What do we mean by ‘an ecological approach’ to safeguarding children? How does the ecological approach influence current work to safeguard children?

Over the next few paragraphs I shall be exploring the meaning of the ‘ecological’ approach to safeguarding children. I shall investigate the true meaning of this particular approach and find out how it influences and shapes the work that is carried out today. Many people say that the ecological approach has signalled a significant change in the work carried out by professionals, I will examine this shift and find out how it has actually changed procedures. I will draw on literature and quotes provided in the course material and also look at wider material to see how this approach is used in the development and assessment of services.

When we look at abuse and neglect of children there are a lot of differing facts about what is right and wrong. There are a lot of conflicting issues that make it harder for childcare practitioners to put into practice what they are being told to do in theory. A major cause of conflict comes from the definition of the term neglect and what the guidelines are. One of the most accurate definitions of neglect I feel comes from the Department of Health: ‘the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.

It may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, shelter and clothing, failing to protect a child from physical harm or danger, or the failure to ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs’. (Department of Health, 1999, p. 5). When we think about ecology we tend to think about something and the way it relates to its surroundings. We can relate this to children and to the work which social services carry out.

Rather than looking just at the information they have in front of them, in order to take an ecological approach practitioners should have an understanding of how the child is evolved within the context of the family, and the community and culture in which the child is growing up. Gordon Jack states that there are three main environmental issues that can have an influence on children and families they are: – Poverty and Inequality – Social support and social capital – Societal and cultural factors

Within the chapter in the reader by Gordon Jack he indicates that an ecological perspective can be applied to the study of child development in general and to child abuse in particular. As I mentioned earlier he says that the child, the child’s family and the environment in which they live influence one another and should all be looked at in each individual case. He claims that child abuse is a product of characteristics of the environment in which it occurs rather than simply being the results of the actions in certain individuals.

Basically not only child development but Dana Cairns TMA 05 U288074X also child abuse are products of the various stresses and supports that exist in the child’s environment. (Reader, Gordon Jack, page 185) Since the 1960’s protecting children from abuse has been a preoccupation in the UK for professionals and the general public. A number of high publicity cases have brought child abuse to the forefront of peoples’ minds, but it is the incompetence of social workers and professionals that caused the most concern.

The views were that the system already in place for dealing with child abuse was too tied up in paper work, rather than the practitioners actually solving the problem, by the time they had carried out all of the necessary checks and forms in some rare cases the child could have already been killed by its carer or parent. (K204, Topic 15, page 9) Childcare practitioners were expected to identify children who were at risk and monitor them, where they think the risks are becoming too severe they then have to intervene either by monitoring the parents or in extreme cases removing the child.

The child protection system in the UK had been set up to deal with child abuse and neglect, but did not deal with the problems of a large majority of children and their families. The way cases were dealt with were based on a number of extreme examples and this policy proved inappropriate for the vast majority of cases where children’s lives were not at risk but there health and development was undermined.

Gordon Jack goes on to explain that the old child protection system also failed to adopt an ecological approach in that practitioners were not looking at the individual behaviour of the social, economic and community circumstances in which the child abuse and neglect arose. Instead of looking at these issues it highlighted the parental inadequacies and family pathology as explanations. (Reader, Gordon Jack, page 185) Hence it does nothing to alleviate these problems. It often undermines parents’ ability to cope and brands them as inadequate when they are already struggling to bring up and care for their children.

Safeguarding children is not just about avoiding and dealing with risks, dangers and harm. It is also about creating the best conditions for children to flourish, even in circumstances where they face troubles and difficulties. It is therefore important for practitioners not to problematise children and families involved in abuse. For example in a case where parents are unable to care for their children (either temporarily or permanently) it is often assumed that they do not care for them, this is seldom the case.

The social workers need to go beyond the ‘labels’ applied to these people and try and work out why the situation is happening rather than writing them off and letting them get lost in the system as was happening previously. (K204, Topic 15, pg 7) With all of the problems in the ‘old’ system of dealing with child abuse a new, more radical way of thinking was required for practitioners, social policy theorists and the government regarding how best to respond to concerns about a child’s safety. The new child welfare legislation in the UK introduced in the late 1980’s and 1990’s had two main goals.

These being: Dana Cairns TMA 05 U288074X – to radically improve the way the child welfare system dealt with concerns about children’s safety. – to make the law more child-centered. (K204, Topic 15, pg 16) A study carried out by Cleaver and Freeman (1995) found that in more than half the cases of suspected child abuse the children’s parents had to cope with problems such as mental illness, drinking and drug abuse and these problems hindered their capacity to provide adequate childcare. When they were investigated by Social Services little or nothing had been done to help with these problems.

In most cases the parents also got anxious about being investigated and the possibility of having their children taken away so played down and tried to cover their problems, the intervention added to the problems and made the child’s home situation deteriorate further. (Cleaver and Freeman, cited in Topic 15, pg 15) As I mentioned earlier practitioners are now starting to look at the wider picture and are moving away from regarding child abuse as a social problem that needs to be tackled if children are to be protected from harm and taking a more ecological approach.

The role of family support services are being emphasized more and the ecological approach has been adopted and incorporated into the assessment framework used by all social workers. The Department of Health guidance on assessing children in need now adopts an ecological approach to understanding the situation of the child with consideration accorded to the child’s developmental needs, the parents’/carers’ capacities to respond appropriately, and wider family and environmental factors (Department of Health, 2000, p. 11-12). The approach adopted by the Children Act 1989 was to protect children from harm.

Rather than just concentrating on child abuse it looks at children’s welfare on a broader scale. It expected practitioners to examine the safeguarding of children through promotive intervention. Basically, they had to look at the child as a whole picture and make sure the conditions were provided for healthy growth and development. This entailed looking at the parents and making sure they had all of the resources needed to meet their children’s needs. (K204, Topic 15, pg 20) One of major land marks in the new approach to child abuse was the shift in terminology from ‘child protection’ to ‘safeguarding children’.

The whole reason for this shift was the realisation that the system already set, as I mentioned earlier was largely ineffective. It offered no real benefits to the majority of children and families who were seeking help. (K204, Topic 15, pg 16) I feel that safeguarding should not be seen as a separate activity from promoting children’s welfare – they are two sides of the same coin. ‘Promoting welfare’ is more concerned with creating conditions and opportunities which allow children to flourish and fulfil their potential. ‘Safeguarding’ is concerned with ensuring children enjoy safe and effective care.

One of the main benefits from the shift in terminology and the new child welfare system was that it made different organisations talk and interact with one another to get the best results for all involved. Abusive or suspected abusive families are not all Dana Cairns TMA 05 U288074X the same therefore various strategies for helping them should be tailored. Organisations had to work together and provide a long term plan for these families, there is no quick fix approach to child neglect and continuous long term intervention is the only way for family function to be improved.

The need for inter-professional co-operation, especially between health visitors, social workers and teachers in working with neglectful families was stressed in the new guidelines and taking a more ecological approach showed that the neglect may be concurrent with other forms of child maltreatment and hence must be tackled together. The guidelines also showed that any help offered should be helpful and as un-intrusive to the family as possible, they don’t want to be passed from pillar to post and subjected to repeated assessment by different agencies.

The parents need to feel that practitioners are being open and honest with them and that they, in time, are confident about providing vital information about their child, themselves and their circumstances, thus looking at the ecological issues surrounding the family aswell. The practitioners should also be inter-agency in their approach; a range of agencies that have dealings with children should be fully involved and contribute to the assessment and provision of services.

All of the agencies will hold vital information to the child’s life and information should be gathered from a variety of sources, and then talked through with the family and other professionals concerned with the child’s welfare. The Children’s Act 1989 placed a legal duty on other agencies to help social services, social works departments or trusts with their enquiries, it also empowered the police and the NSPCC to investigate and intervene when a child was suffering suspected abuse. (K204, Topic 15, pg 17)

The chapter in the reader by Gordon Jack states that agencies working in the field should work closely with each other, and with the local community to develop integrated and effective services for reducing the risk of child abuse. He divides the strategies put in place into three broad categories, these are: – Home visiting – Centre based – Community Building These all include projects such as Child Development Programmes, Family centres and the Sure Start scheme. There aims are to provide effective social support and childcare to disadvantaged parents, as well as safe play space and social stimulation for the children.

Sure Start also aims to extend this further by developing the capacity of local neighbourhoods and communities to provide safe and supportive environments for both the child and the parent. It is essentially ecological in its perspective because it adopts a multi-faceted approach that attempts to address the needs of children, parents and communities in an integrated way. (Reader, Gordon Jack, page 185) As we have seen from the evidence collected above, the government, Social Services organisations and childcare practitioners have begun to realise that a new approach is needed to tackle the continuing problems of child abuse.

They are now starting to look at the whole picture and aiming for practitioners to take the blame away from the parents directly and look at a wider view. The ecological approach takes into account any other factors that may be causing the parents to strike out or be abusive and only by dealing with the outlining problems can that parent or carer be helped. They are also looking at everything in a child’s’ life that makes them flourish and improve their quality of life.

In adopting this broad, ecological definition of neglect based on meeting children’s basic needs it should encourage a rich array of interventions to help ensure they receive the care and protection they require and also help the parents. There is still a reluctance to undertake a more fundamental review of society and if this new approach is to be effective and work as hoped organisations will have to start looking at the inequalities that exist within the divisions of gender, race, age, disability and income. If all of this was taken into account and dealt with then hopefully a full ecological approach could be adopted.

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