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Access, family contact, and some ultimate truths about social work

January 4, 2012


Access is an ordeal for all involved and can be one of the most overtly confrontational parts of the job. Like court, depending on your cases it can be a little or a lot, but there will ALWAYS be access somewhere along the line. Access is a horrible legal word for contact between parents and their children in care. While it should be called contact or something a little more human (without going so far as something patronizing like “family time”), changing the name does very little to change the process of what happens.

Access take many shapes and forms depending on the particulars of each case, differing in how often, how long, where it happens, if its supervised by a social worker or not. Who attends access can also vary, it can be both parents together or only one parent, sometimes with wider family, sometimes just siblings and no parents. All these factors are dictated by the individual needs of each case.  Beyond this the local social work set up can influence it. Some areas are blessed with excellent facilities, others are not and this can mean seeing your child in a private house designed for access or seeing your child in a small pokey room with bad lighting and full of broken toys.

While I describe it above as an ordeal, it can have its positive moments. Young children playing, smiling, laughing and sharing that joy are a wonderful thing to see. An infant’s smile will melt the coldest of hearts. Watching positive interaction between parents and children, watching kids simply have fun is heart warming. Although it is rare, seeing parents improving in their interaction and parenting can make the job feel worthwhile (its just a pity its so rare).

However, these positives are temporary. Even the best access is ultimately bitter sweet, and the dark side is always there.

For an access to be good it has to happen, and happen on time. However, given the chaotic lifestyle of some parents that we deal with even getting to the access can be a challenge. Regularly kids will be stood up by parents and left waiting and wondering why. In cases like this no access can be less harmful than inconsistent access. The emotional upheaval caused by been ignored and abandoned by parents can be carried into the rest of the kids life, and any acting out behavior, unless properly understood and managed, can cause trouble in school, in placement or in other relationships. It can be just as bad when chaotic parents do show up, and show up drunk or stoned or picking fights with each other, or with the foster parents and social workers, or even with the child themselves. This is why some accesses end up supervised, cut back or even cancelled all together.

Few things cause as much confrontation as access, the frequency, the location, the supervision. When a case is at the height of tension in the courts, this tension spills out in the access room. Parents use access to undermine the foster carers or the residential unit, trying to keep the child theirs and loyal to their family. However this can confuse and upset children and ultimately undermine placements, putting a child at more risk. Yet, when this is pointed out and you ask parents to stop it can be the start of another argument and one more reason to hate the social workers. On more occasions than I have had hot dinners, I have spent an entire access reminding parents that this is their time with their kids and that they can discuss the case with me after the access. I have been screamed at for not letting drunk parents see their child when to do so would be traumatic for the child. I understand this anger though and the pain behind it, as I said at the start access is an ordeal for everyone. While getting threatened or assaulted by an angry parents can be bad, I have no doubt it is little compared to the pain of losing a child to the state.

Even the best access is somewhat artificial, being removed from the natural relationship sand interactions of children and parents. This is thrown into sharp relief when the access is supervised, imagine having a stranger sitting constantly in the corner of your living room as you try and play with your kids. One client told me she wanted to stop coming to access as she felt like a monkey in the zoo, being watched the whole time. While I understand her discomfort given her tendency to show up drunk or to upset the child there was no way it would be unsupervised! The most artificial part of it all is the temporary nature of it all, every access has to end. As the children leave and go to a different home, the reality of the situation slaps you, the child and the parents in the face. Yes, these children are in care for a reason, to protect their safety and welfare, but just because you do the right thing doesn’t make it easy or pain free.

This piece was born as I spent the run up to the holidays squeezing in the Christmas access for all my families, the last access before Christmas, when gifts are exchanged and a party is sometimes had. The Christmas spirit simply exaggerates everything, making the good better, the bad worse, and the sadness that normally drips from access even more poignant. Access can be an ordeal, but Christmas access is worse.

It’s not so much the access itself that gets me down, that is so torturous, or that had ideas spinning around my head, it’s what lies behind it, the deeper and more obscure issues that are given passing solidity in the access room.

The aim of social work services is too protect children and to promote their safety, welfare and well being. It is widely acknowledged that this is best done in the child’s own family and care is a last resort. But care still happens, you work with a family and you help the parents as best you can and sometimes that’s not enough. When a child comes into care they continue to be provided with as much supports and services as the budget will allow. But it can be a very different story for the parents, who are as traumatized and hurt and confused as the child by the process of care, but with none of the supports. Despite their faults and their failings, these parents are no less deserving of respect and dignity; many of them are themselves a product of the sort of trauma and neglect that they have created. Their pain at losing their children is very real. However, these are child protection and welfare services, and the services follow the child, and when the child leaves the home the support for the parents can leave too. We are child protection services and we are right to consider the child’s needs as paramount, but just because you do the right thing doesn’t make it pain free.

This in turn highlights two other fundamental issues in child protection, both of which deserve deeper exploration and constant reflection. These are nuggets of ultimate truth that float around in my head, never quite revealing themselves completely, so be warned I may get a bit wooly here.  Firstly, there are no good decisions in social work. There are clearly better decisions, or perhaps less bad decisions, but they always come with risks and a human cost, and they can leave scars that may never heal. It is often choosing what course of action will cause the least harm becuase none is without harm – choosing to seek to take a child into care or not is perhaps the most obvious. Secondly, we can’t fix people. We are not mechanical machines that can be repaired; we carry our emotional wounds with us for life. Sometimes we learn to live with them and thrive regardless, other times they drag us down and we recreate the chaos and hurt that caused them in the first place. The corollary of this truth is that prevention and early intervention are vital, yet when all we have are reactive services that are so drowned in referrals and so deprived of resources can you expect anything apart from fire fighting?

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