"Threatening behaviour can consist of the deliberate use of silence."
Are you deliberately using your silence in a threatening way? Be careful. You might be. And how would you know if you were? I'd love to hear how that would play out in a court of law (although if it was the Family Court - as it would be - nobody ever would): "She used her silence in a threatening way, Your Honour." Right. Bang her up then. How dare she?
This is being circulated as an official guidance document. By government officers. It's not only in Lincolnshire. It's also in Manchester, Bury, Sussex, Luton, Stockton-on-Tees, Salford, Doncaster, North East Scotland, Barnsley, and Cardiff (whose is actually listed in Google as that of Sheffield LSCB, which is where I understand this thing to have originated). And those are just the ones I could access in a quick Google search this morning. I suspect there will be yet more versions of this same document. So I want to have a look at it in more detail.
It consists of a number of trigger words. These are judgments made - not by a court of law - but by officials on the ground, off the hoof. These labels will be attached to people (and will stick) based on very little information of the person as a whole. In my view then, they're not judgments at all, in a fair sense. They're prejudgments ("An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.") This is a document about prejudice. And not how to combat it, but how to practice it, with official impunity.
I'm going to try my best to give it the benefit of the doubt. To work from the basis of an assumption that the author of this had the best of intentions to help people who were dealing with the worst of circumstances in the course of their everyday work. They perhaps didn't realise how it would read to the rest of us: ordinary parents who might have good and valid reasons for being [*prejudicial labelling alert:*] service resistant. We might imagine - you might say, foolishly in this day and age - that we could parent our children without official input and supervision, as our ancestors have successfully done for these past millennia. We might actually be capable - as our children's continued health, education and happiness would testify, should such a thing every be doubted (and what sort of society would doubt it?!) - of doing so.
So as that kind of ordinary parent, apparently doing a pretty good job (if I say so myself) I'm going to now go quickly through this document and highlight the elements of it that fill me with unease and alarm, from the sheer terror of imagining ever finding myself being [pre]judged in this way, and unknowingly/ accidentally attracting any of these damaging labels to my name. (Please note that the following excerpts are selective and need to be read in context with the full document.)
From time to time all agencies will come into contact with families whose compliance is apparent rather than genuine, or who are more obviously reluctant, resistant or sometimes angry or hostile to their approaches.
First, I want to know what constitutes an 'agency' in this context. What's its legal status? Is it a public body? How is it funded? What laws and regulations is it answerable to?
Then we get onto 'apparent compliance' rather than 'genuine compliance'. But before that.. compliance? With a service? Call me old fashioned, but I'm only in my early 40s and yet I still think of a service as being something that works for us rather than the other way around. An optional thing. Unless the meaning of the word 'service' has now been changed to 'agent of an aggressive dictatorship' when we weren't looking, then 'compliance' is an extremely odd and worrying term to be used.
So how are we, 'service users' - assuming we choose to be compliant at all - to know whether our compliance appears to be 'apparent' or 'genuine'? The answer to this is not yet made clear.
2.1 There are four types of uncooperativeness:
- Ambivalence: can be seen when people are always late for appointments, or repeatedly make excuses for missing them; when they change the conversation away from uncomfortable topics and when they use dismissive body language.
What's classed as 'dismissive body language'? How are we to know? How can we avoid using 'dismissive body language' to avoid the label 'ambivalent uncooperative' - when we don't even know what it is? The answer is: we can't.
- Avoidance: a very common method of uncooperativeness, including avoiding appointments, missing meetings, and cutting visits short due to other apparently important activity (often because the prospect of involvement makes the person anxious and they hope to escape it).
The message I take from that is this: Set your dealings with these people as your highest priority, over and above meeting your children's needs, your own needs, and the needs of other 'agencies'. Otherwise you might attract the label 'avoidant uncooperative'.
- Confrontation: includes challenging professionals, provoking arguments, extreme avoidance (e.g. not answering the door as opposed to not being in) and often indicates a deep-seated lack of trust leading to a ‘fight’ rather than ‘flight’ response to difficult situations.
Not answering the door equals confrontation??! In crazy daisy upside-down world, maybe. But in this one - still, despite these people's best efforts - not answering the door is usually seen as an avoidance of confrontation. The complete opposite.
2.2 Reasons for Uncooperativeness
There are a variety of reasons why some families may be uncooperative with professionals, including the fact that they:
- Do not want their privacy invaded;
- Have something to hide;
- Refuse to believe they have a problem;
Maybe they actually don't 'have a problem'. Who gets to decide whether a person 'has a problem' or not? This is where I worry about the legal status of such 'agencies' and the basis of their power. And to crave more accurate definitions and more thorough rationale. I don't think it's too much to expect from people trying to wield such immense and potentially destructive power over their neighbours' lives.
2.3 A range of social, cultural and psychological factors influence the behaviour of parents. The more uncooperative the family, the more likely it is that the main influences are psychological.
This is blatantly not true. I know lots of families who would resolutely deny official screening of their homes and families, who would - no doubt - present as 'extremely uncooperative' in such circumstances (but who are perfectly nice people in other circumstances, and exemplary parents). Without exception the main influences of this would be idealogical. Political. Emotional. Protective. Not psychological, which makes it sound like an irrational choice. (Although I suppose, if these 'agencies' are threatening to remove children from families on an arbitrary basis, then anything other than a terrified and absolute compliance could increasingly be viewed as irrational! One of the main problems with this being, it would be difficult to work out from this document even how to demonstrate such compliance in the 'correct' way! How have we come to this?)
2.4 In general a parent will try to regain control over their lives, but they may be overwhelmed by pain, depression, anxiety and guilt resulting from the earlier losses in their lives. Paradoxically, the uncooperativeness may be the moment at which the person opens up their feelings, albeit negative ones, at the prospect of help. They are unlikely to be aware of this process going on.
I simply cannot believe the patronising tone of that paragraph. Bear in mind, these might be people who have had their beloved children forcibly removed from them, or received explicit threat of such. By those very people who are there to 'help' them, whether they like it or not.
3. Impact on Assessment
3.1 Accurate information and a clear understanding of what is happening to a child within their family and community are vital to any assessment. The usual and most effective way to achieve this is by engaging parents and children in the process of assessment, reaching a shared view of what needs to change and what support is needed, and jointly planning the next steps.
This sounds quite cosy, doesn't it? I wonder if the family and community are also made aware that if they are accidentally silent or seen to be using the wrong body language, this could affect their treatment considerably. It would be only fair to tell them in advance, so they could be sure to keep any gaps in the conversation well filled at all times.
3.2 Engaging with a parent who is resistant or even violent and/or intimidating is obviously more difficult. The behaviour may be deliberately used to keep professionals from engaging with the parent or child, or can have the effect of keeping professionals at bay. There may be practical restrictions to the ordinary tools of assessment (e.g. seeing the child on their own, observing the child in their own home etc). The usual sources of information/alternative perceptions from other professionals and other family members may not be available because no-one can get close enough to the family.
This harks back to the old chestnut that 'a child not seen is a child at risk'. Not true. Not true. Could just be that the parents want to protect their child from the stress of being interviewed, of knowing their conduct is under question, of feeling insecure. Could be that the parents are - quite justifiably, reading documents like this - worried about being misjudged or prejudged, based on their 'presentation'. Or their child's. Could be that they struggle to see why their privacy should be invaded if a convincingly valid reason for this has not been properly cited. (To be fair, the document does mention this reason, but I think only in the context of yet another obstacle to be patiently surmounted by the official.)
There's a lot more, but I've had enough now. Suffice to say (in suitably panicked tone):
- If it doesn't look like there's 'enough' food in my fridge, that's probably because I haven't been shopping yet today. (Are we all to go shopping all the time and keep excess food stores in case of spot checks?)
- If my child is happy with her sleeping conditions, why do they need to be checked?
- Why can you not take anything I say as a parent at face value, whatsoever?
- Why must we have this climate of policing one another with perpetual mistrust?
Yes, child abuse happens. It happens in the upper classes, in the middle classes, and in the under classes. It happens - as those examples show - both at school and at home. It happens to children in 'care' and in church. It is surely endemic, across the board.
But it is still the exception, not the rule. Most parents are good and loving parents who are their children's best advocates and staunchest protectors. We are the people who know and understand our children best - the only ones who can offer them truly unconditional love. The document I've been reading today completely overlooks this crucial aspect of the picture. In its tone - in my opinion - it is patronising, superior, careless and suspicious. It seems to be designed to engender conflict rather than to resolve it.
I accept there are problems in society and some families, and that some children need help. But this kind of 'help' cannot be the way. Why aren't we looking for causes of the problems, instead of dirty, ineffective sticking plasters like this? Why don't we address the issues that cause unbearable stress for some families (mostly, IMO, based on lack of sufficient natural space, resources and influence over their environment such as is required for good mental health) instead?
I'm wondering who wins, in this current situation. Not the abused children, for whom adequate salvation is often not found regardless of the quality of 'interventions'. Not the non-abused children, who have to live in this environment of perpetual suspicion of all parents, just in case. Not the abusing parents, whose real problems are invariably never addressed. And not the innocent parents, whose innocence is never trusted or taken at face value, so that we're all treated as guilty until proven innocent. Not the 'agency operatives' (officials, social workers, etc) who are paid to execute this crazy process. I can't imagine a more stressful career.
So who wins? Who profits from a nationwide climate of fear, suspicion and separation? If we can work this out, we might stand some chance of collectively resisting it.