Researchers call for more to be done to understand the effects of social work support during childhood

31 August 2016

More sophisticated data are needed if we are to capture the true impact of help from social workers for UK families, according to a new report.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education, Cardiff University and Sussex University have made this suggestion after finding little evidence that social work helps improve children’s emotional and behavioural problems.

The study’s authors analysed data on more than 18,000 children born in 2000-01 who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

They aimed to establish whether social work support received by 283 mothers when their children were 3 and 5 years old improved the mental and emotional health of their offspring two years after contact.

They found no difference in the mental health or wellbeing of children from families receiving social work support compared to those from similar families who did not receive help.

The report’s authors said: “We must be very cautious when interpreting these findings. They do not necessarily mean that social work support has no effect on emotional and behavioural problems.

“Even though the studies we used contain a wealth of information on individuals and families, they are based on self-report and they tell us relatively little about the nature, quality, amount or reasons for social work support.

“In the 21st century UK, increasing rates of referral combined with reduced resources mean that thresholds for social workers to get involved with families beyond initial contact or assessment are increasingly high. This means substantial support may be reserved for those in situations of very high need or risk.”

The researchers also examined information on the types of problems experienced by the main parent, usually the mother, that were likely to lead to social work support.

The likelihood of mothers seeking social work support increased if they lived in local authority or housing association accommodation, compared to those renting privately or with a mortgage. Mothers who had separated, divorced or remarried were also more likely to receive help than those who were in their first marriage.

However, mothers who had experienced homelessness, and those who had previously been, or were currently, diagnosed with depression were the most likely to receive assistance from social workers.

Read the full paper

‘Predicting the recipients of social work support, and its impact on emotional and behavioural problems in early childhood’, by Meng Le Zhang, Morag Henderson, Sin Yi Cheung, Jonathan Scourfield and Elaine Sharland was published in Child and Family Social Work in June 2016.

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