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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sibling Abuse as a Child Protection Issue

I recall some years back a family that I and a colleague were working with. Child protection had become involved due to parental behaviours. These were addressed and some significant progress was made. Yet the abuse of the younger sibling by his older brother continue. It was both physical and emotional - and it could be quite brutal. When we tried to raise it as a child protection issue, we were told that it did not fit within the mandate of child welfare. They saw themselves as protecting children from parental or other adult caregiver behaviours not those that occurred between siblings.  Things have changed in many places around this issue but research to be published soon in the journal Qualitative Social Work suggests that we have a long way to go.

There has been a number of efforts since the case I refer to above, but these authors tell us that even coming to agreement on what constitutes sibling abuse remains a challenge.

The researchers help us get a sense of how the victims in their study saw the abuse which, in this sample, went on for at least 5 years in each of the cases. (19 cases from which saturation was achieved).

 The participants in this study identified sibling abuse as physical or psychological torment involving brutal physical force or emotional devastation. It
created feelings of helplessness as victims were unable to protect themselves or
gauge and anticipate actions that incited an assault. Abusive sibling acts engendered a pervasive state of fear and vulnerability; they resulted in hyper-vigilance and feelings of loneliness and isolation when it occurred and which endured into adulthood.
In another powerful theme, the researchers found that the role of parents matters:

 In the families of these informants, limited social and economic resources and
marital strain made it difficult for victims to obtain critical support inherent to
development. Parents were unable to model positive communication or manage
interpersonal conflict and emotional turmoil productively. This inhibited their children’s ability to modulate their own emotional experiences and mitigate the effects of abuse.

For me, this really speaks to the nature of family systems around abusive behaviour. We tend to think of abuse between adults or from adults to children. But if abuse exists in a family system, why would we not expect it could happen between siblings. Indeed, this research found that other abusive behaviour was evident in at least half of the homes. Further, parents did not protect either by failure to act or by minimizing the abuse between siblings. For the victim, the whole of the family system was then unsafe making it hard for the victim to find or seek out safety.  The perpetrator may have even been in a preferred position within the family by comparison to the victim.

I agree with the authors that we must seek legislation in child protection that includes sibling abuse as one form of abuse that should be within the consideration of child abuse. We have a ways to go on finding workable definitions but that has not stopped us with other forms of abuse in a family.


Meyers, A. (2014). A call to child welfare: Protect children from sibling abuse. Qualitative Social Work, online first. DOI: 10.1177/1473325014527332

Monday, March 10, 2014

Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? Insanity?

You might well ask this question upon reading the new report from the Irish Ombudsman for Children, titled A meta-analysis of repetitive root cause issues regarding the provision of services for children in care. While the title is not likely to push this report to the best sellers lists, it should be read by child protection agencies everywhere. The Ombudsman, Emily Logan, pertinently asks why the same issues are being investigated repeatedly. In many ways, this could have been asked in a multitude of jurisdictions.

The report identifies concerns in 7 areas:

  1. Assessment and care planning - "Effective intervention for each individual child depends upon a clear assessment and understanding of his/her needs" (p. 11)
  2. Record keeping - The report sees this as a way to help focus action.
    1. plan work with service users;
    2. aid assessment and decision making processes
    3. monitor staff's involvement with service users
    4. monitor and review progress of set objectives and goals
    5. monitor and review plans for children
    6. provide an accurate account to a child as to the decisions made in relation to them and why (pp.14-15)
  3. Provision of residential care - this raises the concerns around multiple placements and those that are inappropriate  for the needs of the child
  4. Child protection for children in care - on p. 18 the report states that "The previous life experiences of many children in care have exposed them to increased risk of victimization. They have the right to expect and receive protection from within the child care system.
  5. Social work practice and supervision - The report outlines that the public have expectations of high quality service from well trained workers. "However, social work is not well understood and public confidence is frequently influenced by the media's handling of individual cases" (p. 19). In this section, the report goes on to state a crucial conclusion: "If alternative care arrangements (foster care and residential care) are to promote stability and resilience it must promote opportunities for children to develop secure attachments." (italics added). Too often the child is lost in the process and instability is the result of poor management.
  6. Interprofessional and multi-agency collaboration - This is an issue that is seen in multitudes of reports on child protection errors.
  7. Governance arrangements - a clear focus on why an agency exists and how it is fulfilling its mandate
The report makes a profound and often forgotten statement on p. 19:

It is important to recognize that social workers are the lead professional group which assists the Sate in protecting children from harm through neglect, abuse or exploitation
The report also does an excellent job of covering the international obligations for children arising from United Nations conventions that many countries have signed.

I am finally struck by the reports use of the term corporate parenting. This is a concept that is often lost. It is indeed the State who acts as the parent for children in care in most jurisdictions. How accountable is the state for its actions? This is an important question that we should be asking on a frequent basis.

This report is crucial. It asks the hard questions that need asking - particularly if we continue to repeat the same errors across multiple jurisdictions as my own research is showing.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Why are changes made in child protection?

I was intrigued by an article published recently in the journal, Australian Social Work. It asked the question - Driving child protection reform: Evidence or Ideology? The short answer is that, in this study of one change process, it was ideology. The article looked at the introduction of Structured Decision Making (SDM) in Queensland. The changes were made in response to significant scrutiny through public inquiry. Quoting Nigel Parton from the UK, the author, Philip Gillingham notes that change is often driven through "political imperatives to respond to the deaths of children at the hands of their parents" (p.1).

Gillingham also notes that change often leads to increased bureaucracy, manageralism, technical fixing as opposed to enhancing the skills that make social work effective. These approaches in response to public inquiry create a more formulaic approach to the work which reduces the relationship based effectiveness of our work. It creates more distance, more processes to be completed and checklists to manage as opposed to direct time with the client. Eileen Munro, also from the UK, earlier noted that social workers are spending less time with child protection clients and more time on the administrative tasks.

What really struck me, though, was the failure of the process in this case. On p. 6 of the article, Gillingham notes that the goal of the reforms in Queensland was to respond to the need for "a suite of professional practices and decision tools to help regulate, standardize and record the frontline decisions taken by Child Safety Officers" (quoting Forster, 2004). But Gillingham's research found "The SDM tools had had no discernible impact on the promotion of consistency in decision-making." He adds,. "The findings that SDM tools were not used to assist decision-making and did not promote consistency suggest that neither were they used to target the children most in need" (p. 8).

SDM has been used effectively elsewhere according to other reports. This article helps remind us that introducing change requires careful thought on how to support the real work of child protection. Other research has shown that when you allow workers to build relationships with clients where clients can feel heard, respected and seen for the own circumstances, you end up with better outcomes. Tools such as SDM should not be used to replace that but need to be part of a process that enhances what clients need. Those driving change feel that social workers make poor decisions and they need these structured tools in order to solve that. Gillingham's article notes, as has been seen in other research, that workers would go back and fit the data into SDM in order to support the decision they had already made - they were meeting the bureaucratic needs.

Reference: Gillingham, P. (2014).Driving child protection reform: Evidence or ideology? Australian Social Work, online first