Jan Horwath is the author of The Child’s World: The Comprehensive Guide to Assessing Children in Need, 2nd edition, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. She is Professor of Child Welfare at the University of Sheffield and she worked as a practitioner, trainer and manager in both voluntary and statutory social work settings before becoming an academic in 1995.

How did you initially become involved in social work with children and families?

As a young social work student I always intended working with children and families therefore, when I completed my training, I looked for a job that would enable me to focus on this user group. My first social work position was with a non-governmental organisation Middlemore Homes in Birmingham. The charity provided residential placements lasting between one and three years for families that had both a history of chronic neglect and the Local Authority was considering care proceedings. My job was to work intensively with a small number of families to improve parenting capacity and address the impact of neglect on the children. I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to really get to know the families and to use a range of individual and group approaches.

I maintained this interest in children and families whilst working as a generic social worker for both Manchester and Oxfordshire Local Authorities and continued to develop my group work skills by, for example, running groups for young people exhibiting challenging behaviours. A move to Sheffield provided me with an opportunity to further develop these skills with children and young people when I became an intermediate treatment officer. I am particularly proud of the pioneering work I engaged in with colleagues in Sheffield in the mid 1980s which included establishing groups for parents of young offenders. One of our most successful groups was for parents of young men who sexually abused. These experiences provided me with the foundation to go on and practice abroad; provide education and training and manage staff working in the child welfare field.

How has practice with children and families developed and changed since the first edition of The Child’s World eight years ago?

Whilst editing the chapters included in the second edition of the Child’s World I was continually reminded of the significant research, policy and practice developments that have had an impact not only on social work practice but also on the practice of all professionals who come into contact with children and families. Not long after the first edition of The Child’s World was published Lord Laming’s inquiry report following the death of Victoria Climbiè and the Government’s response: Every Child Matters began to have a significant impact on policy and practice. As the book is about assessment practice I’ll focus on that area of practice. One of the most striking changes to assessment policy and practice is the broadening of focus of assessment in order to identify early concerns and children with additional needs. This has been achieved through the introduction of the Common Assessment Framework. There have been considerable changes to organisational and practice contexts which were designed to address concerns about weak accountability and poor levels of service integration. These changes have reinforced the contribution that practitioners from a wide range of disciplines can make to both assessing and meeting the needs of vulnerable children as well as children in need. The changes have also emphasised the role and responsibilities of senior managers in creating a climate that promotes effective practice.

Practice has also changed as a result of increased research regarding, for example, the impact of issues such as domestic violence and drug and alcohol misuse on a carer’s ability to meet the needs of their child. We have also become increasingly aware of the impact of child maltreatment on brain development. Whilst Every Child Matters placed considerable emphasis on measuring outcomes to children, rather than focusing on processes and outputs, performance management systems in adult and children services have, in my opinion, continued to overemphasise processes and outputs, such as measuring the number of assessments completed within prescribed timescales, meaning that the focus on the child and their needs has taken second place. We have also continued to learn lessons from serious case reviews over the last eight years. Similar messages have emerged in terms of making sense of information and using professional judgement and ensuring staff receive adequate supervision. The recent death of Baby Peter highlighted the importance of assessing parents’ level of engagement in terms of motivation to change. Reflecting on all these developments, the most important learning point for me was made by Lord Laming in his inquiry report following the death of Victoria Climbiè in which he emphasised the importance of practitioners understanding what a day is like in the life of a child when assessing their needs.

What, in your opinion, are the main challenges facing social workers today?

Those in the profession have always been aware of the many challenges social workers encounter however, in the past few months these challenges have really come under the political and public spotlight. The interim report of the social work taskforce, for example, outlines many of the challenges and indeed there are many. For example, complex cases, a demoralised workforce; lack of clarity regarding the role of the social worker; an emphasis on performance management and the very negative portrayal of social workers in the media. Yet against this backcloth frontline staff are undertaking some excellent work and not only safeguarding but also promoting the welfare of numerous children. For me the biggest challenge is recognising effective practice and in the same way that we have begun to pay more attention to resilience amongst children and young people we should be considering what makes for a resilient workforce. Why is it that some practitioners can continue to work effectively with service users when others in the same or similar settings struggle?

What do you do in your spare time?

Living in Sheffield with the Peak District on the doorstep it is hardly surprising that I spend much of my spare time walking those hills and dales. I also enjoy walking long distance paths and my current project is the Thames Path. However since the end of June I have been spending much of my spare time with my first grandchild – Oscar. He is an absolute delight and no I’m not biased.

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