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Multi-agency meetings in child protection in England are attended by professionals from different disciplines and by family members, typically parents and other close relatives. Initial child protection conferences (ICPCs), the focus of this chapter, take place early in the child protection process, when serious concerns about the welfare of children have been identified. The meetings consider the gravity of the concerns and make decisions about what needs to be done. ICPCs are enshrined in policy guidance (DfE, 2018) and have an explicit institutional function, providing a record of accountable multi-agency practice. Potentially they provide a forum for the co-creation of knowledge about the children’s circumstances, taking into account the perspectives of different professionals and family members to inform the decision making. This chapter is principally concerned with the role of the chair, and the relationship between chairs’ interactional behaviour and service user participation.

Involving families in child protection processes is more than a policy principle. There is a consensus that removing children from their parents is a last resort, and the child protection system aims to work with families to improve the situation of children so that they can stay at home and thrive. It appears, then, that an implicit function, or possible outcome, of the ICPC is to build a working relationship between professionals and service users. Do chairs accomplish this, and if so, how? This chapter uses the concepts of ‘relational agency’ (Edwards, 2011) and ‘epistemic justice’ (Fricker, 2007) to make sense of how chairs include family testimony and co-create an understanding of family circumstances.

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Analysing Meetings in Social Welfare

This book brings together contributions from a range of social welfare settings, including child welfare, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse treatment, to examine how interprofessional collaboration and service user participation are realised or challenged in multi-agency meetings.

It provides empirically grounded analyses of specific aspects of multi-agency work and offers a distinctive conceptual framework for understanding and analysing interaction during meetings in various social welfare settings.

Based on audio and video recordings, the authors provide clear examples of actual practices of social welfare professionals and demonstrate how the realisation of collaborative and integrated welfare policy is contingent on effective interactional practices between professionals and service users.

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I walked into the room, and I was nervous as it was, because obviously you’re going into something that is like judge and jury on you. And you walk in and you look at the people and I thought to myself, I’ve got to sit here in front of all these people being judged and … Well, everyone introduced themselves, like they do, they all go round the table. You don’t take it all in, because there’s so many people, all going, ‘Hello my name is so and so’. You have to acknowledge them, but you don’t take it in … (Packman and Hall, 1998, p 222)

These words, from a parent talking about participating in an initial child protection conference, encapsulate the tension at play when service users participate in multi-agency meetings in social welfare. The number of participants alone can make the meetings hard to ‘take in’, and differences in status confer predetermined roles of judging and being judged before the meetings even begin. At the same time, however, multi-agency meetings constitute an opportunity for shared discussions that may increase both cooperation and understanding between different professionals and service users. It is this opportunity that has made meetings where professionals from different disciplines and service users are co-present become commonplace in health and social welfare in Western welfare states. This has happened as part of a larger development, where collaborative and integrated welfare is promoted as a solution to the perceived ineffectiveness of health and social services that are professional-led and dispersed (Kitto et al, 2011).

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This book has examined how policy trends that promote interprofessional collaboration and service user participation are implemented (or not) through frontline practices in multi-agency meetings. The challenges faced by service users are seen as complex and interconnected, demanding many kinds of expertise for them to be understood, assessed and resolved. As a result, collaboration and participation together have become the prevailing approach in health and social care policy in Western welfare states. Bringing together diverse viewpoints of professionals and service users is also thought to create boundary spaces that, at their best, produce joined-up thinking and constructive debate, resulting in novel ideas. Chapter 1 has provided a more thorough introduction to the trend and its ‘selling points’. In the literature, concepts such as ‘relational turn’, ‘relational agency’ and ‘responsive process’ have emerged in an effort to understand collaborative and integrated welfare and its potential for generating new common knowledge (Edwards, 2011). In this literature too, collaboration and participation are perceived as positive and desirable ideals. However, a number of concerns about the policy approach have also arisen and been presented in the literature. As outlined in Chapter 1, instead of equal collaboration, the policy may lead to:

  • loss of specialised expertise by professionals and service users;

  • a blurring of professional responsibilities;

  • increased responsibility being placed on service users to participate;

  • asymmetrical power relations between participants;

  • comprehensive surveillance of service users’ lives.

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At the time of completing this book (June 2020), most of the world is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, with various regimes of lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, isolation and closure. The multi-agency meetings we have studied in this book are likely to have taken on new forms as the world – and health and social care – come to terms with this new reality. We quoted Hughes et al (2011, p 136) in Chapter 2, that the practice of meetings that are ‘face-to-face … in close proximity’ would not comply with current social distancing requirements. Yet most of these meetings are essential for the everyday work of social welfare professionals and are consequential for the lives of service users.

We do not know what multi-agency meetings look like at the moment. There seems to be a variety of responses between different countries and settings. It is likely that most of the meetings we observed have been postponed, scaled back or are taking place virtually, although there are some reports of plans to organise meetings with social distancing restrictions (Turner, 2020b). For example, we understand that the rehabilitation meetings described in Chapter 3 were postponed but are restarting with social distancing. Child welfare meetings (examined in Chapters 4 and 8) are taking place using virtual meeting or teleconference applications, according to official local authority websites in the UK. These websites provide little detail of how virtual meetings currently are being organised.

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