Journal Article

The Social Work Assessment of Parenting: An Exploration

Johanna Woodcock

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 33, issue 1, pages 87-106
Published in print January 2003 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online January 2003 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
The Social Work Assessment of Parenting: An Exploration

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The significance of parenting in the conduct of child‐care practice is apparent in a range of legal and policy documents emanating from the government. This has been further emphasized in recent years in the refocusing debate emphasizing issues of need and support. While research in childcare has inevitably involved parenting (for example in relation to child protection), and as the broad concentration has progressed through issues of child protection and family support, this has not generally incorporated the social workers' construction of parenting, and the ways this is incorporated into, and informs, their practice actions. This is particularly interesting because this focus enables an examination of this construction in the light of broad themes about parenting in the psychological literature. This relates also, therefore, to the debate on (and use of) an Evidence Base for practice. This paper seeks to explore social workers' construction of parenting, and the way this ‘feeds into’ social workers' practice actions. The paper found that, while some of the constructions reflected themes in the psychological literature, social workers were rarely informed by overt reference to knowledge gained from this literature. The concept of a ‘surface static notion of parenting’—one which restricted the social workers' capacity to respond positively to the needs of parents underlying their parenting—was developed as a way of understanding social work constructions and practice actions in relation to parenting. While this is one study, the ‘surface static notion of parenting’ represents a means for understanding one way in which social workers' constructions impinge on their practice with parents. The implications of this approach are explored. It is practically axiomatic that the assessment of parenting is a major component of child care practice. This assessment is a key element in the Framework for Assessing Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 1999a), which, alongside the revised Working Together to Safeguard Children sets out to provide the new ‘refocused’ emphasis on looking at the needs of vulnerable children and families in order to promote their well‐being and ensure that ‘optimal outcomes will occur’ (Department of Health, 1999b). This, in turn, reflected the earlier ‘Messages From Research’ document (Department of Health, 1995). Underlying these developments is the philosophy of The Children Act, 1989, that ‘the best place for the child to be brought up is usually in his own family’ (Department of Health, 1991a). A concern to assess and promote the upbringing of children by their families is apparent in the Family Support provisions of the Act (section 17) whereby intervention should enhance ‘the parents' capabilities and confidence so that they may provide effectively for the child's welfare’ (Department of Health, 1991:11). Social workers are also directed to consider parenting in the light of whether it is ‘abusive’ (s47, The Children Act 1989). The issue of significant harm emerges, and compulsory intervention may occur, where they have considered that harm is attributable to the care being given ‘not being what it would be reasonable to expect’ a parent to provide (s31(2), The Children Act 1989). This is about ‘good enough’ or ‘reasonable’ parenting. The assessment of parenting, therefore, has a central legal position in childcare practice. Research studies of social work practice in child and family care have inevitably involved parenting, but could be classified as occupying two broad streams: issues of child protection and secondly, concerns for family support. However, as evidenced from the following illustration of these broad streams, a significant omission is made—that of the social workers' construction of parenting and the ways that this construction is incorporated into and informs practice action. This paper draws on a qualitative study of social workers' conceptualisation of parenting, and seeks to make observations of the relationship of this construction with the conduct of practice in the area of assessing parenting. A particular focus is given to how far and in what ways social workers base their assessments on key themes from the psychological parenting literature.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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