By Sudha Sankar, Ph.D.
Systems change efforts are some of the most challenging undertakings. It’s no surprise then that most of us are hesitant to roll the die on system-wide changes. Yet Manchester Children’s Services decided to do exactly that: radically change their approach to safeguarding children who have been exposed to domestic violence in their homes. To understand why, I sat down for a conversation with the champions working tirelessly for the wellbeing of children in Manchester Jane Slinger, Steve (LN) and Lucy (LN) who were instrumental in implementing the Safe & Together Model™ in Manchester City agreed to speak with me. Jane is a service manager who coordinates the implementation of service models with social workers and partner agencies. Steve is a quality assessment consultant who overseas the quality of service provision, training social workers in assessing families from the Safe & Together perspective. Lucy is a social worker who works closely with direct service providers, interacting closely with the medical system.
The burning question: What set Jane and her team down the path of the Safe & Together Model? “High numbers of children subjected to child protection plans because of DV. About 70% of our referrals are due to DV” Jane responded. At one time, most of these children would have been quickly subjected to child protection plans and separated from both parents irrespective of who perpetrated the abuse. This strategy is not new to the world of child and family welfare services. Survivors, overwhelmingly women, have long been held responsible for ‘failure to protect’ their children from the abuse perpetrated by their partners. Jane had heard too many service providers say, “You [mothers] are prioritizing your relationship, not protecting your child.” This did not improve outcomes for children. Instead the same children often returned to MCS over and over again.
“Parents often worry if they get a knock from a Social worker. Their fear is that their children will be taken away.” – Lucy
Building relationships to build trust.
In 2016, Jane stumbled upon the Safe & Together Institute. Here was an organization pushing a novel idea: partnering with survivors to ensure good outcomes for children. Jane knew she had found the answer to improving outcomes for children in their care and to the unfair responsibility placed on adult survivors when assessing child safety in families. In Manchester, the Safe & Together approach has fundamentally altered relationships between the families the unit serves and the advocates and case workers working with them. “Parents often worry that if they get a knock from a Social worker, their fear is that their children will be taken away, so partnering with the survivor from the word go has changed relationships. We’ve had feedback from survivors talking about their confidence and trust in services,” says Jane. The barrier of trust is one that has long divided not only child welfare workers from families, but also from those advocating for survivors of domestic violence. Lucy, who provides and supervises advocacy in the region, attributes this breakthrough among parents to the shift in social workers’ behaviors and focus in the field. “The social worker makes contact with survivors – straight away they focus on what will work for the survivor, what do they need rather than us deciding. The partnering (with the survivor) aspect is what they are really strong at.”
Partnering with survivors to protect children.
One might wonder: if the goal is to protect children, shouldn’t the focus of services be on the child? Steve, Manchester Children’s Services’ resident quality assessment and training specialist, jumps in to elaborate. The approach does exactly that: protect children. The loss of a parent who is working everyday to protect their child from a perpetrator, only renders children more vulnerable. By seeing the role of perpetrator tactics and patterns of behavior, the social worker is able to identify and make a strong case for keeping children under the safe protection of the surviving parent. “The old language around failure to protect is pretty much flushed out of the system. Everyone is talking about how to keep the child together with the non-offending parent,” said Steve. Where there was a conveyor belt approach to cases, this team now plays the long game. Steve elaborated, “We’re looking at it through a longer-term lens now. Even when the perpetrator may receive accountability, we’re not closing the case right away, we are looking at how can we strengthen things with the survivor how can we form that partnership and make sure that she’s safe. Whether or not she chooses to remain in that relationship, she becomes stronger and has a network around her.” The Manchester team has also seen an increase in referrals to their perpetrator intervention programs, the flip side of addressing survivor needs. The increased awareness of perpetrator behavior patterns means that Social Workers are now persisting with holding perpetrators accountable and referring them to offender intervention programs.
Working closely with partners to build system-wide change.
As with any new approach, these changes in practice have meant working closely with partner systems like health services and law enforcement. According to Jane, Steve and Lucy, their partners have embraced the new approach, championing the model in their respective spaces and shifting the culture of their organizations. Most importantly, they now have a blueprint for how to work together in this approach. “The model lays out tangibles that people can organize themselves around, and allows them to figure out how to work in a system that is highly reliant on multiagency work. Everyone can support the child in different ways. That’s where we’ve done all the training and awareness raising. If you work in this sector, you can at least latch on this one aspect of the model and have an impact.” Every month, Jane brings together providers and leaders who have been trained in the Safe & Together Model into one room, to help continue to roll out the Model, share practical experience and talk about the approach. The new language, new alliances, and greater perpetrator accountability have bled into partner systems, providing the collective momentum to sustain this approach long into the future. “When we take a case to a conference now, there is a shift. People are asking why the perpetrator is not here.” It also means that Manchester Children’s Services has expanded its protective reach in the community. Now, others who come into contact with vulnerable children, like teachers in schools, are more empowered to respond appropriately to domestic abuse and to survivors because the school system itself is shifting.
When we take a case to a conference now, there is a shift. People are asking why the perpetrator is not here. – Jane
Skills-based training to transforms practice.
Among MCS staff, Steve sees a newfound intentionality and thoughtfulness in approaching families. “I did a lot of one on one chats with workers. For the first time, instead of just coming to a conclusion, they are having a chat about how they can address this, which was different from what was happening before. They are stopping to think before acting, where typically, they would walk into a situation unprepared.” Prior to venturing down this partnership with Safe & Together, social workers in this unit had very few skill-based trainings. They received information about domestic violence, focused mostly on the impact of abuse on children, but that was all. “There was no training that informed or coached workers on how to conduct an assessment, how to organize the information, how to intervene in a safe manner, and how to look at the impact of all that on the child all in one go. This [safe and together] is the first.” When service providers have concrete tools and ways to transform their practice, survivors and their children will be the first to benefit.
We’re looking at it through a longer- term lens now. We are looking at how we can strengthen things with the survivor, how can we form that partnership and make sure that she’s safe? – Jane
About Manchester Children’s Services
Children’s Services of Manchester City is tasked with safeguarding children (age 0 to 18), their families and youth between 18 and 24 who were previously in the care of the city. They provide advocacy on behalf of children including initiating court proceedings in cases of domestic abuse, initiating adoption proceedings, creating and implementing child protection plans and plans to cater to the needs of children not in the city’s care. They also work with parents to ensure the wellbeing of children. Children’s services works closely with drug & alcohol services, education, health services, police, and various charities like women’s aid, domestic abuse agencies, housing providers to identify the best response for a child in need.
Service Manager, Assessment and Service
Jane coordinates implementation of service models with social workers and partner agencies. She brings key stakeholders together to create momentum, propel collective learning and growth. Jane set up the Safe and Together board and champions groups in Manchester, bringing leaders from different partner agencies together.
Team Manager, Duty & Assessment Social Work Team
Lucy manages a team of social workers within the South Locality of the City. Lucy was within the first cohort of frontline staff to attend the Core Training in Safe & Together. Lucy has used learning from the core training alongside the guides developed by Steve at an operational level, to encourage and support social workers in using the model with the children and families they are working with.
Quality Assessments Consultant
Steve overseas quality assessment plans and practice, bringing all the different models and tools used in providing services together. Steve has been instrumental in developing trainings and guides for social workers who want to assess families from the Safe & Together perspective.