Assessing for bruises on the soul: an exploration of child protection social work with intra-familial emotional abuse

North, Gemma (2017) Assessing for bruises on the soul: an exploration of child protection social work with intra-familial emotional abuse. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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Previous research has revealed that social workers struggle with recognising,
naming and intervening in cases of emotional abuse (Iwaniec et al. 2007). A
possible reason for this is that the impact on children of emotional abuse is
experienced and played out predominantly within the psychosocial rather than the
physical domain. With the effects being less observable, they are more challenging
to attribute directly to emotionally abusive behaviours by parents and caregivers
(Glaser and Prior 1997). Not enough is yet understood about the challenges that
working with emotional abuse in families present to child protection social workers
in England.
This Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded PhD project seeks to
advance knowledge of this topic by exploring some of the emotional and cognitive
processes social workers follow when working in situations with children and
families where emotional abuse is a concern. A key focus of the research is social
workers’ subjectivity and the ways in which this influences their practice. Aspects of
practice including reflexivity, intuition and emotional self-efficacy are explored,
alongside the use of law and policy and more formal assessment tools. The
supportive measures social workers use to process and contain the complex
feelings they experience in their daily work are investigated in relation to the
decisions they make.
The research is small-scale and qualitative in nature. The data have been
gathered from a sample of child protection social workers from two local authorities
in the South East of England. Two focus groups were conducted, designed to
generate broad themes to be further explored in individual interviews. Eight social
workers were interviewed individually twice, with their follow-up interview held
approximately two months after the first to give the interviewee an opportunity to
reflect on the subject matter. The semi-structured interview schedule included
exploration of how factors such as previous practice experiences, educational
training and cultural background contribute to participants’ decision-making
processes during assessment and intervention with cases of emotional abuse.
Underpinned by a psychosocial approach, the analysis looks ‘under the surface’ of
participants’ responses to consider what may be subjective or unconscious in their
narratives, and what might be hidden or denied. This enabled a deeper exploration
of the nuances of practice with emotional abuse, allowing the individual social
workers to emerge as three-dimensional human beings with vulnerabilities and
The research findings indicate that individual social workers approach identifying,
assessing and intervening with children and families where emotional abuse is a
concern in different ways. The social workers interviewed had clear individual
strengths as a consequence of their particular approach, but struggled with
reconciling their weaknesses if the impact of their day-to-day experiences of the
work was not managed effectively. Defended responses to their own emotional
reactions resulted in anxiety, lack of self-efficacy and splitting. Supportive
mechanisms identified in the data as important to improving work with emotional
abuse are containing supervisory relationships, sustained peer support and a
secure workplace environment that promotes a feeling of connectedness to the
wider team. The aim of the research is to contribute guidance to support social
workers in their work with children and families where emotional abuse is, or may
be present.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Social Work and Social Care
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology > HV0040 Social service. Social work. Charity organization and practice Including social case work, private and public relief, institutional care, rural social work, work relief
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology > HV0697 Protection, assistance and relief > HV0700 Special classes > HV0713 Children
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 30 Jan 2017 16:15
Last Modified: 30 Jan 2017 16:15

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