Protecting Children Means Supporting Parents

“If the parents are fine, the child will be fine. Yet we always talk about the children and don’t bother about the parents. If we do not take care of the parents, it will never work. The child will always feel bad. It is important to care for the parents so that the children can do well.”

Manu Vandericken, ATD Fourth World parent activist, Belgium

“From Mistrust to Mutual Understanding” was the subject of the last joint training in the Merging Knowledge project organized by ATD Fourth World in Belgium. The word “Mistrust” in the title says a lot about the dynamics between social services and people living in poverty. So it was unusual that the training session brought together both professionals from the Belgian Child Protection Agency (S.A.J.,) and parents experiencing poverty and social exclusion who had used their services.

The Child Protection Unit in Verviers, an administrative district in Belgium, asked ATD to organize the joint training session that took place over four days in December 2017 and February 2018. Fourteen professionals, five Fourth World parent activists and four facilitators gathered in Dison (Verviers) to question their assumptions and talk about the relationship between Child Protection Agencies and families experiencing significant difficulties.

The joint training group.

For some professionals, this joint training was a necessary first step towards changing these relationships. “It is high time for our individual services to meet together like this, especially in the company of the families we work with,” said François Desart, Social Worker for A.M.O., a specialist frontline agency. “We all realise that the Child Protection system can sometimes produce unintended consequences.”

This meeting was equally important for families who have a hard time making themselves understood when interacting with these agencies. “Families have a rather painful experience of Child Protection services,” said Beatrice Paquet, a Fourth World parent activist from Saint-Gilles.

Social workers Marie-Noël et Charlie.

In very poor communities, families often face the threat of children being taken into care and this leaves its mark on children and parents alike. Participants brought up the subject of fear right away. Fear is an important reason for parents’ mistrust when they interact with any social services. “We realized that the fear families feel hangs over them all the time, regardless of the type of service involved,” said social worker François Desart. “For Child Protection services this is obviously very challenging. It proves, in my opinion, that the current system has its limitations.”

However, at the training session, parent activists saw that professionals also experience fears during their interventions with families — fear of taking risks or not saying things clearly. This apprehension can lead them to judge a situation too quickly or to be overprotective.

Béatrice Paquet, ATD parent activist.

Taking enough time to talk to and understand one another is essential for parents and professionals alike, the meeting soon revealed. “They don’t take the time to hear you,” stated Ms. Paquet. “They don’t listen to you enough.”

In the course of the four day meeting, social worker Mr. Desart came to see how true this is. “I realised that, as professionals, we think we are quick to understand people. But that’s not the case! We will never truly understand what the people we work with are going through [because] we don’t experience the same hardships. Meetings like this are important in order to reach a better mutual understanding between families and professionals.”

Parent activists describe their involvement with ATD Fourth World.

For social workers, taking enough time with families also means choosing words carefully so clients understand what they are saying. Professionals often use very specialised language. Families already afraid of being judged may not want to admit that they don’t understand certain words.

The last session of the joint training was streamed live online. Participants made an interactive presentation to colleagues and managers about the ideas that had emerged from the four days of work. Everyone, they explained, wanted to see changes in the Child Protection system.

“I think we need to go back to the principles that motivated the authors of the 1991 Child Protection Decree,” said Mr. Desart. “These days, we congratulate ourselves when we manage to get new spaces in residential institutions. But is this really a solution? Shouldn’t we instead be asking for permission to work in a different way?”

The 1991 Decree stipulated that a placement should be as short as possible. The goal should be for children to return to the family and the system should be based on respect for the child’s right to live with their family. Yet — and this was one of the most important realizations for the professionals at the joint training — the well being of children is too often considered separately from that of parents. This can lead to serious consequences in the home.

Parent activists and social service professionals talk together in a small group setting.

“If the parents are fine, the child will be fine,” said Manu Vandericken, a Fourth World activist from Charleroi. “Yet we always talk about the children and don’t bother about the parents. If we do not take care of the parents, it will never work. The child will always feel bad. It is important to care for the parents so that the children can do well.”

Julie, a social worker, and parent activist Manu Vandericken worked as a team to discuss difficulties parents and professionals have understanding each other.

Parents and social workers alike agreed that “protecting children” must involve comprehensive support for the family as a whole because children have a fundamental right to live with their own parents.

You might also like:

ATD Fourth World’s international work on protecting families

European-level meeting on protecting families in Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK

ATD’s Frimhurst Family Home: a different approach to “problem families” in the UK

ATD Fourth World in Belgium