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Working with professionals

Updated: 22 September 2013

What's Important To Us

When we are working with a child or young person and their family/whānau, we need to remember that we are never working in isolation; there is always at least one and often many professionals involved with the family/whānau at the same time. Such professionals can include but are not limited to the child or young person’s teacher, their GP, other health and education professionals involved with the family/whānau, support workers, counsellors, and lawyers.

These professionals, regardless of whether they have known the family/whānau for just a few weeks or for several months or years, can offer a great deal of information that will be really useful to you in your work with the family/whānau. They can give you an insight into the family/whānau situation that you may not have yet had the opportunity to see.

It is vital that we take every opportunity to engage with other professionals not only on a one-to-one basis but together as a group so that everyone who is involved with the family/whānau can hear information first-hand and add their own perspectives and thoughts based on what they know and have heard.

Vulnerable children and young people’s needs are multi-faceted, so services and supports from a range of agencies will help improve outcomes for them.

Working with professionals is a core part of our work and social workers play a key leadership role in bringing everybody together on a regular basis to share their knowledge, insights and ideas.

This key information provides details about how to encourage and enhance our working relationships with other professionals.

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What we have learned

Case reviews often describe scenarios where a child or young person has experienced a pattern of increasingly serious abuse or neglect within a family that had contact with a number of professionals. Each professional will hold a partial picture of the situation for the child or young person, and it is only after the child or young person has been seriously or fatally harmed that a complete picture is put together.

Frequently professionals will say they had concerns about the child or young person but because so many other professionals were involved with the family/whānau they felt sure at least one would be ensuring the child or young person’s safety (Turnell, 2004). Unfortunately this is often not the case.

What these case reviews highlight is the importance of making time for all professionals involved with the family/whānau to regularly meet up and share the information that they each hold.

There are huge benefits for professionals in terms of hearing from other professionals about their role, their work with the family/whānau, and things they have noticed or observed; sometimes a small piece of information might not seem terribly important to one professional but could really resonate with another. Above all else it is about information sharing, working together, seeing and valuing different contributions, viewing the child or young person’s needs in a holistic and integrated way, and forming an enduring safety network around the child or young person and their family/whānau.

Developing quality professional relationships

Constructive relationships between professionals are vital for effective and safe child protection practice. The quality of relationships between professionals has a direct causal link to the dissemination of information (Devaney, 2008) – when relationships are positive, open, accountable, clear, valued, and respectful it is more likely that information will be shared.

Developing these relationships will take time and effort, and may not necessarily happen over the course of one case. Small steps such as picking up the phone instead of emailing, dropping by a professional’s workplace to talk with them about a particular family/whānau, and inviting professionals to visit families/whānau with you are just some of the ways in which these relationships can start to grow and be maintained.

Working together to create the best outcomes for children and young people

The message to send to professionals is that, regardless of who their ‘client’ is, child abuse and neglect is everyone’s concern and keeping children and young people safe is not a job Oranga Tamariki can or should do on its own – we need their help and expertise. Ways to get professionals onboard include:

Challenges to working together

There will always be barriers to working with other professionals. When people work in different environments, under different legal jurisdictions and using different organisational procedures, they will bring a perspective to their work with families/whānau that may not always be congruent with those of other professionals.

If a person is working with a mother to help her address her alcohol addiction, their primary focus won’t necessarily be on the mother’s two small children. In these situations professionals may “butt heads” about what each considers is the “right” or “best” way to work with the family/whānau.

It is important that differences in opinion are acknowledged, and that the group recognises that the best interests of the child or young person needs to be at the core of everyone’s work with the family/whānau. This discussion needs to be had early with professionals so that everyone is working towards the same outcome.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality can be an issue for some professionals who may be reluctant to share information with others. Again, this is about setting the scene right at the start – that we want to keep children and young people safe – and any information that will help do this should be shared.

Make yourself aware of the legal implications of sharing information (see the Privacy Act 1993) and talk to your supervisor or practice leader if you are unsure about what can and cannot be shared.

If you work with a lot of the same professionals from time to time, be aware that you may naturally seek information from the same sources and not take the opportunity to seek information from others you may not know as well.

Behaviours to improve our work with professionals

In addition to the suggestions already put forward in this document about how our work with professionals can be enhanced, Frost (2005) has identified a number of key learnings from a literature review he completed about professionals working together within a social service setting:

  • Devote space to planning how to work with professionals and involve staff in the process
  • Develop shared aims and clear lines of accountability
  • Regularly review procedures and practices for working with professionals
  • Support work with professionals through training, supervision and by allowing time and space for reflection
  • Embrace the views and experiences of children, young people and families/whānau
  • Reinforce unity and working together by using language understood by everyone
  • Inspire workers to be leaders and ‘boundary spanners’ who can work across traditional divides and make the most of the opportunities presented
  • Recognise, celebrate and build on diversity and difference.

References

Devaney, J. (2008). Inter-professional working in child protection with families with long-term and complex needs. Child Abuse Review, 17, 242-261.

Frost, N. (2005). Professionalism, Partnership and Joined-up Thinking: A Research Review of Front-line Working with Children and Families. Dartington: Research in Practice.

Munro, E. (2011). The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report – A Child-Centred System. UK: The Stationery Office Ltd.

Turnell, A. (2004). Relationship-grounded, safety-organized child protection practice: Dreamtime or real-time option for child welfare? Protecting Children, 19(2), 14-25.