‘Reproducing the Stereotypes’: Family Complexity, Resource Scarcity and Social Work Decision-Making

This blog is based on an article published in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the article.

Families are diversifying, but cuts to key support services are making it harder for agencies to respond to this when working with families. The last decade has seen rises in single parent families, cohabiting (unmarried) parents, multifamily households, same-sex parent families, transnational families and changes in gendered caring norms. In the UK, austerity and welfare reform has also made life harder for the most vulnerable families. This is alongside significant cuts to Local Authority (LA) spending on children’s services. Although family forms are more varied and demand for family support is rising, cuts to social care are significantly reducing the scope and the nature of support that is available.

The diversification of family forms is, to varying degrees, acknowledged in state level policy and legislation. For example, The Children Act (1989) and Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018) both prescribe how diversity should be approached by professionals working with families. LAs are advised that “children and their parents should be considered as individuals and that family structures, culture, religion, ethnic origins and other characteristics should be respected”. However, little is known about how such legislature translates into practice.

Our respective studies (the Nuffield funded Child Welfare Inequalities Project [CWIP] and the NORFACE funded Family Complexity in Social Work [FACSK] project) have explored how family complexity and circumstance feature in the everyday decision making of child and family social workers. Social workers are positioned at the interface between the family and the state. As such, we sought to explore how social workers coped with family diversity and complexity in times of scarcity and crisis.

Both studies found that, when prompted, social workers recognised the complex and multifaceted nature of contemporary British family life. Despite this, in practice, social work decisions were shaped and limited by various factors, including: time and workload pressures; risk averse practice cultures; formulaic assessment processes; the reduction in family support services; and traditional expectations of ‘family’, particularly those related to cultural and gendered norms.

One research site had a growing Eastern and Central European population. Families from these communities were routinely described by social workers as ‘different’ and displaying ‘unacceptable’ parenting practices. Yet, when prompted, social workers acknowledged that many migrant families faced financial hardship, employment precarity, and limited family support which sometimes resulted in children being left ‘home alone’. However, with limited access to resources themselves, social workers could not routinely offer these migrant families what they needed. In some instances, this led to unrealistic expectations being set, like the need to identify suitable childcare during working hours, without any practical, financial or extended family support.

Another case study revealed the persistence of gendered caring expectations in social work practice narratives and a continued tendency to imagine mothers as the main carers in the family. Despite clear acknowledgment of family diversification, and policy developments that promote the inclusion of fathers in their children’s lives, these have limited impact on family assessment practices. One respondent described how:

When you’re working with families, you do look like, at the stereotypes don’t you? Mum will be at home, possibly with the younger children and does the more caring stuff, takes them to school… dad will hopefully be off to work somewhere and try and do something in terms of gainful employment and earning a crust for his family.

Both examples evidence a disjuncture between social worker’s acknowledgment of family diversity and the heuristics used in social work decision making, when time and resources are scarce. Other studies have acknowledged that social workers are more likely to use shortcuts in their decision making when they are under pressure. Accounting for complexity takes time. Unfortunately, our studies indicate time is something social workers routinely lack.

Social norms function as mechanisms for ordering and interpreting the social world. We use them to understand who’s who and what’s what. But these judgments are often crude and imperfect. Our studies indicate that social workers can draw on social norms related to ‘family’ when the constraints of the child welfare system and resource scarcity combine. As Laird argues, ‘in circumstances where administrative burdens and high caseloads remain in place, everyone runs out of time, regardless of training, underpinning theories and models of intervention’. This can mean that families experiencing the most complex circumstances receive the least critical attention.

Our studies took place against a backdrop of rising social work demand and diminishing supply. Significant reductions in preventative family support and early intervention services (such as Sure Start Children’s centres) have substantially altered the availability of vital supports for families, leaving many without the help they need. As the rate of referrals to social care increase, social workers find themselves increasingly making potentially life changing decisions with limited time and resource.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that normative expectations can trump attention to policy directives that acknowledge family diversification. As Bywaters et al. have argued, austerity policies are “eating their way into the capacity of both families and Local Authorities to provide for children’s wellbeing”.

Our studies show that, when engaging with families, social workers can rely on and consequently reinforce traditional expectations relating to gendered roles within families, and their own culturally specific expectations. If we want professionals working with families to respect diversity and respond accordingly, we have to create the conditions for such practice to manifest. This means, at the very least: offering more proportionate resourcing in the way of early help and family support services and freeing up more time for social workers to accommodate the plurality of family norms.


About the authors

Will Mason is Lecturer in Applied Social Sciences at the Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield.

Julie Walsh is Lecturer in Sociology in the Department for Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield.

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