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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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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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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 focus further on activating our framework specifically with exo and macro levels of the ecological context. With regard to wider engagement with the exo and macro levels, we begin with a discussion about our well-established and advanced practices in the fields of community work, community development and social development from which we can draw. We then consider some of the opportunities and challenges to developing expertise in sociolegal practice within the areas of mental health and criminal justice practices (by way of illustration) as a means of mediation and interaction with exo- and macro-level concerns. We then recap on the ecological approach, and propose networking as a particularly useful approach to help move from more general to specific interactions across exo and macro systems. The overall intention of this chapter is to expand and enhance the capacity for social work to operate effectively in interactions across the ecological system levels.

Community and social development, community work and community education are core strands of social work alongside individual and group work approaches. We use the term ‘community and social development’ here, although note the important critical differences between community work, education and development and their complexity. Larsen et al (2013) provide a thought-provoking discussion on community work and participation specifically, and how this has developed historically. They remind us that community work and community organisation is an age-old practice across many societies, which social work and related professions became involved with from the mid to late 19th century onwards.

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