Many people will have heard of the slow food movement. It values local knowledge and local strengths and resists universal, bland fast foods. Some may have heard of ‘slow parenting’, promoted by Carl Honoré, which is an attempt to avoid the relentlessness of constant, externally provided, child entertainment or child improvement through organised classes. Slow parenting promotes taking time over small pleasures and enjoying being together. But most people will not have heard of ‘slow social work’, and indeed may find the notion laughable in the face of high case loads and flashing red messages from their computers informing them they have missed a reporting deadline. In this article I briefly explain the findings of a research study we have conducted at Cardiff University into child protection in neighbourhoods and explain why I think it is time for slow social work.
Our study began, as most do, with a question. What does the oft-repeated phrase, ‘Child safeguarding is everyone’s business’, mean to parents and other residents in neighbourhoods, and the community groups that serve them? How do people understand, experience and perform safeguarding of their own and other people’s children in their everyday lives? Funded by the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods we worked in three neighbourhoods in South Wales. One of these, which we have called ‘Caegoch’ was of particular interest for social work because the housing estate has one of the highest levels of child poverty in Wales and its isolated location at the top of one of the Welsh valleys meant that most public services, except for the primary school, were located a bus-ride away in the nearest town.
We talked to over 40 residents, aged from 3 to over 80, and about 20 community workers, councilors, teachers, housing officers and social workers about their experiences of child safety and well-being on the estate. Some, particularly the children, took part in ‘mobile’ interviews, where they talked while giving us a walking tour that took in their personal geography of the estate. We also observed community meetings and activities.
The findings demonstrate that, in this neighbourhood at least, children’s welfare is seen as everyone’s business in that the bulk of children’s safeguarding is carried out informally, by parents and neighbours, or semi-formally by community groups and teachers. The open layout and strong kinship networks of the estate made it acceptable, even expected for residents to look out for other people’s children and to intervene where necessary. The community sector is strong on the estate, built from a history of collective action when coal-mining dominated.
Children’s services social workers are seen as a necessary but distant and last-resort option by residents who are concerned about a child. One mother admitted that she herself had been helped to provide better care for her children by social workers ‘but I wouldn’t tell them that’! However, it is by exploring the language of trust in this neighbourhood that we can start to understand why statutory social workers are regarded with some suspicion.
Trusted people in the neighbourhood for protecting children and promoting their well-being could all be described as approachable and available. They are community workers, teachers, councillors or informal contacts. In analyzing how these people are talked about we can identify five aspects of availability and approachability: trusted individuals are locally based, they are seen as ‘one of us’ who share similar life experiences, their style is informal, help is available long-term and out-of-hours and they are generalists who can help with social, emotional and material problems.
In contrast, statutory social workers are described as outsiders, who are located elsewhere. They are unpredictable, in that they may not be seen to respond at all to a referral, or suddenly swoop, ‘blue lights flashing’. Their style is much more formal – ‘interviewing’- and they are thought to lack local knowledge and understanding.
In the 1980s, following the Barclay Report, generic, patch-based social work teams were introduced in many areas, with an aim of engaging with and knowing the local communities served by social services. Currently, many children’s services are centralized, with a high turnover of workers who have fleeting encounters with the people they serve, including the children at the centre of their work. They refer most problems requiring an intervention to others. I wish to propose that we instead aim to provide services that could be characterized as ‘slow social work’. Services would mimic the best of the semi-formal child safeguarding we saw in our study by being familiar with, and located in, the neighbourhoods in which children live. They would be known within the neighbourhood and trusted as sources of help and action. Like slow food and slow parenting, slow social work would avoid external pressures and prescriptive solutions and instead value local knowledge, strengths and relationships.
Dr Sally Holland (@DrSallyHolland), Reader in Social Work, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. Join us @SWSCmedia for a live World Social Work Day Twitter Chat on Tuesday (19 March 2013) 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM DST. Hashtag #SWSCmedia