptions

New research just published by Emily Douglas in the United States questions some long held beliefs about the workers involved in child maltreatment fatality cases within child protection systems. As she points out at the beginning of her article:

Some argue that the child welfare profession is out of control: workers who
experience fatalities are young, inexperienced, and lack professional training, and they miss warning signs leading up to the deaths
Indeed, there has been much criticism of the failings of the child protection systems when a child dies. One needs only recall the ,media frenzy in the UK around the cases of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly.

About 30 - 40 % of children who die from maltreatment will be known to child protection, she advises. Douglas' research however, tells us that workers did know their families and that, unlike previous suggestions, workers tended to not be new and inexperienced. The workers in her sample were not overly burdened with high case loads, although she may not have fully explored whether these more experienced workers were handling much more complex cases. The workers felt that they had the skills needed to manage the cases and also that they were appropriately supported. She notes that 27% saw that the fatality was likely unavoidable.

Douglas' sample was small and retrospective - limitations that she notes. However, her research does open up new understandings of these cases and the workers managing them. This is an important addition to the conversation. Hopefully, it leads to further work.


Douglas, E.M. (2013). Child welfare workers who experience the death of a child client. Administration in Social Work, 37 (1), 59-72. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Jimmy Savile and Jerry Sandusky - Hiding in Plain View

Social workers and others who work with children around the world, have much to learn from these two high profile sexual abuse case. The material published in the UK today about the breadth and extent of the sexual abuse committed by Savile farnkly boggles the mind. As the CBC reports today:

Detectives said the scale of Savile's sex abuse was "unprecedented in the U.K." They have recorded 214 offences allegedly committed by Savile between 1955 and 2009, including 34 rapes, on victims aged 8 to 47. In all, 450 people have come forward with information about abuse by the late TV presenter.
Jimmy Savile

The details that are coming out show that the range of sexual behaviors and the settings in which Savile committed his alleged crimes includes children who were pre pubescent and teenagers. He did it under the cover of his fame and charity work. As one police officer has noted, he hid in plain view. The Guardian newspaper in the UK offers insight not only into the staggering size of Savile's crimes but also the utter failing of a system that refused to believe, deal with, or collate the data that was available from victims who had come forward. The system failed those who were willing to seek justice - a system that the report clearly shows bent badly in the wind that blew from the magnitude of Savile's deemed importance.

Like Savile, Sandusky had a huge public reputation which appears to have allowed him to hide as well. The power that both men possessed made coming forward with the allegations incredibly challenging. It would be a brave victim indeed who could challenge the reputation of these powerful men. Bear in mind that sexual abusers have an uncanny capacity to choose victims who are weak, vulnerable and desperate for the attention of the powerful.

These two cases are not unique but rather help us to see, yet again, the role that power plays. We have seen hundreds of victims in the cases of priests in various churches and also in such revered organizations as the Boy Scouts.

Sexual abusers take full advantage of the power of role - Savile as the music industry icon; Sandusky as the winning coach; the priest as the sacred leader; the Boy Scout leader as the person to be trusted as a guide in life. These are all very socially supported and revered positions.

Social workers need to be very mindful of the ability of the predator to use position. The sexual abuser does it time and again. When the social worker hears the stories, we need to be open to the telling. Sexual abusers in these positions count on their reputation and the notion that those speaking against them won't be believed.

The rate of false allegations is small.

I like some key points from Dr. D.L. Reed:

* A substantial proportion of sexually abused children are quite reluctant to disclose their abuse; many are ambivalent about disclosing; many delay disclosingDisclosure of sexual abuse is typically a dynamic process not a one-time event. Consequently, confirmed victims often make inconsistent statementsWhen CSA victims are interviewed only once, they often minimize the extent of their abuse; and some deny it altogetherWhen childrens abuse allegations include fantasy elements, this does not necessarily mean that they werent abused 

 The point is that disclosure occurs in a variety of ways, over time and often with a great deal of shame and guilt (the victim may well think that the abuse is their fault). Victims may let slip little details by accident at the start or as a way to test how people will react. We have a need to just listen and not judge.

There are many more perpetrators out there that have yet to be discovered. Social workers are key in hearing these stories as are parents, teachers, police officers and many others with whom a child has contact. A child alleging it occurred with someone powerful should not deter us hearing them.