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Essay: Critically evaluate and explore experiences of a student social work final placement

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  • Critically evaluate and explore experiences of a student social work final placement
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This assignment will critically evaluate and explore experiences of a student social work final placement. It will offer a brief synopsis of a case study, referring to identified risk factors, both dynamic and static, followed by a discussion of the risk assessment tools and intervention models used. The complexities of practice and the significance of supervision will be explored, as well as how the Student Social Worker (SSW) managed risk by using underpinning models, theories, and legal frameworks during the intervention process.

The risk assessment was carried out within a Looked After Children team of a Local Authority (LA). The young person is referred to as ‘Lyndsey’ to maintain confidentiality. Lyndsey is 17 years old, and came into care under the categories of neglect, parental domestic abuse of a physical and emotional nature, substance misuse, and mental health concerns. Lyndsey has been in care since the age of ten and had changed foster carers due to disruptive behaviour and mental health concerns. Lyndsey has a history of sexual abuse, drug misuse, and non-engagement with professionals. She is currently not in education or employment.

Prior to the SSW’s involvement, a lot of intervention had taken place to safeguard Lyndsey and promote her welfare. The SSW aimed to support Lyndsey with placement stability and to manage identified risks with the aid of the organisation tools including Framework for Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (FACNF), strengths and difficulties questionnaire, and drug and alcohol screening tools, to provide an analysis to understand Lyndsey’s developmental progress, capabilities, and obstacles and the foster carers’ ability to meet Lyndsey’s needs and to safeguard her from harm. It was possible to deliver desirable outcomes for Lyndsey and establish actions needed to protect her from the risk of significant harm.

A robust history of the case was accomplished via Lyndsey’s profile, information collected from other agencies, biological parents/foster carers, Looked After Child visits, and direct works, helped the SSW to construct a comprehensive, knowledge-based and evidence-based assessment of Lyndsey. The possibility of harm was appraised within FACNF domains that encourage the decision-making process to be grounded in evidence, rather than assumption (Cheminais, 2014).

The risk and resilience tool within the framework enables SSW to assimilate resilience into planning work and assessment. It enabled the SSW to consider both Lyndsey’s internal resilience factors, including family, and her external factors, such as peers/friends and school/community, and to plan intervention by exploring the context of her adverse experiences (Hood, 2018). Cleaver (2012) asserts that this process supports the management of risk, and helps consider interventions needed to lessen the threat to the Looked After Child, whilst increasing their protective factors and resilience. Although management of risk cannot eliminate it entirely, it may, however, reduce the likelihood of harm.

As part of the safeguarding process and to ensure safety, the SSW interviewed the foster carers to gather information about their suitability regarding the issues that were highlighted during the assessment. Various issues emerged including risk and strength. These issues indicated that the foster carers’ interactions might have put Lyndsey at further risk. According to Stalker (2003), risk is pervasive in social work practice. He also mentions that risk-taking is persistently presented as acts of common sense. Kellick (2011) argues that the concept of risk in practice is ambiguous and slippery, and this makes it difficult to define. In terms of risk assessment, Titterton (2005) suggests this is the gathering of information on any potential elements of risk, which include exposure, harm, and consequence. A risk assessment can also be referred to as a systematic gathering of information used to recognise the complexity of potential risks. It is designed to identify the probability of future incidences, and in this way, can help foresee an escalation of a service user’s behaviour, or else their enthusiasm for change (Carson and Bain, 2008).

The importance of acknowledging risk in social work is not restricted to Serious Case Reviews and academic research. Risk can significantly affect an individual’s life. This is frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, media, and culture (Fraser et al., 1999). Every day, a hazard is reported as having occurred or been closely avoided, alongside the offering of preventative measures to further protect oneself or to promote well-being (Hall, 2014). This is particularly the case for situations involving vulnerable adults and children. The position and profile of risk in everyday life is documented as both dynamic and static, which enforces an everyday risk awareness (Craig et al, 2008).
Dynamic risk factors are elements of risk that are open to change over a period of time. These risk factors are usually outside an individual’s control (Craig et al, 2008). In contrast, static risk factors are unalterable features or characteristics that are measured as being reliable pointers to risk (Allan and Fisher, 2011). Static risk factors are useful for appraising long-term risks that will not change over time (Hood, 2018). To link theory to practice, by using Lyndsey’s case, numerous dynamic factors were identified in Lyndsey’s assessment, which include Lyndsey not being in education or employment and instead being fully dependent on her weekly allowances from the LA and Lyndsey’s lack of engagement with professionals or services like the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

Another dynamic factor, identified by SSW, was the foster carer’s use of language. SSW asked the foster carers to instead of being solution focused on discussions with Lyndsey, to consider Lyndsey’s strengths when conversing. SSW picked up on other dynamic risks also, and challenged the foster carers about these. They commented on bandages going missing from the first aid kit, bearing in mind Lyndsey’s history of self-harm. While collecting information for the assessment process, SSW found a dildo in Lyndsey’s bedroom, which could suggest that Lyndsey was actively engaged in sexual activities, and this raised further concerns owing to her history of sexual abuse. Lee (2006) posits that some aspects of dynamic risk factors are more substantial than others, and that the concluding part of a risk assessment can be the most ambiguous for differentiating these.

Pycroft and Bartolla (2014) suggest risk factors that may increase a young person’s vulnerability include mental health issues, meeting strangers and learning disabilities. However, this cannot be generalised, and Lee (2006) has discussed a range of factors that might increase a risk of exploitation including family conflict, childhood abuse, inadequate parental role models, and drug and alcohol misuse. Some of these factors could be likened to Lyndsey’s static risk factors, including her sexual orientation, age, family, and health records. There is a diversity of risk factors noticeable in this case (Hood, 2018).

These risk factors were discovered through a holistic analysis presented in a previous stage of the assessment. Matters of additional relevance were discussed and shared during supervision meeting. With these findings in mind, it was recommended that the foster carers partake in additional training to enhance their understanding and knowledge about the emotional health and welfare of children in care. In this light, Green (2007), concludes that social workers should focus on giving precedence to safekeeping, and this will minimise risk and enhance protection and help recognise situations that may require immediate attention.

Complexity theory (CT) was utilised, and this explored the complexities of issues related to the LA, Lyndsey, and her foster placement (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014). CT infers that the individual’s world is a complex system where each element encompasses its own complexities. Regarding Lyndsey’s experience through CT, it is important to recognise that Lyndsey has been diagnosed with Anxiety & Panic Disorders, her parents are not working, and both parents are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse and Addiction. These factors may contribute to the complexity of the family system; however, these could be non-linear (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014). CT maintains that a system is not simple, therefore it is important for members to be adaptive to change (Whalen, 2017). This suggests that if Lyndsey can embrace changes in her situation or experiences, it will be to her own advantage (Byrne, 2002).

It is crucial that Lyndsey accepts the support network available, including support from the LA and other agencies, as according to CT this will minimise any risks of harm and will promote her wellbeing. However, CT argues that changes within Lyndsey’s family system have left Lyndsey vulnerable to risk (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014) and similarly, the LA as a complex system to adapt to change, is necessary but unpredictable, and the results of the situation can be unknown (Killick, 2011). Change within practice also plays an important part. SSW and other practitioners’ involvements, have brought changes into action that safeguard Lyndsey’s welfare; these include encouraging her to access support from CAMHS. Another example was when Lyndsey left college due to her low attendance, and this, in turn, changed the level of support needed. It became the responsibility of the LA to carry out assessments exploring further possibilities of Lyndsey accessing college or employment, all in accordance with Lyndsey’s wishes (Brammer, 2009).
Professional collaborative work is imperative; it will encourage the identifying of an over-arching aim and result in collective decision-making for both simple and complex systems to ensure service users’ wellbeing. One of the challenges of collaborative work, from a professional perspective, is the power dynamics that exist when several members of a team are involved. Stalker (2015), suggests that members should be keen to suspend any prior beliefs that any individual is superior to another. Trevithick (2003), acknowledges the expertise, skills, and knowledge of everyone’s independent profession; however, sees that they are interrelated with one other to make up a superior whole.
It is interesting to consider these ideas in the example of when CAMHS practitioner undermined a collective decision/recommendation made between professionals, due to the outcome of the risk assessment. It could be argued that this was because it was the SSW who presented the decision to CAMHS, therefore, the CAMHS practitioner might view the SSW as incompetent. This example reinforces Houston’s (2014) suggestion that change should occur at an organisational level (meso-level), so that the practices of the numerous members within social care may reflect the ideas and principles which are being taught.
Munro (2012) is an advocate for collaborative work, and suggests that risk assessment can be improved by implementing the various assessment tools of a variety of disciplines. For instance (Hood, 2018) draw on an appraisal of social work that tends to emphasis the risk of harm along with other factors including static or dynamic factors. Whereas the risk analysis of another model considers any benefits or positive factors which may result from risk taking (Strous, 2014). With consideration of previously mentioned arguments, Daisy (2012) concluded that they supported risk-taking in social work. Daisy (2012) believes there is no means to a damage free case or method to eliminate all possibility of harm to individuals. From this perspective, it is imperative that professionals have a thorough understanding of risk management, and can draw on theories and research to enable their decision-making (Strous, 2014).
Attachment theory was used to increase an understanding of, as well as to manage, the risk of professional avoidance. Attachment theory posits that when an individual’s caregiver is emotionally unresponsive, the individual is likely to develop an insecure attachment and a negative internal model of others and self (Cleaver, 2012). This may result in attachment avoidance, and anxiety around issues like abandonment, hyper-activation, negative feelings and views of self, inter-personal rejection, and fear of intimacy (Broude, 1994). Attachment theory was used to understand Lyndsey’s present emotional and psychological functioning, and why she appears to be a secure and autonomous individual with positive connections to people around her (Milner and Myers, 2007). It was apparent from the assessment that Lyndsey had experienced much adversity.
Despite this, she managed her mental health issues enough to complete secondary school. However, she did struggles with her emotions. Wie et al (2005) assert that attachment avoidance may still lessen an individual’s depression, shame, and loneliness, if their emotional needs for competence, connection and autonomy are elsewhere met. Therefore, robust attachment from the foster carer plays a significant role in the intervention process. The foster carer has a responsibility to respond to Lyndsey at her emotional-age instead of her chronological stage (Broude, 1994). The outcome of the assessment suggests that the foster carer did not have the capacity to tolerate Lyndsey’s difficult behaviour and remain responsive and sensitive towards her needs. A recommendation was for the foster care to attend training on a regular basis to attain a capacity to be reflective and supportive towards Lyndsey, instead of being reactive towards her behaviour. The child-centred approach was promoted to ensure Lyndsey was receiving sufficient appropriate care (Milner and Myers, 2007).
A positive approach to risk & personalisation (PARP) was also utilised. This is child-focused and a strength-based approach (Sanderson and Lewis, 2012). PARP advises to mitigate the negativity of risk, and to during the assessment process focus instead on the device for change (Titterton, 2005). This is important because focusing on the negativities of risk can cause an individual’s strengths, competencies, capabilities, and coping abilities to go unnoticed (Kemshall and Wilkinson, 2011).
An emphasis on Lyndsey’s capability within practice enabled her to feel empowered, and this allowed her to embrace support offered (Titterton, 2005). Critics argue that PARP can be risky in the face of complex circumstances. They argue that a significant harm posed for children cannot be downplayed (Gardner, 2014). Daisy (2012) suggest that practitioners must approach risk in these contexts with confidence, and in Lyndsey’s case, this would have ensured that Lyndsey had the capacity to change and potential harm would have been minimised.
Participation is observed as indistinguishable from engagement, which is defined as, the functionalisation of corporation and empowerment (Darlington et al., 2010). Social workers are expected to promote participation in practice to lessen power imbalances and to help service users to develop self-consciousness, self-confidence, and competency (Connolly, 2006). Lyndsey’s resistance to co-operate can be regarded as owing to her resistance to alteration and the fear that she may lose something valued through the change (Hood, 2018). The LA are understood to be considerable influencers due to their socio-political and historical context, which supports Roose et al’s (2013) standing that it is the power imbalance between service users and institutions which drives service users to perceive practitioners as either supportive or controlling. Therefore, SSW was judicious and mindful during the assessment process to encourage Lyndsey and the foster carer to contribute in the decision-making process (BASW, 2013).
Models that promote participation, would dictate that social workers respect Lyndsey’s expertise, encourage appropriate self-disclosure, support an open appearance of emotions, foster an articulation of limits, and are non-judgemental (Connolly, 2006). This is unlike investigatory methods which assert a coercive power. Instead, risk assessment requires the supportive assessment of a professional’s openness, fairness, and respect toward service users. This can avoid the negotiation of the necessary societal control element of the professional’s role (Hardy and Darlington, 2008).
In the context of Lyndsey’s case, the SSW adopted a strength-based assessment of Lyndsey and the foster placement. This was developed through empathy, honesty, compassion, reliability, unconditional positive, understanding, responsiveness, and a focus on Lyndsey’s and the foster carer’s capabilities (Roose et al, 2013). This was also developed using a prior understanding of Lyndsey’s experiences, to make a positive change. This, as a result, encouraged and empowered Lyndsey to agree to CAMHS appointments, Sexual Health Clinic appointments, drug, and alcohol support, and to re-engage in education (Connolly, 2006).
Regular supervision and meetings with other professionals played a significant role in achieving the agreed recommendations. The recommendations weighed up the risks of harm to establish the best development of actions (Ewiik, 2017). This decision was enhanced by the implementation of a task-centred approach, which asked them to work together on specific, measurable, and achievable goals. In this way, it was possible to recognise unrealistic and realistic goals for Lyndsey to enhance her welfare and placement (Howe and Gray, 2012).
Complexities identified during supervision were discussed, and foster carers and parents were involved in the decision-making process. Through these actions, and the sharing of any overall concerns, a partnership, and transparency in addressing complexities was promoted (Hood, 2018). However, non-cooperation from Lyndsey, her foster carer, and her parents could have unknown factors in the succession of any decisions made. Therefore, the method of care could have been stricter. To consider the place of personal and professional values, it seemed to be necessary that practitioners were mindful that working deferentially with individuals in practice is a significant factor in addressing any complexities (DoH, 2000).
Taking into account the legal framework within risk assessment procedures is vital, and instructs and informs the assessment process (Davies and Ward, 2012). The Working Together to Safeguard Children agenda was set out to promote collaborative work between individuals and organisations to promote and protect children’s’ welfare in line with the Children Act 1989 and 2004 (Cleaver, 2012). This policy set out legal directions on the main responsibilities and legislation of agencies and professionals to safeguard children (HM Government, 2010). Inadequate assessment, and lack of action against safeguarding concerns, led to serious case reviews, and raised investigations into let-downs in child protection. This caused national anxiety, public discussion, and much media comment, and led to social work being under great pressure (Laming, 2009). The implementation of these legislations and the progress of assessment within children services, has increased discussion amongst leaders of social work practice with regard to risks and risk management (Teater, 2014).
Assessment has always been a central tool in social work practice for safeguarding children’s and families’ services (Hood, 2018). Assessment is a continuous process in social work practice, especially when addressing the discourse of complexity in cases of children and family. Under the Children Act 1989, the LA and other agencies are to safeguard, provide, and promote children’s welfare (Doucet, et al, 2001). Therefore, the support provided by the LA and other agencies to Lyndsey was a duty stipulated within the statutory law to avert the further risk of significant harm (HM,Government, 2012).
Another legislation used to enhance practice experience was the Every Child Matters agenda (Barker, 2009). This meant that Lyndsey’s support had to cover the five outcomes of this agenda, including being healthy, enjoying and achieving, staying safe, maintaining economic wellbeing, and making a positive contribution (Gov.uk, 2018). Building good relationships with other practitioners to explore and recognise risks together, enabled practitioners to gather an in-depth understanding of the case and any additional information for the assessment process (Barker, 2009). This ensured appropriate decisions were implemented. This influenced the Children Act 2004 which voiced significance to the communication among professionals to make informed decisions, and to prevent any further Serious Case Reviews regarding children’s death (Cheminais, 2014).
In summary, the risk assessment process maintains good ethics, considers diversity, and carries out values as stipulated in Professional Capabilities Framework domains, British Association of Social Workers, Health Care and Professional Capabilities and Knowledge and skills statements. The assessment of Lyndsey demonstrated collaborative work, and just and fair decision-making processes based on evidence and information gathered by professionals, families, and friends (PCF1-4,5-8; KSS 1,2,5-7,10). The assessment process also promoted analysis, planning, and decision-making processes (PCF7;KSS7), with an effective direct work plan (KSS,5). The acknowledgment of framework, policy, and legislation suggests that SSW was mindful of the process required to maintain and promote the welfare of Lyndsey and the other significant figures in her life (PCF,4,5,6,7;KSS7,8). SSW explored theories, models, carried out supervision to support the decision-making process, and encouraged the development of knowledge and reflective practice, all to find ways to implement interventions (PCF4,5-8; KSS,1,5,7,9,10). Overall, the ability to implement a holistic method in the assessment process suggest SSW’s readiness to extend her practical-knowledge, as well as evidence-based and competent-based knowledge of complexities and risk, into their future practice in social work (PCF1,5,6,7;KSS1,5,6,7,8,9).

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