Reflective Practice in Social Work
Reflection is central to good social work practice, but only if enhanced action result from that reflection (Williams, 2006: xi)
The underlying principles for this assignment are to critically evaluate my professional development in a practice placement setting and record reflections for future learning. Within this essay, I will include my reflections on the social work process of assessment, planning, intervention and review, and will critically analyse what I feel was successful and unsuccessful in each process, with efforts to identify what could be changed to enhance future practice. I will also include my knowledge, skills and values incorporated into my practice with two service users and my group work, while explaining my efforts to promote anti-oppressive practice. Throughout my assignment I will endeavour to portray my learning journey from the beginning to the end of my placement and conclude with future learning needs, to enhance my practice as a social worker.
The practice placement I acquired was a Court Childrens Officer (CCO), based at the Belfast Family Proceedings Court. It forms part of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. My role as a CCO, formerly known as a Child Welfare Officer, was to use my training and experience to ascertain the wishes and feelings of children and their families in private law matters. The role falls within family and child care services and determines that the childs interests remain paramount in court proceedings. As a CCO my role was to deal with cases where assistance was needed to help parties focus on the needs of their children, as opposed to continuing the incriminations as to who was responsible for the breakdown of their relationship. As a CCO I was then asked to present the information to court in oral or written report format. The CCO is used if other efforts to get the parties to reach a decision in the interests of their children have failed. This is to prevent the court process itself contributing to a lengthy breach in contact before it reaches a decision. As a CCO I was also responsible to act as liaison officer between the court and HSS Trusts, or other agencies (e.g. NSPCC etc) in respect of the courts decisions. Although employed by the Trust, I was responsible to the court.
Before commencement of this placement I had limited understanding of the court process, and the legislation involved in private law cases. I was excited about the prospect of the experience I would gain having undertaken law and court modules, and attended court for certain flexible learning days, but I was also anxious about identifying the social work role within such a specific placement. I feel nervous and uncomfortable. Im finding the role intimidating being surrounded by legal professionals and legislation (being just a student). Im worried about having to provide oral and written evidence to the court, and perhaps having to disagree with the legal representatives views in court. I feel deskilled and anxious (PPDW: 21/01/10). After this initial anxious stage I began researching private law and knowledge, and used my practice teacher and on site supervisor to ask questions.
Having completed a practice placement last year I already knew of the benefits of using reflection as a crucial aspect of my practice and learning. Thompson (2005) explains that it is important that practitioners use not only established theories, but use their own knowledge and experience to meet the needs of service users. He claims that reflective practice should help us to acknowledge the important links between theory and practice and to appreciate the dangers of treating the two elements as if they were separate domains (Thompson, 2005: 147).
I was anxious to identify the social work process within my placement, as it was not evident on commencement. I was already familiar with the process of assessing, planning, intervention and review having had a previous placement with adults with learning disabilities. Within a court, however, this was very different, as a direction of the court determined my involvement with service users. Schn (1987) identifies that more than a process is needed with service users practitioners need to incorporate experience, skills and intuition for outcomes to be successful. The knowledge and skills that I identified, within my Individual learning plan, were skills in working with children, assertiveness skills, report writing and presenting skills, organisational skills, and group facilitation skills. I also wanted to enhance my value base as my previous placement helped me challenge issues around learning disabilities and the current placement is a very different setting. I wanted to develop my values around childrens feelings about parental separation, and also working in partnership with children to ascertain their wishes and feelings about contact issues.
I have outlined below the three cases I intend to use that will help identify my professional development within my placement setting. I will use these to provide an analysis of how my knowledge, skills and values have been developed through the social work process.
Family C: Polish origin
Child C (Age 7) currently resides with her father. The parental relationship lasted for seven years. Mother (Ms C) moved out of the family home to gain alternative accommodation when the relationship broke down. Ms C and the childs contact have been very sporadic since. Contact has not taken place since December 2009. Mr C is concerned with Ms Cs new accommodation being unsuitable for the childs safety staying overnight claiming alcohol misuse and the child coming home smelling of smoke. Ms C requires an interpreter and is seeking a Contact Order.
As directed by the court I carried out an assessment of Ms Cs home, and also used mediation and counselling when meeting with the parties to focus on the childs best interests. The childs wishes and feelings were also ascertained.
Child E (14) currently resides with his father (Mr E). Mother (Ms E) is seeking a Residence Order. Father currently resides with the child in a family hostel provided by the Belfast Housing Executive, which Ms E is concerned about. Court direction stipulated me to ascertain the childs wishes and feelings about residence with his father and contact with his mother. In addition to this I used mediation as an intervention to try to help the parties reach agreement about the child. I concluded my work with the family using a Person Centred Review with Child E to determine if the plans implemented earlier in my practice were working, and what he would like to change when his case was due for review in court.
My group work consisted of working with teenage girls at a high school in North Belfast; they were aged 14/15. I worked alongside the Health for Youth through Peer Education (HYPE) team who regularly visit schools to promote sexual health awareness. I co-facilitated this group and worked to educate the group about sexual health and relationships. This was to promote the need for the provision of accurate information to prevent teenage pregnancies and STIs, which have been highlighted as statistically higher in this area of Northern Ireland.
Preparation of placement
As indicated above, to prepare for this placement, I began by developing my knowledge base around the court setting and private law, so that I could be accountable to the court and the Trust for my actions. Trevithick (2000:162) claims to be accountable denotes professionalism by using knowledge, skills and qualifications, and adhering to values and ethics when serving a client. I began to tune in to the placement setting using knowledge, skills and values, with legislation such as The Children (NI) Order 1995, The Family Law Act (NI) 2001 and The Human Rights Act 1998.
I tuned into the court setting and the rights of the service users who used it. Article 3 of the Children (NI) Order 1995 claims that the court should act in the best interests of the child, and I was interested in seeing if this occurred or if parental interests were considered higher. I tuned into the effects that divorce and separation have on children, and focused on gaining knowledge on how to minimize the negative impact this may have on children. The issue of contact in private law proceedings is a complex subject which raises questions of rights, responsibilities and ownership of children (Kroll, 2000: 217). I was initially interested in researching if children knowing both parents were in their best interests, and why.
Having had a placement with adults and learning disabilities last year I had reflected on the medical model versus the social model of disability, this placement was very different in that it would be the a legal context versus the social work role. I found this initially difficult as the legal obligations of the court over-shadowed the social work process. Court directions dictated the aspects of work to be done, which I found difficult as service user needs were not necessarily established and met.
Ms Cs assessment required me to meet with her, discuss issues regarding contact with her child, and investigate her living environment to determine if it was suitable for the child to have contact in. Prior to Ms Cs assessment it was necessary for me to tune in to contact disputes between parents. I recognised that there is significant animosity with both parties, but that having contact with both parents is in the childs best interests to promote for attachment, identity and positive relationships. To initiate Ms Cs assessment I had received court directions, a referral and met with her legal advisor. I was at this time I was informed that Ms C was Polish and required an interpreter. The Human Rights Act 1998 and the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 both stipulate that an interpreter should be provided for health services to and equal opportunities.
I was then required to make a referral to the Trust interpreting service, and they informed me that they would make initial contact with Ms C. I found this unnerving, as the interpreter would be making first contact with the service user, and I would have liked the opportunity to explain my role. Having carried out previous assessments, I knew that communication was essential for the assessment and central to the process of gathering information and empowering service users (Watson and West, 2006), therefore to not be able to make initial contact with a service user I found to be restrictive and stressful.
On initial contact with Ms C (and the interpreter) communication was difficult to establish. I found that by communicating through an interpreter I was limited in gathering information. I found it difficult to concentrate on Ms C, especially observing body language and tone of voice; instead I focused on the interpreter and actively listening to her. Ms C came across as frustrated and disengaged, showing signs of closed body language. I felt empathetic to Ms C because of the court process she was involved in, and the fact that she had to go to court to gain contact with her child. I felt the initial meeting with Ms C was not as successful as I had hoped, I was not able to discuss the issues affecting her, and unable to establish an effective working relationship due to the barrier on an interpreter. I left the meeting feeling deskilled and questioning my practice. On reflection, I should have provided more time to Ms C due to the language obstacle and gathered more information on her issues. I should have focused on Ms C and not the interpreter, and used the interpreter more effectively to establish a relationship. For future learning I will endeavour to use these reflections.
The next part of Ms Cs assessment was her home assessment. I was initially reluctant to carry out a home assessment, as I had no previous experience, and did not know what was classed as an unsafe environment for children. I began tuning in and identified that a home assessment required strong observational skills for child protection concerns. I also discussed the home assessment with my practice teacher and on site supervisor for aspects I should be concerned about within the home. It was indicated that a safe environment for a child did not have to be overly clean, just safe considering where the child sleeps, fire hazards, is there evidence of drug or alcohol use, or smelling of smoke (as Mr C alleges).
On entering Ms Cs home, as the interpreter had not arrived yet, I was reluctant to try and converse with Ms C. Ms C spoke limited English, and I did not want to confuse or alarm her by trying to discuss the case issues. However, I did try to use body language and facial expressions to reach for feelings and try to build a rapport by asking general questions about weather and work etc. I feel this helped our relationship, and helped me empathise about how difficult it must be to not be able to communicate effectively. By the time the interpreter had arrived I felt more at ease with Ms C, and addressed her (as opposed to the interpreter) with non-verbal cues such as nodding and body language. I felt more comfortable talking with Ms C, I felt more able to understand her frustrations at the court process, her ex-partner and his allegations.
Prior to the assessment of the home I had gained stereotypical perceptions about Ms Cs home. I thought that the house, as it was in a working class area, would be unclean and neglected. However, the assessment of the home, using observational skills, indicated no child protection concerns, a clean environment for a child, and Mr Cs allegations unfounded. On reflection of my perceptions I feel I was oppressive to Ms C having been so judgemental, and I felt guilty about my opinions having been class discriminatory.
Throughout the assessment with Ms C I found that by using an interpreter Ms C was able to stay informed and in control over her situation (Watson and West, 2006). I feel that by working with Ms C has helped my challenge my future practice with individuals who are non-English speakers. It will help me consider the needs of the service user, before judging them solely on language or their country of origin to provide equal opportunities. I now feel interpreters are required for a balance of power between the worker and service user, and promote anti-discriminatory practice.
According to Parker and Bradley (2008: 72) Planning as part of the social work process is a method of continually reviewing and assessing the needs of all individual service users. It is based upon the assessment and identifies what needs to be done and what the outcome may be if it is completed.
Prior to the beginning of placement I had limited experience of planning, or group work. It was important for me understand the facilitation and communication skills needed for successful group work, and help to develop my understanding of group dynamics, group control, and peer pressure for this age group.
The key purpose of planning the group was to enable the young people to develop their knowledge and skills to be able to make informed decisions and choices about personal relationships and sexual health. I began preparing for the planning stage of the social work process by meeting with the HYPE team and researching their work. I was interested in the sexual health training for young people at school, as my own experience at school showed that the information was often limited, and I was interesting in finding out if it had been challenged.