This study sets out to explore the way that child care social workers make decisions
about interventions in families, and in particular about the ways that they apply the
concepts of parental responsibility, of working together with parents, and of social work
duties. It begins with a discussion of current arguments in this field, recent legislation,
government guidance and reports, and then moves on to look at some other research
studies in the field. It considers that there is a dearth of studies which examine how
social workers themselves make sense of their work in this area.
The study is conducted by means of loosely structured interviews with 40 local authority
workers, at the point where they are having to recommend a course of action to
children's hearings and to child protection case conferences. It uses an inductive type of
analysis in an attempt to understand the workers' own contextual reasoning, but which at
the same time makes possible the construction of a typology of the way the concept of
responsibility is applied, and the ways that they work with parents and make use of
These workers define their social work problems in terms of layers of contexts. They
almost invariably explain both the condition and the behaviour of children in the context
of the attitude and behaviour of their parents towards them. In doing so they transcend
the grounds of referral and the conventional case type categories. In the same way, they
try to place the behaviour of parents in the context both oftheir personal limitations and
of their life experiences. Despite this the social workers reveal strong value positions,
particularly about the overriding importance of emotional care, that parents are
responsible for their behaviour towards their children, and that the explanatory context,
though it may constrain their actions, does not absolve them of responsibility for them.
The type of intervention they plan is explained by the way that they have defined the
problem. They are less likely to work in a supportive or consensual way with parents
whose behaviour is seen as part of a pattern or habit of life rather than to be explained by
their emotional condition or overwhelming life experiences. The latter are conceived as
victims as well as the child. They are also less likely to do so with those who don't share
their moral and cognitive understanding of the problem, or show commitment to dealing
with it, or with those who show persistent hostility and condemnation towards their
children, or where the child's condition is regarded as severe. Severity is a dimension of
poor emotional care as well as physical.
Perhaps as a reflection ofthe sampling point chosen for the research most ofthese
workers propose some form of statutory measure, although it is not always clear how
this relates to their definition of the problem or to their type of intervention. Their
purposes vary, but discussion oftheir reasons reveals the difficulty many of them have
reconciling their paramount duty to the child with working collaboratively with parents.
The study concludes with a discussion about the findings, and what they have to say
about the practice of child care social work in this field.