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Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fractal Social Work...

I was approached by a ThinkTank, back when I was a a working social worker, and asked my opinion on social capital and its role and relevance within social care, and how this could slot into some research they wanted done.

I'm very, and cheerfully, critical of statutory social work, but most of my career I have thought about, offered, and occasinally modelled new ways of maybe doing stuff. I'm fat and not in social care any more, so you can work out how that went. But hey...

By social capital they meant "social capital as the networks and relationships between people in families and their communities"

The Unreflective Kindness of Strangers

I had written some research for the Childrens Welfare Development Council that held social capital central (and I will upload it some time) and in that research I quoted Robert D Putnam who wrote the seminal book "Bowling Alone". The book was about that how in America once people bowled in groups- with their workmates, their social club, their faith community, but now people bowl alone, and how that was ominous for American society. 

The quote I used of Putnam was "The ebbing of community over the last several decades has been silent and deceptive. We notice its effects in the strained interstices of our private lives and in the degradation of our public life, but the most serious consequences are reminiscent of the old parlour puzzle: ‘what’s missing from this picture?’ Weakened social capital is manifest in the things that have vanished almost unnoticed – neighbourhood parties and get-togethers with friends, the unreflective kindness of strangers, the shared pursuit of the public good rather than a solitary quest for private goods"

The Think Tank were wanting to run a project. I suggested that the best type of research is experiential and applied. I suggested a control community that fits the above criteria where nothing is done surplus to the offer of existing statutory social care services. In contrast I also suggested a project community where a pilot project will be established. Two local authorities that come to mind when discussing “cases of severe abuse” are Birmingham Council  (where Khyra Ishaq died as a result of abuse, neglect and malnutrition) and Haringay Council (Victoria Climbie and Baby P) where I suggest the project be based in one large, ideally “failing” primary school.

I offered to network  and get funding, resources and personnel from companies and the charity sector to establish a Steering Group that would have encompassed the following personnel:

·      School staff (at least one teacher/ head, receptionist/ critical friend/ school pastoral worker)

·      Community Mobilisor­/ Wardens

·      Housing Department representative

·      PCSO or Community Police Officer

·      Local parents

·      Parent Champions (see below)

·      Ideally a social work manager, especially from Referral and Assessment as this is the first contact team for child protection

·      Parenting Commissioner (this was during New Labour, every local authority had one, no doubt hey no longer exist)

·      Faith Community representatives that mirror the local faith community statistics (i.e. Muslim Imam for high Muslim in take, etc)

·      Early Intervention Team/ equivalent- this differs LA to LA but should be the team that runs parenting courses

·      A national business with local interest/ social capital intentions i.e. Ikea, supermarket, etc

I suggested the setting up of a network of trained, established, funded Parent Champions. These were basically parents who were trained and used, as co equals, alongside school and extended school staff to run projects and communit, and build social capital, in UK schools. I saw the UK school system as one of the last systems of social capital left.

I went on to say:

The project worker will work to establish social capital networks that were not there previously, between the community, school, social support agencies and ultimately child protection services.  In particular, parents, local residents and civic societies will be offered training (for example Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, DISC, and Belbin among others) from contacts I have in the charity sector.

Nordic Fires

The Think Tank wanted to "investigate potential barriers to more involvement and to reporting such as the legal situation, and fear of reprisal from those accused" and "explore any potential community leaders can have to initiate any kind of desired behaviour change, such as not turning a blind eye towards difficult situation where children are harmed. For example, research has found that ‘peer to peer initiatives’ work most efficiently when programmes are aimed at changing behaviour"

In Bo Rothsteins sprawling essay “Creating trust from above: Social Capital and Institutional Legitimacyhe discusses a fire in a Swedish nightclub where “63 young people died (and at least as many were seriously wounded)……….. This was one of the worst human catastrophes in Sweden since World War II, and it made headlines all over the world. The victims of this horrible tragedy were mostly, though not all, young people (from immigrant backgrounds)……..Very soon, the police and the media suspected that the fire was not accidental but was instead a case of arson…... After about a year of police investigations, four young men from immigrant backgrounds were arrested and…..they were all convicted of arson.

The reason these young men gave for setting the place on fire was that their friends, who had organized the disco, had demanded that they pay the entrance fee; this, in their eyes, was a sign of disrespect…. Media reports of the trial indicated that a sizeable group of young people living in the immigrant areas – who had been to the disco and had lost many of their friends in the fire – knew who the guilty persons were, but they had refrained from telling the police. Thus, the situation was very special: even though a lot of their friends had died or been seriously hurt in the fire, and even though they knew who had caused the fire, these young people felt that going to the police was not an option.

A former social worker with extensive experience from Göteborg’s northern suburbs described the situation in an interesting way. She argued…..the young people in these neighborhoods were convinced that during the fire, “the police were standing by laughing while their friends were dying around them.” Anyone who had seen the media coverage of the fire (knew this was false). However, the social worker stated that, as a consequence of this deep mistrust of public institutions, “the rule of law is in a bad situation in Sweden’s so-called ‘exposed neighborhoods.’ The alternative of the rule of law, to report to the police, to testify before the court about what you have seen, heard or been part of, and to let the court take care of administrating justice, is gradually becoming a less realistic alternative.”

The situation above can be transferred to the UK; and instead of a criminal scenario one can substitute a sink estate and its community who feel all social workers will do is work against them- and thus it is better not to tell social workers about child abuse.

Rothstein goes on to say that “As many have argued, we need to understand the causal mechanisms between interpersonal trust, collective action, civil society and trust in government institutions” He cites other sociologists who suggest that having  “efficient institutions” is the solution, and says “From a political economy point of view, it has been forcefully argued…. that it is the lack of …. “efficient institutions” that explains why so many countries remain poor, despite the tremendous growth in the world economy. The correlation between a country’s level of corruption and the strength of its economy is quite straightforward – the more corruption the less economic growth……. In another such study, the conclusion is that “at the aggregate level, social trust and confidence in government and its institutions are strongly associated with each other. Social trust can help build effective social and political institutions, which can help governments perform effectively, and this in turn encourages confidence in civic institutions”

Rothstein quotes Miller and Hammond’s advice- “(to) search for a means to establish “efficient institutions” is thus very simple, namely, “to find out how such disinterested altruistic actors are created, and then reproduce them throughout the political system” ……In a world consisting of rational self-interested utility maximizers, this is of course not possible. In addition, there is the problem that a profession’s teaching its students to think that this is the only way the world works will make such “disinterested altruistic actors” in government institutions a very rare species.”

Remote Control

Jean Robinson, a Health Visitor, wrote an open letter to Prof. Sir Liam Donaldson, the 
Chief Medical Officer
Department of Health in 2007. (The full text can be seen here)

She made the argument that people are increasingly wary of asking for state help, whether from Health or Social Care. Salient points are condensed as below:
FEAR OF ACCESSING MEDICAL CARE - Nowadays parents call us and ask for advice when their children have accidents, because they are afraid to go to A & E, and they know we run a totally confidential service……..We have been in existence for well over 40 years and can recall no such requests until about four years ago. There is now no health professional, or official help line, parents feel they can safely ask for help. All agencies, including NHS direct, will report anything they regard as suspicious. Innocent parents who have had one brush with the system, or social services investigation, or whose friends, relatives or neighbours have, now find the risk of avoiding treatment preferable to the risk of damage to the whole family of going for help..

DISTRUST OF HEALTH VISITORS - Mothers are opting out of seeing health visitors, and are advising friends not to see them, after they, or someone they know, has had a similar encounter (to above)…… In some areas, however, merely opting out of seeing a health visitor (maybe because they… didn’t like her)….. is cause for referral to social services in itself - thereby confirming the increasingly common perception of them as the 'health police'. Those who do see the health visitor are highly circumspect about the information they give…..

CHILD PROTECTION AS SOCIAL CONTROL- Use of child 'protection' or threats thereof, are increasingly being used to control parents who are seen as unorthodox, or not completely compliant…….The message is getting round quickly, and parents are opting out of official sources care even more, or being even more selective on what information they give, and what they conceal.”

I suggest that the “disinterested altruistic actors” discussed by Rothstein could actually be local parents. I feel Robinson illustrates a decay in public trust- especially amongst vulnerable groups-  is a by product of a Nanny state that has compounded the poverty trap, removed most civil liberties, offered toxic “help” and introduced an amoral “double think” that lacks a moral compass.

The basis of the social capital project I had in mind was to promote “participationalism as a government agenda, with either service users being empowered, or school heads and teachers being seen as the experts in regards to what they wanted by way of resources and social workers involvement in their schools.” And to see the end of “Professionalism and managerialist models (that) continue to stifle, overlook, and/or actively work against grassroots endeavours.” 

 The Think Tank wanted to "investigate how Social Capital between families and communities can  improve coordination between communities, actors and agencies and consequently achieve more efficient service delivery"

I discussed this in the research I did for the CWDC in that the school was better placed to know the local need, screen for it in the school, and then  as the local authority to deliver. But what happens now is that “What is being offered at the moment are so many managerial conditions that don’t even see a family sat somewhere in a central office – they will try to delegate out positions for people we don’t need, people that don’t fit in with our strategic models … and they can only work in a certain way, you know, why not just delegate this money and let it be used appropriately … They don’t know – they might know what the five [Every Child Matters] outcomes are but they don’t know what they look like in practice”.

A forum/steering group should be formed in a local estate to this end and suggested local partners such as Police, youth services etc would take pressure off the state and transfer it into a structure of shared responsibility.
I suggested the research project looked at the pilot study known as ViCP (Parents working in child protection). The ViCP Scheme is described here
      The scheme substantially increases the capacity of children's departments to deliver family support to vulnerable families. This sort of input constitutes a vital part of ensuring the welfare of children is safeguarded as well as promoted," Tunstill adds.

      Originally a three-year pilot in two local authorities in 2004, the ViCP scheme now runs in the London boroughs of Bromley, Lewisham and Islington, and in Southend-on-Sea. The scheme is about to be launched in Coventry and CSV is in talks with others.

      There are currently just over 100 volunteers. Sue Gwaspari, head of part-time volunteering at CSV, says: "They work with children at risk of serious harm through neglect. They give basic parenting help but, unlike parenting classes, this is done within the home so the volunteer sees them in their real circumstances. Volunteers are not a threatening presence in the home - they have no powers to take a child away, they are there to listen and help. They have time to go in several times a week to build a relationship with a family and can turn up when it suits the family, at weekends and evenings which social workers just can't do."

      She points to the fact that none of the families who have been helped off child protection plans by the scheme, have had to be re-registered. "Bromley said it would expect 11% or more who come off plans to go back on them," Gwaspari says. She adds that the figure is even more significant as often councils use volunteers as a last resort before taking a child into care.

Again an important caveat; social workers need to be part of every stage of the structure of shared responsibility; not only to ensure safeguarding continues within the context of support but also to ensure the social work model, which is pre-eminent, is the common thread in all the work. The other two “systems” abroad- educational and medical- are not based in anti oppressive practice, or empowerment, or reflective.
Psycho Geography

They also wanted to strengthen links between individuals, families, education and protection agencies and I suggested that teachers should train alongside social workers in child protection. Multi agency training dies not always leads to schools fully understanding core processes of CP such as the importance of timely referral, the need not to ask leading questions, the need not to involve parents in potentially serious presenting situations. Co training need not be expensive at the university level- many teachers and social workers share the same facilities- and child protection ABE training with the Police need not be the full blown week/ two weeks residential but only needed on certain pastors such as the part where actors posing as children are in interviewed in suites, etc- trainee teachers need only be observers- this would lead to massive impact.

I argued that the role of the physical environment should not be overlooked. Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." and is a vital part of social capital.


This was understood hundreds of years ago by George Cadbury. The Cadburys were pioneers in employee welfare and labor relations, setting standards which other enlightened employers adopted. Cadbury Brothers was the first firm to introduce the Saturday half-day holiday, and also pioneered in closing the factory on bank holidays. In 1918, Cadbury Brothers established democratically elected Works Councils, one for men and one for women. Departments elected representatives to these Councils by secret ballot. The Councils dealt with working conditions, health, safety, education, training, and the social life of the workers.

Conditions and benefits were superior to those workers generally knew in the Victorian era. Young employees were encouraged to attend night school and were allowed to leave work an hour early twice a week. When the Bournville factory opened in 1879, it featured heated dressing rooms, kitchens for hearting food, gardens, and extensive sports fields. Management negotiated special workers' fares with the railway company. The Cadburys even provided swimming pools for employees. They also encouraged the spiritual development of employees, starting morning prayers and Bible readings in 1866, continuing for half a century. Around the turn of the century, the Cadburys established medical and dental departments. They established a Pension Fund in 1906.
George Cadbury was a housing reformer active in the Garden City movement. When the growing company needed to build a new factory, the Cadburys decided to move out of the unhealthy Birmingham industrial quarter to a country location on the outskirts of the city. They named this property Bournville.
When they built the Bournville factory in 1879, they built 16 houses for senior employees. In 1895, George Cadbury bought an additional 120 acres and began to build more houses in the garden city. He sought to provide affordable housing for wage earners in a healthy environment. The community was not limited to Cadbury workers, and was designed to be mixed in both class and occupation. Cottages were grouped and set back from tree-lined roads. Each plot had space for gardens, and building was restricted so the gardens were not overshadowed. In 1897, Richard Cadbury built a quadrangle of houses for pensioners.
To preserve the character of the Bournville Village for future generations, George Cadbury founded the Bournville Village Trust in 1900. The Trust was always separate from the company. Several Cadbury family members are still trustees today. The Trust continues to follow the original principles, including the preservation of parks and open spaces. The Trust has established 12 different kinds of special needs housing, diversifying the population even more than in the early days. Self-build co-partnerships, where members do the work themselves under expert direction, built 400 homes. (

Social experiments without taking this into consideration include utopian experiments that fell foul such as Fordlandia in Brazil

The Research Project, then....

The Think Tank wanted to run a "review the current literature on child protection and safeguarding children, academic, Government and third sector organisation’s  reports in this area"

I gave a warning of caution in this area. There is no shortage of excellent source material about child protection, but the problem is interface with the real world, and mode of application. Year after year social work academics write books on anti oppression, safe practice, etc, and every year social services departments continue to see children die, staff burn out, and needs go unsupported, as they turn into toxic, child harvesting oppresive departments. So the academics keep their mortgage in the Cotswolds, theyre as right on as ever, and they turn a blind eye to Rome burning over the hedge. I felt that the Think Tank didnt need to "establish what the main barriers to a more effective safeguarding children policy are" as to me these seemed obvious- a lack of investing in local people and community and building in their strengths, centralised and bureaucratised delivery, and dysfunctional social care workforce.

Finally they wanted examples of what worked. I listed some innovative, localist, community driven solutions in the UK and abroad, such as:

House of Dutch Language


Broadwater farm


“Majic Bus” project

 Giving local residents the chance to learn experientially by taking them  out of their situation, as per the educational experience invented by Douglas Brinkley

FAST (Families and Schools Together) started in the USA. Its website is here 

Harlem Community Zone(HCZ)

Called "one of the most ambitious social-service experiments of our time," by The New York Times, the Harlem Children's Zone Project is a unique, holistic approach to rebuilding a community so that its children can stay on track through college and go on to the job market.

Results have included:
      Of the 161 four-year-olds that entered the Harlem Gems in the 2008-2009 school year, 17% had a school readiness classification of delayed or very delayed. By the end of the year, there were no students classified as "very delayed" and the percentage of "advanced" had gone from 33.5% to 65.2%, with another 8.1% at "very advanced," up from only 2%.

Over 98% of Promise Academy II's students scored at or above grade level on the math exam, outperforming their counterparts in New York State, New York City and District 5, as well as black and white students in New York State
      In English and Language Arts (ELA), over 93% of Promise Academy I third graders tested at or above grade level, outperforming New York State, New York City and District 5 peers, as well as black and white students in New York State
      Over 84% of Promise Academy II's students scored at or above grade level in ELA, outperforming on average their counterparts in New York State, New York City and District 5, as well as black students in New York City

  Family Group Conference ethos (FGC).

 Whilst this idea is a long standing tradition within the Maori culture, somebody systemised it and “sold” it to social services across the world. It seems vital ideas and outworkings from FGC have been missed in the UK. In fact if the whole concept had been taken on- and not just seen as a residual hoop to jump through before children were removed via the courts- the need for Every Child Matters and the Common Assesment Fraremwork deliveryt system would have been redundant.


The  Playstreets” concept which started in Belgium is a good example of the empowerment of communities- it’s completely the responsibility of the local residents to make it work. A “Playstreet” is a road in a residential area where the speed limit doesn’t exceed 50 km/h. Play streets can happen during holidays for a maximum 2 weeks. Two thirds of the residents must be happy for this to take place. There needs to be at least 3 responsible adults- “godfathers” and “godmothers” who should be residents themselves. They sign an agreement with the council. They are the link between residents and the councils although parents remain responsible for their children- this is not meant to be an alternative to childcare. The process is simple:

·      Applicants fill in a request form
·      Police/PCSO’s investigate the street qualifies
·      When agreed, the applicant needs to identify 2 godfathers or mothers
·      Residents must be 66% in favour of Playstreets
·      Godfathers and mothers need to sign the agreement to the council
·      Godfathers and mothers evaluate the success of the project at the end
·      The council insures the godfathers and mothers (public liability), block off the streets, and provide each street with a play chest, which contains toys and other items to play on the street. On some occasions, they can also offer jumping castles, circus equipments, trampolines....


Habbekrats is a Belgian educational service for underprivileged youth between 12 and 25 years old, offering several projects. Workers accompany youngsters in a spirit of solidarity, equality and justice. The emphasis is laid on prevention, but they also offer relief to those who need it. The core offer is flexible and their website is here 

 The Wire 

The Wire Project was founded by Paul Sanderson MBE in 1996 as a direct response to recognised issues involving drug and alcohol addiction, high teenage pregnancy, low literacy levels and low ‘community esteem’ in the community of Wick, Littlehampton, West Sussex.
The project acted as a vital link between Schools, homes, Police and Social & Caring Services providing advice and intervention for young people and families.
The charity provided activities, support and advice for children, young people Activities run by the WIRE included parenting courses, playschemes, night-clubs for 14-18 year olds, discos for 7-13 year olds, afterschool clubs, toddler groups and the Festival of Wick.
The WIRE was part of Spurgeon's, a children’s charity who provided the managerial, administrative and financial backbone to The WIRE’s work. Together with the locally formed UnderWIRE Advisory Group, The WIRE gained long-term stability and support to help strengthen the foundations of the project.
The project was so successful that similar projects were set up around the country, including Crawley, Portslade near Brighton, Bognor Regis and Oxford.
The WIRE was based in two different locations. In 1996 it was in a port-a-cabin on the car park of the then Wickbourne Chapel. When the new Wickbourne centre opened in 2005 half the team moved from the temporary office that became their permanent office at Flora McDonald Junior School.
In July 2006 Paul Sanderson was awarded an MBE for his work with this and other similar projects.
In 2007 The WIRE Project came to an end due to funding changes, but it's legacy lives on in the form of many other organisations and activities that started up during those 10 years.

 Finally I ditected them to the Adalbert Evers’ “User involvement in social services. Various strands of thinking, elements and tools” table. Which speaks for itself.



hierarchical governance of service systems
full coverage/ uniform services
equal standards
boards and commissions
for corporate governance
quality control by state inspection
social rights and patients' charter

case management
upgrading of educational levels
upgrading professional advice and consultancy
quality control through professional self control
public service ethos

individual choice
market research
customer orientation
consumer lobbying
consumer protection

managed care
target setting
upgrading managerial and economic concerns
external quality management
complaint management

collective self help
strengthening user and community based service providers
strengthening local “embeddedness”
orientation towards empowering users
more service dialogues
more user control in designing and running services

 You've been a great audience. Dont forget to turn off the lights.


  1. Two questions :

    * When are you planning to "evolve" these ideas into a local community experience
    * How could you assure replication across many communities

  2. Wow! Some questions! Well, I have tried many times to evolve these ideas into a local community experience. It was never bought into, so now at some stage I would like to use the ideas via local church. Its a case of having time and prioritising.....however I have a blueprint for this which I could publish.

    Regarding replication....these ideas would be "freeware" i.e. I wouldnt be precious about them being used and evolved. The key is that local communities own them, especially the non professionals. In fact all I have done is put together various ideas that arent mine and done a bit of systemising......