We're with families, not against them

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The continuing notion that Child, Youth and Family breaks up families is the biggest misunderstanding Keino Smullen would like to dispel.

"There's a preconceived idea that we break families up and we take children and that's what we do," says the Tauranga Child, Youth and Family (CYF) senior practitioner. "It's the complete opposite. Our job is to work with the families rather than against them, address the issues and keep them together."

It's a point of frustration for a woman who is passionate about the work she carries out. And I'm about to get a flavour of that work.

It's 8.30am and, as I talk with Miss Smullen at CYF's Grey St premises, nine other supervisors and social workers file into the office and take up seats around the edge of the room.

This is the daily confirmation meeting where supervisors of the different age teams (vulnerable infant team, school age team and youth team) and their social workers feed back on cases investigated and discuss new ones to be actioned.

Miss Smullen is chairing this meeting and introduces each case.

There is a mother of five who is drinking heavily and unable to control her children; immigrant family members sending their young children out to work in the orchards; a teenager who is beating her mother; a suspected victim of domestic violence who also has mental health issues; a family where mother and father are alcoholics; and a family that has moved to Tauranga trying to evade Auckland authorities.

The list goes on, but it is clear: at the centre of all of these situations is a child growing up in an intensely negative environment. Personal feelings, preconceived ideas and the influence of societal prejudices need to be disregarded though and each case looked at dispassionately.

As they are discussed, quick-fire comments come from around the room about the best way to proceed. It's evident there are prescribed methodologies for dealing with different, but sadly familiar, scenarios. The next step to be taken is quickly agreed.

Each case is given a response time frame. A "24-hour" means children are in immediate danger or have been harmed and CYF needs to attend immediately. Similarly, a "48-hour" involves information received of systemic serious abuse. Then lower-level cases are dealt with under "seven-day" and "28-day" timeframes. The most common response timeframe is a "seven-day".

"If we have a '24' or a '48', we basically have to drop what we're doing and go and attend," says Miss Smullen. "That's where the child is deemed to be in imminent danger and we have to get out there and make an assessment on the severity."

About 20 cases are dealt with in the confirmation meeting before everyone files back out to their desks in the expansive open-plan area. There are 73 staff on site, of which 37 are social workers (including Care and Protection and Youth Justice social workers). As they start their days, Miss Smullen explains a little about her work.

She is part of the engagement and assessment (E&A;) team and has been with CYF for seven-and-a-half years. Her mother worked for CYF's previous incarnation, the Department of Social Welfare, before becoming a councillor. "I just always wanted to do similar work," she says.

The E&A; is the frontline team that conducts initial investigations into reports of suspected abuse.

"People call the 0508 ASK CYF (0508 275 293) number and report concerns about a child. The contact centre in Auckland gets as much information as they can and then puts it on the intake roll. Those calls come into the contact centre from all over the country and then get allocated to the regions."

The E&A; team is the first point of contact between CYF and those who have been reported. It strikes me as a situation that could turn nasty. "We can get a lot of verbal aggression but that's emotional," she says. "It can be frightening when Child, Youth and Family comes and knocks on your door. We're the first point of contact and we're going out to people's homes so sometimes people can be on the backfoot a bit.

"But we've got quite good at talking with families and de-escalating situations. It's about working with families to address the issues rather than working against them. When you pitch it to them that you're here to help, we're not here to judge you, we need to see what's going on and what we can do to support you, it does usually defuse the situation.

"That said, we have been kicked out of homes before. Very, very rarely do people get physically violent though. Usually if we have concerns about our safety, we'll organise for one of the child protection team to come with us. But it's not often that we do that, we usually just charge on out there and get it done."

It's highly emotive work and one that requires a particular type of character. Even so it would be easy to be affected by a daily dose of physical violence, sexual abuse and fundamental neglect.

Miss Smullen says: "The teams look out for one another.

"There is ongoing internal supervision of the social workers. Weekly for new ones, fortnightly for the older hands. It's a time to check in and say how everything is going and to see if the workload is getting to people.

"Our team is a little different in that we debrief constantly, on a daily basis. When the teams come back from their visits, we sit down and discuss what happened, who they've spoken to, what their analysis is, what their thoughts and views are on the parents and how they presented, any concerns, our plans, what we're going to do next. That process in itself helps people air things.

"I've been around for awhile now but I remember when I was a new social worker, it was, "Wow, this is big stuff". While that's still true, after awhile you do become used to similar situations and you learn how to retain that professional distance to be able to do your job."

She enjoys her work. "I'm happy. I come to work every morning and I'm happy. That's huge. There are lots of people out there who don't. I love the challenge of going out and meeting people - and you meet lots of different types of people - the diversity of the work, finding things out, working closely with the police, so many things. But helping children is the big one.

"Especially if you go into a home and there's no protective adult around, they're presenting at school with bruising and we get them out of that environment. Then when we get feedback later on about how happy they are, that they're doing well at school, you know you've done right by them.

"But many times, the intervention doesn't have to be as dramatic as that. You see families struggling that don't need to be struggling and it's really just about educating them, putting in the right supports for them. They might be struggling with parenting, managing difficult behaviour or there's not enough money in the home. We can help, give them budget advice, make sure they're receiving the correct entitlements, put them in touch with other community agencies.

"Again when you hear later that the kids are doing well, are much better at school, they're coming in with lunch, have got enough clothes, all that sort of stuff, it's a good feeling."

As we sit down for the E&A; team's daily round table meeting (so named because it takes place at a round table), a thick pile of case notes is dropped on the table with a thud. Each one contains stories of parental indifference, family violence, neglect, behavioural issues, suicidal teenagers and vulnerable infants. Topping each is a yellow control sheet detailing the processes that have been, or will be, undertaken. These include: safety assessments; vulnerable infant checks; child-focused interviews; home visits; police checks; family checks; the number of reports of concern; and school/kindergarten checks. It's the bureaucracy of childcare but what lies behind is very human.

The subject matter might be dark but the mood is not. It's a noticeably positive atmosphere and all six of those around the table participate actively in this daily brainstorming session. They all have their own experiences and expertise to add to the mix. There is no protracted wrangling. The team's weighty workload doesn't allow for that. Differing approaches are thrashed out and decisions made quickly.

"It's done respectfully but we do have some very good discussions," Miss Smullen says with a smile. She is hovering a colour highlighter over a spreadsheet of 50 cases. Those that need to be closed are emboldened in pink. The day's work takes shape. Cases are assigned and the team needs to get out on the road and knock on some doors.

Each social worker will perform an average of four or five visits a day. Once completed, the details of those visits need to be recorded.

"It takes time because we need to load those case notes on to the system," says Miss Smullen. "We have templates we have to follow and we need to analyse our work."

Looking around the table, and the room, it's clear social work is an overwhelmingly female-dominated profession. Of the six people at the table, there is only one man and looking around the office the ratio gets smaller still.

"I'm not sure why that would be but we're happy we have a male on the team with some of the situations we go into. We deal with a lot of gang stuff so it's good to have that male presence. Not just the physical presence, it's good to have a man's perspective because he may well approach things differently." Perspective is important in many aspects of a social worker's job, she says. "Sometimes a case can read really badly on paper but when you get out there nothing is going on, or it's a malicious report."

People making time-wasting reports for their own motives, a disgruntled former partner for example. "We have to follow up on every single phone call and we do get malicious reports. Because we do what we do on a daily basis though we get very familiar with knowing what we're looking for. We can usually tell if someone is telling the truth or not. Contact with family members, schools, agencies the family is working with, they all help us form our decision as well."

Even when the ultimate decision is taken to remove children from their current situation, every effort is made to keep them within the family unit.

"We try to do that as much as possible. It doesn't have to be mum and dad, it could be aunty and uncle or grandparents. So we're not actually taking children out of the family and that's really important. Otherwise you're removing them from everything and everyone they know."

As my small window into the world of social work closes, it's impossible not to be left with anything other than respect for the work CYF does and the circumstances in which it undertakes it. Staff are literally changing lives. Given that, I ask Miss Smullen whether it's a source of annoyance that much media coverage focuses on when cases go wrong. "Sometimes it can be a little like, 'What about all the good work we do'? But you have to take the good with the bad. It's part of the job and you don't think about it too much. We know the good work we do and we're not in the job to get recognised. It's because we're passionate and we want to help families and children."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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