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The premise of this book is that ‘by engaging with both the oppressive and resistant histories of the social work profession, this book aims to contribute to a more nuanced and fulsome account of our profession’s history’. In this chapter, the role of Irish social work in relation to institutionalisation and mass incarceration is explored to contribute to this work. A history of the present perspective derived from the work of Michel Foucault scaffolds this work. Such an approach recognises continuities and discontinuities between past and present in terms of ‘dominant’ and ‘minority’ discourses. It implies a view of history as a fluid and nebulous phenomenon that looks and feels differently depending on the perspective from which we view it. A history of the present approach rejects revisionism, whereby we judge the past from the vantage of the present. It is an approach that facilitates the capturing of a complex and contradictory history that shows both positive and negative forces. Such an approach avoids defensivism, denial or blame and promotes critical constructive analysis of history which informs the present and the future. The chapter begins with a brief note on the history of institutions for women and children in Ireland, directing the reader to sources to explore this theme in further depth. This next section focuses on the ‘received history’ of child welfare in Ireland. This is followed by a commentary on the Final Report of the Commission of investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes (2021) for illustration.

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A Practical Approach for Social Workers

Crossing the traditional divide between social work with children and families and adults, this text applies a lifecourse perspective, within an ecological frame. Based on the principle that practice drives theory, a practical approach for social work is put forward using five interconnected themes:

• duality of support and protection

• life transitions and life events

• intergenerational relations

• civic partnership and engagement

• health and wellbeing

Designed for students and practitioners, this text takes an enquiry-based approach using Critical ART (analysis, reflection and thinking). The book features:

• case studies

• research examples

• tips for Critical ART in practice

• further reading and resources

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This chapter presents three proposed theoretical frameworks that can be usefully applied in working in the field of child sexual abuse (CSA). It argues that the functions of empathy, social support and socialisation, and ecological theories can offer a theoretical framework to deal with the challenges associated with CSA and offers improved guidance for practice. The chapter then outlines three possible practice examples that could emerge from such an approach. In the discussion, the chapter considers how these three theoretical considerations can come together to offer direction for improving how CSA is understood and responded to with an emphasis on improving outcomes for children who experience sexual abuse. The discussion also looks at how these theoretical approaches can promote a preventative approach that tackles social and cultural as well as individual factors that result in such harmful abuse of children that it often has life-long negative impacts.

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In this chapter, we outline our own assumptions about social work, with the

interrelated themes of:

  • defining social work;

  • social work values and ethics;

  • the role of history to inform present-day social work;

  • social work as a strategy focused on person-in-environment;

  • balancing care and control;

  • mediator in the social;

  • social work knowledge.

Following this, we comment on some of the global challenges of social work to acknowledge its complexity from the outset, and to contextualise the content that follows. The interrelated contemporary global challenges and opportunities for social work that we discuss are:

  • neoliberalism and managerialism;

  • personalisation and marketisation;

  • ‘cultural practices’;

  • the global pandemic;

  • power imbalances in social work knowledge.

Social work may be difficult to define succinctly, but it is not impossible, and students may struggle to explain what it is because it is so diverse. The International Federation of Social Workers’ (IFSW) definition, however, offers a useful starting point:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels. (IFSW, 2014)

We suggest that, while useful, this definition fails to capture the sociolegal dimension of social work, which we argue is one of its core identifying features. Sociolegal practice implies mediation between the individual and the policy and legal system in many fields of practice, including child protection, mental health, adult safeguarding, safeguarding and disability, medical social work, youth justice and probation.

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This chapter outlines our overarching framework for support and protection practice based on five interrelated themes. We begin with an overview of ecological perspective based on the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner and his colleagues, and follow with a commentary on lifecourse perspectives. While these are the two main theories that underpin the five-theme framework that follows, there are a number of other theories of relevance that we summarise in Figure 2.1 and address in detail throughout the book. These relate to power and power relations, protection and support, transitions, relational cultural theory, presence theory, ethics and empathy. In addition, there are theories we do not cover in this book that are important to ‘recap’ on, and we direct you towards these.

Following this, we summarise the five core themes of the framework:

  • duality of protection and support;

  • life transitions and life events;

  • intergenerational relations;

  • civic partnership and engagement;

  • health and wellbeing.

Figure 2.1 encapsulates the five themes and the various theories that we relate to these.

We developed our five-theme framework through the use of an ecological approach that recognises layers of influence from micro to macro, as developed in Bronfenbrenner’s original work (1979). We use in particular his later development of the bio-ecological approach (Bronfenbrenner and Ceci, 1994; Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998, 2006; see also Bronfenbrenner, 1988, 1995). Figure 2.2 is a snapshot of the scope and focus of how we use this model in this book. This is developed further later in this chapter, to incorporate the five themes. These figures should be viewed as work in progress, which we refer back to and develop throughout the book.

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Irrespective of where you are working or whom you are working with, awareness regarding your duty and responsibility for the protection of children and adults at risk of abuse, neglect or harm must be to the forefront. Abuse, harm and neglect can take many forms, including physical and emotional abuse and neglect, child sexual exploitation, online abuse, child trafficking and gender-based violence. They occur across the lifecourse as major events, usually with a negative impact on health and wellbeing. Safeguarding and protection is a response to harm that has occurred, or that is at risk of occurring. It often involves complex intergenerational relations, and it can be challenging to find ways to work in partnership because of the complex, emotive nature of the work, influenced by different power relations and structures.

Globally, responsibility for child protection is one of the most common areas of practice for social work. Increasingly so, too, is adult safeguarding, although developments in this area have been more varied (Braye et al, 2012; Manthorpe, 2014; Butler and Manthorpe, 2016; Donnelly, 2019). Safeguarding and protection relate to actual or risk of abuse and/or neglect of people in the home, the community, within institutions or due to the structural conditions of people’s lives (such as institutional abuse, neglect caused by socioeconomic conditions and/or discrimination against minority and marginalised groups).

While protection and safeguarding are some of the most common features of professional social work globally, most child and adult protection is not carried out by social workers or within designated child protection and safeguarding systems.

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The relationship between family support and child protection has been long established in child welfare (Parton, 1997), although right up to today there remains a perceived ‘tension’ in this relationship (see Devaney and McGregor, 2017) and a disconnection in the aims of protection and support. However, family and social support have always had, by nature, an emphasis on protection built in. As Dolan and Frost (2017: 383) conclude, practices that are ‘good’ for child protection are likewise ‘good for family support’. We assert the same can be said for adult protection. These practices include working in partnership, a strengths-based approach, offering services based on need, including basic poverty, using the community for support, relationship-based and reflective practice and upholding social justice and rights. Referring back to McGregor and Devaney (2020a, b), we emphasise the importance of an approach of ‘supportive protection and protective support’. While we focus here on elucidating in particular the theories and practices emerging from family support and social support discourses, the assumption of duality of support and protection underpins this commentary.

This chapter draws mostly from the proven track record and pioneering work of Pat Dolan and colleagues (see, for example, Canavan et al, 2016) and related publications about family and social support theories. It connects parenting and family support to underpinning social support theory, and demonstrates the relevance of family support as a broad overarching practice of support and protection with children, families and vulnerable adults. This includes a focus on lifecourse and life events, intergenerational relationships, civic engagement and participation and health and wellbeing as underpinning frameworks for social work.

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This chapter explores the importance of empathy and resilience as key underpinning functions for effective social work based on family and social support principles and practices. We explore how social support as a core practice emerges from empathetic responses from the social worker, manifested through a presence approach and real connectedness. This positive engagement, in turn, enables individuals, families and communities to achieve resilience, and is demonstrable as by their continued capacity to cope. As highlighted elsewhere in this book, the importance of contextual relationships of support and protection across the lifecourse, within the ecological model, is highlighted. Social support enlistment that builds resilience for individuals and families can then form a lynchpin for active empathy by social workers. We explore these approaches in practice contexts. Finally in this chapter, we look at a set of three social work practice tasks as illustrative, namely, working with people living with mental health issues, families in poverty and family support partnership and prevention approaches.

We should not presume that although integral to social work practice, empathy is always present and being demonstrated by the practitioner. As has been well documented, there are many situations where social workers are suffering personal trauma themselves; sometimes, although not always, it is work-related, which hampers their capacity to remain empathetic to those they work with and for. In such instances, while it may be that the social worker is more unable (for whatever reason) than unwilling, the impact is, of course, detrimental for the service user (Segal, 2011).

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Many of the challenges faced throughout a lifecourse happen at points of transition, such as from child to adulthood, into or out of care, adaptation following a loss, a break in attachment relationships, a move from home to elder care and loss of a partner. As Storø (2017) articulates, the concept of transition, as used in professional language, has become central in fields of research, such as studies of young people leaving care, but remains undeveloped theoretically. Storø (2017) provides an in-depth consideration of the meaning of transition, arguing that both diversity and common patterns are important. Even though it is focused on transition from care, Storø’s paper has much wider applicability (as noted in ‘Recommended resources’ at the end of this chapter). Meleis et al (2000), writing for the field of nursing, provide another useful and relevant theory of transition. Considered by Joly (2016: 1254), it is outlined that ‘properties of transitions include awareness, engagement, change and difference, time span and critical events’. Using this theory, Joly highlights how multiple transitions can occur at once, and that ‘the goal of transitions is to achieve a state of well-being, reformulated identity and mastery while avoiding vulnerability’ (Meleis et al, 2000, cited in Joly, 2016: 1254). Joly (2016) proposes a combination of transition theory and the bio-ecological model to inform transitions in nursing care.

For this chapter, we focus on support and protection in relation to transition across the lifecourse. The transition theory we apply is from Bridges (2002), which was developed within the field of change management.

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A lifecourse perspective that encourages us to view life as a series of journeys and transitions helps our critical understanding of the multiple factors that affect people’s lives from birth to death. It is a multidisciplinary concept, and historical and cultural factors are essential to bear in mind. Social work by its nature is a lifecourse discipline, and whatever area we work in, such as medical social work, family practice or probation, interventions take place with attention to the whole lifecourse of the person as well as their intergenerational relations. Disruption to or within a person’s lifecourse is one of the most common reasons people seek and use social work services so this theme already has relevance when considering protection, safeguarding, family support, social support and transitions.

In this chapter, we advance the discussion further, focusing more closely on disruption. Disruption in a person’s lifecourse may be ongoing and reoccurring, such as persistent neglect of a child within a family, enduring mental ill health or a need for lifelong disability support. Disruption can also occur at specific moments, such as the impact of loss through death or separation. Sometimes it is a whole systems change that causes disruption, such as, for example, the transition from communism and the re-establishment of social work in Eastern Europe in the late 20th century (Schilde and Schulte, 2005; Hering and Waaldijk, 2006), or the disruption caused by sectarian conflict, as in Northern Ireland (Duffy et al, 2020). Much of social work is focused on mediating at times when there is a disruption to people’s development and lives.

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