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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Learning from the deaths of children

Children die when involved with child protection systems. It is inevitable that some children will die as it is impossible to predict which parent is going to kill a child. However, there are several behaviours by social workers that can reduce the risks. This poster represents some of the most important themes that we have found in our research of Canadian published case reviews.

There are a few I would like to highlight:

  1. Supervision really matters - when a front line worker gets good supervision we have another set of informed eyes talking about the case. The supervisor gets to ask questions about missing data, why case plans are structured the way they are and to offer ideas and suggestions about what might be done. Remember that a large number of front line workers have less than 5 years experience. Supervision matters.
  2. The child is the reason the case exists - it is not hard to get distracted by the needs of the parent. This can be particularly true in cases where there is a conflict through the court system. Indeed, in a recent case I was involved in, I experienced counsel for the parents as being strongly focused on what was best for the parent but disguised in questions that made it seem about the child. Our task is to bring the case back to what serves the child.
  3. Being open to the unimaginable - case workers do not like to think that the parent or caregiver that they are working with would kill the child - but if we are open to that as a possibility then we ask better questions and consider the data more thoroughly.
  4. Front line social workers are generalists - they often lack specialist training in the complex issues that child protection work brings. This can range from mental health to addictions to inter personal violence to FASD and so on. BUT, the front line worker does need to know how to get at experts who can aid them in understanding the case. These experts also need to learn how to talk to front line workers in ways that make the issue clear.
  5. One assessment at the beginning is not the end of assessment - assessment is an ongoing process. Things change in cases and so should the social workers understanding of the case.
  6. If the child is at the centre of the case - see the child - see the child frequently.
  7. History does matter - it tells us a lot - what have been the problems in the past and how successful were interventions; how are things different now that may yield strengths or ongoing deficits; is there a pattern that needs to be considered and so on.
  8. The new partner is a risk - they need to be met and assessed. 

One of the big lessons for us is how important it is to talk to students about these issues - but talk with students inter professionally. Child protection requires an ability to work across professions - medical, psychology, social work, criminal justice, law - and be able to do so with a grounding in what protecting a child is all about. Inter professional communication has been a problem at the heart of many cases.

There are also cultural implications to our research which I will review in the next posting.

I do want to leave with this message as well - case reviews where things have gone wrong need to be done at the front line - but not in a way that is hanging people out to dry but rather in using the case to enhance learning and improve practice. That helps to reduce the risks of the death for children involved with child protection.

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