Our work across a range of projects has reminded us just how important relationships are in children and families services. This may seem obvious. Ask any children's social worker and surely they will say that establishing empathic relationships with families in important. Yet, a recurring theme in our evaluations has been parents telling us how rarely they have felt valued and respected by workers.
Sara led four evaluations of projects funded under the Department of Education's Innovations Programme. These all focussed on child sexual exploitation and, although different in their approaches, a common aim was to sustain or rebuild young people's relationships with their parents or carers. In their attempts to do this, workers in all the projects found ways of building trusting relationships with both young people and parents. We were struck by how often parents contrasted this with their previous experience of services.
As one parent told us:
"No one has have ever listened to me in my whole life".
We had a similar experience when evaluating Barnardo's ReachOut project in Rotherham. What people valued most about the project was the honest and respectful approach of workers who were willing to challenge when they needed to, but essentially supported parents and children in their relationships with each other:
"Working with X has helped us communicate where we just used to argue. Now if we have a row we know how to handle it... It's changed the way we see each other, we have become friends". Parent
We encountered the central importance of relationships again whilst interviewing parents and children affected by substance misuse as part of our evaluation of MPact plus. Here, we were struck by the powerful influence of support from other families in a similar situation as part of a group work programme. The content of the programme was greatly appreciated - but it was the peer support that was described as life-changing.
Our review of research for the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse on the best ways of supporting parents when their child has been sexually exploited, highlighted the importance of strengths-based working, peer support and partnership with parents. So why don’t these things happen as much as they should?