Parenting assessments - 'Failure to Engage'
By Sarah Lowe, creator of ParentAssess and awarded the Social Worker of the Year 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award
It is often frustrating for professionals when parents ‘fail to engage’ with a parenting assessment. This might be overtly, with an adamant refusal to meet or covertly, with intermittent attendance or minimal responses. But is it a ‘failure’? or avoidance which needs to be understood better?
It’s useful to think about different perspectives concerned in this dynamic and the language used.
The social worker is assigned an assessment which needs completing by a set date. The intention of the assessing social worker is to work with the parent and move forward from a starting point where issues need to be understood. The work involves exploring aspects of the parent’s life, asking questions and checking information. The nature of the work is intrusive and if a parent is going to be open about aspects of their life, they will need a degree of trust in the social worker and the process. It may be that the parent believes that the social worker has a different lifestyle or perhaps no experience of being a parent themselves and will not understand them. If the assessing social worker is from a different culture, the parent may hold the view their own life and ways of doing things will not be understood. If the parent subsequently avoids meetings, the professional may become irritated especially if they cannot complete the report by the assigned time.
The parent perspective is very different. They now have professionals involved in their life who seem to be making judgments and decisions about them. For some, it can be a harsh introduction to the powers of the state which may trigger strong feelings of anger. For others it might be a continuation of a system they have become accustomed to. The parents may have felt let down and judged in the past. They may have repeated experiences of being told they have ‘failed’. Their inner voice may be telling them there is no hope this time either. The fear of failure is always hard, but feeling like you might have failed as a parent can be overwhelming. Most parents who are about to be assessed are in a high state of anxiety and this can trigger the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. Many onlookers might think that the parent should do whatever it takes to secure the return of their child, but this disregards the parent’s unique experiences which may include layers of trauma they may never have processed. At this point it is important to think about why the parent might be defended and/or avoidant and consider how a relationship of honesty and trust can be nurtured.
If parents do meet with the assessor, they are likely to have thought about what they can and can’t reveal about their life - this a normal response we all adopt in life and yet we expect parents to be ‘open and honest’ from the outset. If the parent edits or conceals information, this might be viewed as an issue with their ability to engage but I dare say many of us might edit if faced with potentially losing a child. Many parents will want to present the positives. If the assessor already knows about concerns or discovers them, a view will be formed about the parent’s level of honesty and perhaps even their motivation. However, it is often far more complicated than that. Shame and failure can often hinder the ability to be open. Sometimes the root of the parent’s problems can be trauma which they don’t fully understand themselves or they are unable to put words to.
Parents have said that often they aren’t sure if the assessor is there to help them get their child back or if the assessor is looking for reasons why their child should not be in their care – these feelings can often be fuelled by family and friends. Maintaining a suspicious or defended position will certainly hinder the parent’s ability to engage. If a relationship of trust and openness between worker and parent cannot be established, it will detrimentally impact on the ability of the assessor to understand the family and appropriately consider the management of risk.
The third perspective is that of the child because whatever happens in this dynamic will impact on them. When a parent stops coming to family time sessions or they present as flat unresponsive, low in mood, pre-occupied or even disinterested it can be confusing and distressing for the child. Family time is a precious opportunity to see their parent but for the parent it is often viewed as a test where professionals are noting their every move. The child may experience their parent as ‘being different from when they were at home’ and if the parent is starting to disengage from the assessment process, the child is likely to experience this as rejection both in the present but also if they later access their files. They will not be aware of the nuances of what is (or was) being asked of their parent or why this process is so hard for their parent.
The assessor needs experience and assessment skills in order to work with any defences the parent has created. It requires a high level of empathy and giving repeated reassurance. I remember a parent who I spent 3 weeks trying to arrange a meeting with but she refused to answer. She later told me ‘I thought you were just another one who was going to judge and criticise me and I didn’t want to hear anymore’. I asked her why she had decided to meet me in the end, and it was because after sending her numerous messages, I wrote a letter to her which I sent to her solicitor. I explained how I wanted to listen to how things had been for her and understand what had happened and explore what should happen next. She said ‘that message made me realise you wanted to listen’.
Several assessors have told us that using the ParentAssess tools has certainly helped parents who initially presented as defended and unwilling to engage. The tools are designed to encourage discussion and understanding. One father said 'it wasn't like a test I had to pass, I was able to understand more about what my child needs from me...I enjoyed it'.
Not all parents are able to cope with being assessed and some will adamantly refuse to meet and talk but when this happens it needs to be managed sensitively. The parent and child (and sometimes the wider family) need to be supported. They need to be listened to and the context of their difficulties with engagement considered and noted.
So what can we do to help parents?
Firstly, the language needs to change from ‘failure to engage’ which is blaming and permanent to something more like ‘the parent is finding it difficult to take part at the moment’ which should invite the questions why? and how could that be changed?
The approach of the assessor needs to be reassuring, empathic, perhaps patient and curious without any blame or shame attributed. The assessor needs to understand that a level of finding it difficult to engage is “normal” and expected. They can in fact use it to better understand the parent’s journey as an individual and as a parent and how their experiences to date have formed them.
The assessor needs to work at the parent’s pace and work hard to develop a rapport.
The assessor needs to use clear straightforward language.
Using interactive tools such as the ParentAssess toolkit, can help parents relax and engage with the assessment process
The assessor should give the parent an assessment plan and information about what is going to happen.
If the parent is struggling to take part, they may need help to understand why that might be.
The parent’s solicitor can assist by reassuring the parent and ensuring the parent is given sufficient time and information.
It's important the assessor lets the solicitor and the child’s guardian know of any issues with engagement as soon as possible
The professional network should check if the parent needs an advocate.
The social worker should prepare older children for the assessment and explain what it entails. If the parent is struggling, this needs to be explained to the child.