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Strengths-based social care: Children, young people and families

SCIE Highlights No 5
Published: September 2018 by SCIELeeds City Council and Shared Lives Plus

This briefing describes how SBAs work and assesses their effectiveness. The values and principles that inform this approach are not new, but there has been a rapidly growing interest over the last five years in such approaches. These approaches are also about co-production – people providing care working in equal partnership with those who need it to design and deliver services.

A strengths-based approach to care, support and inclusion says let’s look first at what people can do with their skills and their resources and what can the people around them do in their relationships and their communities. People need to be seen as more than just their care needs – they need to be experts and in charge of their own lives.

Alex Fox, OBE, Chief Executive, Shared Lives Plus

Adults’, children’s and young people’s family care needs are undergoing a rapid adoption of strengths-based (sometimes called asset-based) thinking and practice. In adult social care, strengths-based conversations are replacing traditional needs-based assessments and there is also the emergence, in some areas, of ambitious plans for asset-based approaches across all local public services. There is a growing interest in, and adoption of, SBAs in children and young people and family settings, given that a clear strengths-based practice framework is now regarded as one of the key features of successful innovations in the sector. (1)

This briefing is based on research conducted during the spring of 2018 by SCIE, a seminar led by SCIE, Leeds City Council and Shared Lives Plus, and a seminar on strengths-based social care for children and adults in Leeds during January.

Why a strengths-based approach?

The practice of social work in the UK has always been grounded within a framework of legislation and government policy relating to children, families and adults. As this framework evolves, new evidence-based ways of working and innovation are required to meet the needs and particular contexts of people’s lives. SBAs are one such result of this shifting context.

The implementation of the Care Act in 2014 has been an important driver for change. The Act stresses that SBAs in relation to assessments and interventions are one of the key principles, along with co-production, prevention and personalisation.

Strengths-based practice is a collaborative process between the person supported by services and those supporting them, allowing them to work together to determine an outcome that draws on the person’s strengths and assets. As such, it concerns itself principally with the quality of the relationship that develops between those providing support and those being supported, as well as the elements that the person seeking support brings to the process. (2)

The publication of the ‘Munro review of child protection’ (3) in 2011 emphasised change from a system that has become over-bureaucratised to one that is focused on the safety and welfare of children and young people and the development of professional expertise.

In light of this changing context, the case for innovation in children’s social work became urgent:

By rethinking the organisational system as well as professional practice frameworks that underpin children’s social work, I believe we can better support social workers to do the work they came into social work to do, offer effective help and support to families and take more decisive action to protect children. We need brave, principled and dynamic organisations to lead the way in new thinking about how to get this system working to its full potential.

Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families (4)

The case for innovation led to the implementation of the Department for Education (DfE) Children’s Social Care Innovation programme in 2014 to encourage new models and approaches. The first wave of the programme started in spring 2014 and involved 57 projects across all nine regions of England. (5) An evaluation in 2017 outlined a number of defining features of success of the programme. SBAs were identified as a key factor that contributed to improvement in outcomes across the projects, embodying:

Systemic practice as a theoretical underpinning informing conceptual practice frameworks that translate into engagement in high quality case discussion, that is family-focused, and strengths-based, to build families and/or young people’s capacity to address their own problems more effectively.

Rees Centre (2017) Children’s social care innovation programme: final evaluation report, London: DfE. (5)

Additionally, the evolving policy and legislative process discussed above reflected a fundamental shift from deficit-based thinking about children and young people as ‘being problems’ to being ‘at promise’ – productive agents of change in their own lives. (6)

Moreover, the concept that ‘the problem is the prob¬lem; the person is not the problem’ is im¬portant, because problems need to be externalised as separate from the person. This allows them to take responsibility for, and influence, their own lives.

Finally, SBAs can result in better outcomes at the individual, family and organisational levels.

  • At the individual and family level, SBAs aim to achieve greater stability and reduced risk for children and young people. They also aim to increase the wellbeing and resilience of families. SBAs encourage the involvement of children and young people and their families in decision-making so that they are more in control of the support they receive and thereby their everyday lives.
  • At the organisational level, local authorities achieve better value for money and cost savings, and there are stronger incentives for innovation, greater organisational adaptability and opportunities for a fresh start. This can also enable increased staff wellbeing and reduced turnover.

Defining strengths-based approaches for children and young people and their families

An SBA to social care essentially:

  • is rights-based and person-centred and has a clear ethical and values-based position. As such, it recognises the role the Mental Capacity Act plays in supporting young people aged 16 and over to be in control of their own decision-making
  • puts individuals, families and communities at the heart of social care and recognises that they have a key role to play in the care of children and young people, which cannot be replaced solely by professional intervention
  • includes a new way of looking at people, embracing the core belief that even if they are experiencing problems, they have the strengths, skills, resources and capability to effect positive change in their lives if enabled and supported to do so
  • appreciates that the valuable skills and experiences children and young people and their families have is key to getting alongside them and co-producing solutions.

Defining strengths-based approaches to children's social care in Doncaster

Key features of SBAs

SBAs can be effective if there is a whole-system approach to change to put in place the conditions necessary for success. More specifically, this requires a shift in the practices, attitudes, relationships and skills needed to effectively work with people and secure them the care they need. These are depicted in the table below.

From: Assessments for and identification of eligibility for care

From: Seeing the world through divides like adults’/children’s services

From: Fixing people

From: Negative attitude to how risks impact on professionals and organisations

From: Limited multi-agency working and commissioning third-sector organisations for a narrow set of tasks

From: Management of people in need of care

Embedding SBAs in practice

SBAs can only become embedded in practice through whole-system and whole-organisation change. Key to this is a shift towards systemic practice in social care, where children and young people and their families are viewed as part of a wider set of systems and relationships. Hence, this kind of culture change is required not only in social care or children’s services but across all agencies and organisations that work with children and young people and their families.

For example, embedding SBAs in practice requires a shared vision, shared values, commitment to leadership and professional skills development. Essentially, it’s about shifting from a paternalistic management culture rooted in the deficit model to one that appreciates what communities can accomplish with support.

Strengths-based approaches to children's social care in practice: Focus on Doncaster

Case studies

Examples of strengths-based approaches to social care practice.

Avoiding pitfalls in the SBA

Video: Using SBAs in social work

Doncaster: using strengths-based approaches in children's social work

Video: Shared Lives – Supporting young people

Strengths-based approaches: Supporting young people

Further information

Strengths-based social care for children, young people and their families