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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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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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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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In this book, we offer a framework as one ‘constant’ in terms of a frame for critical ART to:

  • recognise social work as a duality of support and protection that should be at the forefront, irrespective of the method or practice approach used;

  • emphasise the important temporality of life events and transitions;

  • commit to an ultimate goal of achieving health and wellbeing for individuals, families, groups and communities;

  • automatically consider intergenerational relations at individual, family, community and social levels in our interventions;

  • take an approach based on civic engagement and partnership, which assumes that whatever work is being done is carried out by co-citizens, each with a part to play in the process.

To bind together the learning from this book, and to identify ways forward, we begin this chapter with a commentary under the theme of ‘critical ART’. We then reflect back on the framework to provide signposts of how to develop our framework, and how social workers can be leaders in this regard. We end with final reflections and acknowledgements, setting out some signposts as to the direction for our own future learning.

We have put forward the idea of critical ART to bring together the core practices of analysis, reflection and thinking to make connections between your practice context and the knowledge that informs this. The following sections provide some final illustrative commentary. In sum, we have argued that critical analysis will allow a balanced appraisal, using a defined approach to collecting evidence to support this. It also helps to weigh up the potential and limits of different approaches in line with the aims and objectives of service delivery and support.

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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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An underpinning assumption in this book is that social work is necessarily a complex set of dualities. It seeks to regulate and liberate. It is perceived as a beacon of rights and justice and as a regulator and reinforcer of societal norms. It has moments of great achievements in the past, alongside ‘horrible histories’ (Ferguson et al, 2018). The dilemma of social work is that it is a socially constructed phenomenon that promotes itself as committed to progressive social change while it draws from conservative intellectual sources (Witkin, 2017). Social work operates within a context of neoliberalism that can turn potentially progressive notions such as empowerment into an individualised rather than a structural focus. Conversely, the movement towards greater emphasis on civic engagement, partnership with service users and democratisation of knowledge within current postmodern conditions has opened up greater scope for social work to critically engage at both individual and structural levels towards transformative practice.

In social work literature, questions are asked about whether social work is more about being ‘servants of a “sinking titanic” or actors of change?’ (Jönsson, 2019), and ‘is social work at war, and if so, who or what is the enemy?’ (Golightley and Holloway, 2020: 304). Alternatively, ‘is it about protest?’, as Shokane and Masoga (2019) ask in relation to social work in South Africa. The question of whether we are at the ‘end of social work’ has also been posed (Maylea, 2020). While these are important questions to ask, we are of the view that they give insufficient attention to the fact that balancing the duality of ‘care’ and ‘control’ in social work is the very nature of the strategy.

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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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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 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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