The toxic trio: what social workers need to know

Gathering and analysing information

A key message that has emerged from serious case reviews is that practitioners need to gather and analyse more information; they “must be encouraged to be curious, and to think critically and systematically” to understand how the difficulties affecting families interact (Brandon et al, 2008, p98). Unless professionals are sufficiently curious, questions will go unasked and important information will not be gathered.

Each family member should be spoken to individually about what is happening in the household. This is particularly important given the tendency to focus on mothers in families where a child or children are at risk of harm. It has been noted that fathers can be more difficult to engage with, either because they refuse to talk to social workers, are absent from the home when professionals visit, or do not live in the home with the child (Farmer, 2006 cited in Cleaver et al, 2011). However, every effort must be made to engage with fathers, even more so in cases of domestic abuse where usually the father/male carer is the perpetrator and poses a high level of risk to the family.

Children should be spoken to away from their parents wherever possible as they may not feel able to talk about what is happening in the family in front of them. This is particularly true if they fear negative consequences for their parents/carers or themselves, eg if they disclose that one parent/carer is abusive towards the other or towards the children. Very often, children and young people don’t want to get their parents into trouble, and also fear the family being separated as a result of disclosing.

In a similar vein, in cases that involve domestic abuse, both parents/carers should be spoken to, and spoken to separately. It is unlikely that a victim of domestic abuse will feel able to speak freely in front of the perpetrator, and perpetrators will often use such ‘forums’ to further manipulate and control the victim.

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