‘It’s So Complex!’: Understanding the Challenges of Child Protection Work as Experienced by Newly Graduated Professionals

‘It’s So Complex!’: Understanding the Challenges of Child Protection Work as Experienced by... Abstract Newly graduated social workers often experience their first period as professionals as challenging. Complexity is a word frequently used to describe not only the newcomers’ situation, but also social work in general. The present study is based on life mode interviews with social workers who started their careers in child protection services, focusing on their daily lives as newly graduated professionals. Theoretically, the study draws on theories of situated participation in communities of practice and narrative theory. In order to explore aspects of complexity in professional work, thematic analysis was used. Four aspects of the participants’ accounts of their daily work were found to be prominent: multiplicity, uncertainty, professional divergence and emotional strains. In addition, the article discusses how being a newcomer intersects with these aspects of the professional conduct. The article provides useful knowledge for the educators who prepare students for their professional lives, as well as for those who guide and support the newcomers at the workplaces. Complexity, social work, child protection work, newly graduates, professional development, professional everyday work Introduction When newly graduated social workers start their professional careers, they often experience their first period as professionals as challenging (Smeby and Mausethagen, 2011; Carpenter et al., 2011). Their professional everyday life is often described as chaotic and compound, and complexity is a word often used to define social work (Fish and Hardy, 2015; Fook et al., 2000). Yet what is this complexity about? The professional conduct of social workers is undoubtedly complicated. However, often complexity is spoken of as an inherent feature of the work and the fact that the professional conduct of social workers is complex has become more or less a truism. The aim of this article is to explore and ‘unpack’ the concept of complexity as it is reported in narratives about the everyday professional lives of newly graduated child protection workers. There are several reasons to address this issue. Child protection work is known to be a field that is especially challenging, for a number of reasons, and many graduates in this field experience their first period as professional workers as worryingly demanding. Some choose to quit after a short period and start new careers elsewhere. Those who choose to continue to work in this field often find it meaningful, yet challenging. Social workers who are seniors in the field of child protection might be referred to in the following manner: ‘She has stuck it out for twenty years!’ This accentuates a common understanding of how demanding this type of work can be. It is rare to hear an engineer or a doctor referred to in this way. In order to prepare students for their future professional work, and to organise a viable work situation for graduates, both the relevant educational programme and field of practice need knowledge of what it is like to be a newcomer. Knowing that the work is experienced as complex is insufficient. We need to know what such complexity is about and how it is experienced and comes into play in the daily work of new professionals. In the present study, social workers educated to work within child protection services (CPS) were interviewed about their daily lives as professionals. They spoke of a daily conduct that can certainly be characterised as complex. This complexity—or these complexities—is obviously related to being a newcomer and to lack of experience in the field of practice. It is also related to the work itself—and the two, lack of experience and the characteristics of the work, add to each other. The article aims at answering the following questions: How is the professional conduct involved in child protection work understood and experienced by newly graduated social workers? How does complexity come into play in the new professionals’ narrative accounts? Empirical and theoretical points of departure There have been several attempts to give both theoretical and empirical accounts of complexity within child welfare practice. One example is the use of complexity theory in an attempt to handle uncertainties and unpredictability (see e.g. Stevens and Hassett, 2007; Fish and Hardy, 2015). The outset for such efforts is the acknowledgement that social workers deal with complex systems, and that traditional linear thinking with cause-and-effect explanations will be insufficient. Stevens and Cox (2008) emphasise that ‘Complexity theory demands that attention be paid to the ever-changing nature of the system and asks for an intuitive approach as the practitioner comes to understand that they, too, are part of the complex adaptive system’ (p. 1323). Other approaches have also been employed in attempts to understand complexity in social work. For example, in his analysis of complexity within CPS, Hood (2014) seeks to address various challenges involved in complex cases. He not only looks at how the cases themselves are complex, but also how complexity comes into play in working with these cases. He outlines where complexity may arise in four areas: first, in the cases characterised by volatility and unpredictability; second, in managing risk with respect to outcome; third, in dealing with uncertainty when it comes to decisions; and, finally, in handling group dynamics, conflicts and co-operation (Hood, 2014, p. 29). The insight that uncertainty and unpredictability are unavoidable aspects of CPS cases has fostered a greater attention to the development of professional skills and judgement among those who work within the CPS. The seminal work of Eileen Munro emphasises precisely how child protection work is characterised by complexity and uncertainty (Munro, 2010, 2011). In order to deal with this, her suggestion is to establish work environments with feedback loops and which allow professional judgement to take a central role. When it comes to the newcomers, focus has been directed on their qualifications and how to provide sufficient support in order to secure work and facilitate necessary professional development. Studies which explores graduates’ assessments of competency (e.g. Smeby and Mausethagen, 2011; Baginsky and Manthorpe, 2016) reveal that many feel unprepared for work. Guerin et al. (2010) have in their study of early-career social workers in Ireland shown a high degree of mobility among the newcomers due to, for example, absence of support and supervision, huge responsibility, lack of resource, stressful encounters with clients and feeling of isolation. Initiatives as the ASYE-programme in the UK, which aims to support newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) through their first year (Carpenter et al., 2011), and the newly established education for supervisors working with NQSWs in Norway (utdanning.no) are efforts to improve the work situation for newcomers and secure quality of professional conduct. This article aims to explore complexity, not only in the cases the social workers deal with, but also the complexities that form a part of the professionals’ daily conduct across different aspects of their work. The methodological approach has been to focus on everyday life, which also has a theoretical foundation. The graduates enter into a specialised field where they shall perform and learn how to become well-functioning professionals in the precise context of professional conduct within which he or she is situated. The newcomers’ narrative accounts are understood as interpretations of what happens grounded in the specific context in which they take place (Riessman, 1993). Lave and Wenger have, with their seminal theory of learning through participation, directed attention towards how processes of learning are situated in the professional conduct of everyday life (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Lave, 1993). The transition from being a legitimate peripheral member to a full member may be described as a journey through which the newcomers gradually participate ‘in segments of work that increase in complexity and scope’ (Lave, 1993, p. 73). Acknowledging that learning is situated in the context of a specific practice makes it vital to focus on what goes on in the daily lives of the new professionals. The study The results presented in this article stem from a qualitative research project that involved graduates from three professions: police officers, pre-school teachers and social workers. In this article, the focus will be on the social workers. It is necessary to explain that, in Norway, there is a special type of education for social workers who aim to work within the CPS. There is also a more general type of education in social work and the professionals who have graduated from this education may also work within the CPS. The CPS education is, however, more directly oriented towards this kind of work and all the social workers who took part in this study had undertaken this particular education. The recruitment of the social workers was conducted by sending invitations by mail to all former students in a class shortly after graduation. Twelve graduates agreed to take part and these were interviewed three times over a period of fifteen months. The first interviews took place within a year after graduation. The participants had entered into various kinds of work, with eight as caseworkers in child protection offices, three as milieu therapists in residential homes and one as a pedagogical leader in a kindergarten. Complexity was especially expressed as a feature of the daily work by those who had chosen to be caseworkers, and they will be the subjects for the analysis presented in this article. This group consisted of seven women and one man, aged twenty-three to forty-eight years. Several had work experience before they started their education, but none from child protection offices. In order to preserve anonymity, all the participants will be referred to as ‘she’/’her’. The participants were interviewed about their everyday lives at work. We used a life mode interview (Haavind, 1987; Gulbrandsen, 2012). Our aim was to gain access to the graduates’ involvements in professional conduct and their experiences of themselves as professionals in the specific contexts they are engaged in. The interviewees were asked to describe a day at work, preferably the previous day, from when they arrived in the morning until they left in the afternoon. Our focus was on their work assignments, their social interactions, what kind of knowledge and skills they used and sought out, and how they understood the professional conduct. In addition, we asked open questions related to themes such as knowledge acquisition and employment. All participants gave written consent based on an information letter and also oral information given before the interviews started. The study is approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD). The interviews were tape recorded and later transcribed. The transcriptions were then analysed longwise and crosswise (Kvale, 2007). Four themes from this initial analysis were found to be prominent in the graduates’ descriptions of professional everyday life. These themes were complexity, unpredictability, seriousness and responsibility and, although noticeable across the professions, they were described and had significance in different ways. In the present article, attention will be directed towards one of the professions, namely social work, and the focus will be on the first theme, complexity, which was especially noticeable in the social workers’ narratives. However, all of the aspects of professional everyday life mentioned above are interconnected and therefore, to some extent, they all will be dealt with. The ‘unpacking’ of complexity was conducted as a thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006), where the participants’ accounts were interpreted by the meaning of content. The various segments were grouped in order to find common features that might make it possible to describe and understand the complexities of daily life that the participants described. Complexity often takes the form of chaos and to make order of chaos also entails reducing complexity. Deciding how to approach this has been a challenge. The result of the process of analysis consist of four categories that may describe what is involved when professionals speak of the complexity of work. However, as noted, unpacking or deconstructing complexity inevitably results in reducing complexity. Some of the narratives are presented at length in order to show the many features and facets that are involved in the graduates’ accounts of their professional work and how intertwined such features are. The analysis was conducted by the author and subsequently presented and discussed among colleagues with special knowledge of qualitative research in order to ensure the validity of the interpretations of the participants’ narratives. Complexity and everyday life as a new professional This account of the professional daily lives of the graduates begins with an excerpt from the first interview with one of the graduates: I sit and think about … I was asked to take a case to court (the county social welfare board) … some time ago and I said no …. Because of the simple reason that I felt I was not able—that I could not contribute with what … I thought the child needed in court. I have not worked on a case that will be brought to court for taking over custody yet. However, I have worked on an acute placement that also has to be taken to court, and that has been appealed. And everything that has to be fixed with regard to that appeal … and things I never suspected that I should do … regarding papers that have to be organized, everyone that has to be spoken with, arrangements that have to be made, applications that have to be sent, documents that have to be reviewed … And what I think—what I wished is that someone would have told me during the study that … because of that, basically tiny little appeal, I have to put aside the remaining families that I work with, because I have no time to deal with them. And there I stand knowing that … I have two children that I am responsible for, whom I know … more or less 100%—are being beaten at home … and I just have to let it happen, because I have no time to do anything about it. When we look at this newcomer’s descriptions of the professional life, her narratives speak of complexities in several ways. First, there is the complexity related to child protection social work itself, as also reported by Stevens and Cox (2008) and Hood (2014). Hood (2014) relates this to both the multiplicity of the clients’ problems, which makes it difficult to define the situation and prescribe solutions, and the challenges of collaborating with professionals, who are often based in different disciplines. It also has to do with the multiplicity of tasks that have to be carried out, including paperwork, meetings, appointments and applications. This kind of complexity is sometimes increased by conditions at the workplace, such as restructuring or staff shortage. Finally, being a newcomer and not yet knowledgeable will impact on and add to the experience of complexity. Even if the social workers’ education is directed towards this specific field of practice, the participants in our study expressed that they had basic competency from their study. They spoke of themselves as not yet fully professionals and, in this respect, very much mirrored Lave and Wenger’s (1991) understanding of what it means to be a newcomer. The narrative above speaks of unpreparedness, a lack of knowledge and experience, a shortage of time and, as a consequence, severe ethical dilemmas. We shall take a closer look at these and other aspects of the graduates’ experiences of their daily life. The next section will deal with aspects that can be related to casework in general. The section following will examine aspects of the professional work that are more significant for graduates. To separate these aspects is not to say that these features are divided. Rather, the experience of different aspects of the professional life is influenced by being a newcomer and vice versa, and this will be discussed later. Characteristics of casework In the following section, four aspects of the participants’ professional conduct are presented: multiplicity, uncertainty, professional divergence and emotional strains. Multiplicity Multiplicity is a key feature of the graduates’ accounts, as the excerpt above can inform us. It pertains to multiple tasks, multiple roles, multiple concerns and considerations: This case, it began with an acute placement by the child protection emergency office … because the mother tried to kill herself with the child present. So this is a quite serious—serious case. And then …. It has been like both—a lot of practical work with follow up on the child and the father, you know, who were contacted. And—and lots of meetings with treatment—the mother’s treatment institution …. And how shall I put it? Sort of … observing how mother and child behave together and … observe communication between the parents … where we have had our assessments …. Yes …. And a lot—lots and lots and lots of telephone calls (laughs a bit). … Yes, very many calls, both about practical matters, but also like … the father needs to say his part on the phone, and the mother needs to say hers and—Yes. … Then, I think … as a fieldworker in the CPS you are like a potato, you know. You assist the parents in practical matters, if THAT is what is needed, or do enquiries and investigations or … a conversation partner—We do incredibly different things, and no case is alike, even if there can be nuances of sameness, sort of. Carrying out many different tasks during a day was common. Only a single case would involve a multiplicity of chores, as the excerpts above indicate. This is in itself not surprising, but still the number, speed and entanglement of the tasks sometimes seem to be overwhelming. The graduates’ narratives also speak of multiple roles. This is, of course, related to all the different tasks they need to undertake, but also to the different relationships they engage in. They have to take on different roles in different cases and often undergo rapid shifts. One of the caseworkers spoke of how, within one hour, she had to take part in emergency decisions in one case and, in the next moment, got a phone call from a desperate mother and had to try to calm her down and engage in what she described as crisis counselling. Even within a single case, there are multiple roles to deal with. The responsibility to help, secure and control is a well-known dilemma within CPS, and the participants described how they tried to balance these obligations. This participant gives an account of her interaction with a young mother whose child has been taken into custody and the caseworker engaging her in measures in order to help her to be able to get the child back: And it is of course a voluntary measure, but how much is it experienced as being voluntary?, THAT … you don’t know that. Or you do know something about it, because it isn’t THAT voluntary, you know, when we say it is. It is both—I am both an inspector and a—how shall I put it?—something—I demand she does these things to get her baby back. So she does. And in the next moment I ask: Are there any practical issues? Shall I drive and get you something? Shall I—is there anything—So, you see? First, I raise a warning finger and then afterwards I give a helping hand. Multiple concerns and considerations are about often inharmonious interests between the involved parties (e.g. between parents or parents and children). In addition, the Child Welfare Act is based on principles that may conflict, such as the biological principle and the child’s best-interest principle. Dilemmas that may arise when social workers are to make their judgements and decisions based on these principles are part of the students’ curriculum. Still, as one of the participants claimed, there is no way an education can provide sufficient accounts of the gravity and compounding nature of the cases they may get involved in. It has to be experienced in the management of everyday professional life. One task that challenges the newcomers is documentation work. This has to do with the number of written documents required, but also the various considerations they have to undertake when they write. There are, for example, documents that serve the purpose of giving information to the court and that need to conform to an appropriate juridical format. At the same time, these documents should be understandable by the clients as well, and they should present information in ways that do not cause offence to the parties in question. The task of writing then has to be given extensive consideration. Uncertainty As Hood (2014) points out, complex systems are characterised by the fact that it is difficult to figure out both what is going on and what the best response is to what is going on. All of the participants in the study talked about uncertainty and unpredictability as part of their daily work. This had to do with how difficult it could be to make judgements about the case circumstances: Is the care situation sufficient for the child? How can they know? One of the participants explained this in the following manner: I have another case that is also like «maybe, maybe» and I really don’t want to take that one (to court), because I am so much more uncertain about it. And I think, this is difficult, and this isn’t all about me, it is a very hard case, very hard to get a grip on. The uncertainty the participants speak of is both about the facts (e.g. is the child subject to violence) and how to assess the impact of such facts on the child in question. It is also about the effect of the measures the caseworkers prescribe. There is no way to be certain about the results of their work, as there is seldom one solution to resolve one simple problem. Several of the caseworkers expressed concerns about how difficult it was to know what to do and that in some cases the help they offered could actually turn out making things worse. Divergence Multiple tasks, roles and concerns, joined with uncertainty, make the undertaking of evaluation and decision making difficult. The graduates speak of a lack of consensus among colleagues, between themselves and their clients and between the professions involved in a case. Sometimes this divergence may be about different conceptions of reality and assessment related to norms about what constitute satisfactory upbringing conditions, development and care: We have such different views on what is good and what is good enough. So when you sit and discuss a case—and I may have the opinion that yes, this will be sufficient, then someone else might say; No, but it isn’t! There can also be professional disagreement grounded in different theoretical/moral positions: [T]here is some disagreement in the office about how to meet the family. … We have those who feel that they should be met with very strict requirements and very strict—and things and like that, eh and I have tried a bit rounder approach and a bit more recognition and more …, yes, to get them more involved then. Tried to give them a bit more support. That they shall feel there is more support than demands. In Norway, as in many other countries, several perspectives, theories and methods exist side by side within CPS. Sometimes the graduates experience conflicts between the perspectives on social work that they have been taught at school and the practices they meet in their new workplace. Some speak of how their perspectives are welcomed and that they actually contribute to professional development in the workplace. Others speak of how they try but have to put their efforts to rest and deal with the divergence in perspectives as best they can. In some situations, this can lead to frustration, but most of the time, it is met with pragmatism. This pragmatism may stem from a realisation of their limitations or from a more epistemological insight into how difficult it is to claim one perspective superior. As one of the graduates stated: ‘It is very compound—People are compound, ergo the knowledge we have, has to be compound.’ Disagreement can also exist between professionals from different fields of occupation. This next social worker speaks of a present case where the mother of a young boy has psychological difficulties and co-operation between psychiatry and CPS is required: There is no doubt the mother is ill, and then the cooperation goes OK. It is worse when you have, for example, a child and you see that the child—this is not a child protection case, but perhaps psychiatry and—perhaps. And then the discussion starts—is this psychiatry or is it a child protection case? Those cases, they are tough. Do you have these kinds of cases now? Oh yes, I do. Yes. And they are difficult. In times where there is an increased acceptance of the benefit and necessity of inter-professional co-operation, there are still huge obstacles to face that have to do with epistemological position, resources and power. Emotional strains Working within the CPS involves great responsibility. The newcomers consider their work very consequential and its significance surely adds to the responsibility they feel. The cases they deal with are often grave and there are often serious decisions to make that will greatly affect people’s lives. In addition, failing may have severe consequences. This becomes even more profound because there are seldom clear answers to problems or obvious solutions. Dealing with the volatility of open systems (Stevens and Hassett, 2007) paired with seriousness of the work represents challenges to the newcomers. The newcomers also need to deal with the clients’ resistance and sometimes anger and hostility, like this social worker who had to find a new care arrangement for a child and, in order to find solutions, had to meet with the child’s grandmother: It is a tough job. And like—just like—quite concretely then—this grandmother, who we had a meeting with—you know, she ended by stomping out of the meeting room, saying: Damn you, Lisa! Like—You create a hell of a lot of problems—Like that—Just like that …. Quite simply …. And it is obvious that if you—Like—of course, it’s—you get it straight in your face. But you cannot let yourself be knocked off your perch either. You have to expect, I feel, that both—that those we speak with get angry, frustrated and sad and shocked and how this affects this family’s child and—you see—So you need to be kind of prepared so that you—it is not OK to be threatened or—and like—that kind of stuff. But you need to endure a bit, I think. The time pressure and lack of resources also require the caseworkers to prioritise between cases, which may leave them in a state of distress. This was surely the situation for the participant who was quoted in the first excerpt. She spoke about how she had to make decisions that allowed children, whom she almost certainly knew were being beaten at home, to continue to stay at home, because she did not have the time to pursue the case. One of the others spoke of how she had to learn rapidly when confronted with the realities of the profession: Reality is really tough. You sit with parents dissolved in tears, and you just say ‘sorry, you can’t keep this child. You aren’t managing! … It’s not working. We have tried SO much’ … It—Yes –it’s a harsh reality. A tough reality. … It’s facing this reality, but also how little you in some cases have to offer …. One feels really helpless in some settings. Like –You’re not accomplishing anything. You do as best you can, but that is not enough …. You wish that …. No, it’s a tough and hard reality, then. Again, the kind of emotional distress that may follow the knowledge they acquire, for example, about what has happened to a child, the decisions they have to make and the reactions of the people they meet, is something the graduates learned about at school and even to a certain degree got a sense of during their practice periods. The full extent of the emotional aspects of the professional conduct, however, is closely linked to the responsibilities they have as professionals and, as the caseworker quoted above explains, you have to experience it. Multiple considerations and concerns also involve multiple and often conflicting loyalties. What is given priority when the various considerations conflict with each other? One of the participants spoke of how she felt torn between herself and her values, her colleagues, the families she worked with, her leader and the department she worked in. CPS work involves quite a few ethical dilemmas. Some of them are an inherent part of the professional conduct, and this is part of the social work education curriculum. Others are more specifically related to the workplace. In each case, they may result in an emotional distress that puts extra weight on the shoulders of new social workers and which they are aware they have to deal with in order to be able to stay inside the profession. Being a newcomer The description of the professional life and conduct provided above is the result of an analysis of narrative accounts given by newly graduated professionals. The fact that they are newcomers into this professional world surely contributes to their experiences and the way they convey them—in several ways. First, the participants spoke of how they were unprepared for the realities of professional life. Unpreparedness has to do with lacking knowledge about the compounding characteristics of ‘real’ professional everyday life. Even if the graduates had two periods of work practice as students, they spoke of this as something qualitatively different from being a professional. The responsibility and scope of professional work are manifested quite differently when a student transitions into becoming a professional. Some of the participants spoke of how their education presented an idealised version of social work. At the same time, they stated that it is an impossible task to prepare students entirely; they have to experience what it is like to be a professional to become a professional. When the graduates speak of ‘praxis shock’, it is this unpreparedness for the totality of professional conduct, the sum of everything involved and associated with the daily work, that they refer to. The full extent of being a professional is not possible to understand unless you are fully engaged in the professional conduct with all the responsibilities it entails. Unpreparedness, then, is constituted as a feature of being a newcomer. Second, what all the participants emphasised was their lack of experience. When asked how they developed professional competency, they all stressed that the most important thing to them was experience. They spoke of how every case was new and unfamiliar. This becomes even clearer in hindsight and the participants spoke in the second and third interviews of how they had now gained experiences that helped them recognise similarities with former cases. In the latter interviews, several of the participants spoke of a gradual formation of security, or a feeling of standing on safe ground, which stemmed from having a better overview of issues that could arise and the knowledge that they had tackled difficult and similar situations before. It was about a growing sense of mastery, and one of the participants said the following in the third interview: ‘… everyday life has not changed, but I do not get knocked off my perch in the same manner as I used to.’ Third, the participants also expressed how they lacked concrete knowledge. This lack of knowledge is of course related to lack of experience, though not solely. They could, for example, lack information about progress in casework, procedures for co-operation with other professions or juridical matters. They said that the education had provided them with basic skills and knowledge, but that was far from enough to be able to understand and handle the variety of challenges they faced. As one of the participants stated: ‘As a graduate, to stand alone and make those assessments, that … I can with absolute certainty say that I am not qualified to make those assessments after three years of education.’ Adding to this, of course, was the fact that the newcomers were newcomers not only in the professional field, but also at their specific workplace, where they had to learn the routines, culture and practices that applied there. Being unprepared for these realities and lacking the relevant experience and knowledge will of course influence how the graduates experience their initial period as professionals and the complexities of professional conduct. The uncertainty they speak of related to being a newcomer adds to the experience of work as ambiguous and unpredictable, and vice versa. The lack of overview and recognition that stem from lack of experience may add to the feelings of complexity, chaos and lack of control. Most of the participants spoke of how they had access to supervision and also that, in the beginning, they were gradually introduced to different tasks. However, they also spoke of how the work situation quickly forced them to take on more responsibility, additional cases and more severe cases. Lave writes about how ‘partial participation in segments of work that increase the complexity and scope’ (1993, p. 73) will allow newcomers to gradually develop necessary competence. For many of the newcomers who took part in this study, it may seem that the possibility of being gradually introduced to the complexities of practice was limited. They were thrown out into practice, not only because of—first and foremost—the staff situation, but also because of the characteristics of the work itself. One aspect of the participants’ narratives were puzzling. Embracing the variety of theories and perspectives on one hand, many of the participants also welcomed the use of standardised methods for assessment and treatment. Few reflected on how the use of these methods could conflict with theoretical or ethical perspectives employed in other situations. One understanding of this is that, for newcomers, such standardisations may be welcomed as a way to organise and structure their work. There is, however, a risk that this standardisation leaves little room for reflections that will lead to the development of a competency that may help new professionals be able to deal with complexities. There are several studies that emphasise how professionals judge standardised methods as overly simplistic and unable to deal with the complexities at hand (se e.g. Gillingham and Humphreys, 2010; Stevens and Cox, 2008). This may be a challenge to professional development if we regard understanding and dealing with complexities as part of the professional competency. Unpacking complexity Gulbrandsen (2012) describes how research interviews can be a part of meaning-making processes where the interviewer and interviewees are engaged in a mutual assignment of making meaning about something that is previously not fully understood. As it is uncommon to give detailed accounts of one’s daily life, the interviews constitute a situation of interaction of what Bruner (2002) describes as narrative meaning making. The stories are situated within what Kousholt (2012) has called structures of social practices. When the narratives seem tentative or unorganised, certainly not premeditated, this may be seen as both a reflection of the disorder that exists in the everyday life of participants and as an element of their attempts to bring about meaning and order. Law states that, if the world is complex and messy, we have to give up on simplicities and learn to think, know and practise in new ways (2004). Yet, in order to embrace and handle complexity, we require knowledge of the messiness of the world. Unpacking complexity as a phenomenon will result in reduction and ordering. The aim here has been to unpack in a way that sheds light on the conduct of everyday professional life without reducing its complexity. This, of course, is an impossibility. However, in order to understand, we need to organise our knowledge. It is the awareness of what we do, and the fact that social workers, as researchers, do not discover and represent realities, but that they ‘participate in the enactment of those realities’ (Law, 2004, p. 45), that leaves us with a perspective that renders us able to reject simplistic understandings. The narratives of the newcomers speak of complexities that involve all aspects of professional life, including ontological and epistemological diversity. It has to do with the many, sometimes contradictory, theories and understandings available in the field. The participants also described a variety of methods based on different epistemologies. However, this is not necessarily seen as problematic. Rather, it can be seen as a necessity because, as one of the participants stated, human beings are compound and therefore we need theories that are compound. The complexities of the real world justify theoretical and methodical multiplicity. There is also ethical and existential complexities. This has to do with dilemmas—that is, how to prioritise between equally important issues and intersecting demands. Some of the dilemmas are seen as inherent features of CPS work itself, like dilemmas of conflicting interests. Others result from things like management decisions or lack of resources. In either case, the emotional strains can be huge and the participants spoke of how they needed to learn how to protect themselves in order to keep up with the work. Still, several also expressed a concern about this. They did not want to ‘become cynical’. Being emotionally involved was viewed as an important aspect of their work and this underscores an important existential dimension of their everyday professional life. Implications and closing This article aims to shed light onto how newcomers in the field of child protection work experience and explain complexity at different levels and in different areas of their professional conduct. Often we speak of complexity as a characteristic of social work, as it is an inherent characteristic of professional conduct in a self-explanatory way or as a synonym for ‘difficult’. The words ‘complex’ and ‘complexity’ are employed both as descriptions of social work and as accounts of why professionals find their work challenging. By analysing narratives of everyday professional life, four features of the complexities of professional everyday has been described: multiplicity, uncertainty, professional divergence and emotional strains. Knowledge of the professional life as it unfolds and how those who enter into the profession enact it is of significance both for educators and those who supervise and facilitate the newcomers at their workplaces. For us who educate, the study reveals the importance of conveying realistic pictures of the professions our students will enter and engage in. This requires updated knowledge about the everyday life in relevant workplaces and how the newcomers experience and tackle this. It may, however, be equally important to prepare them for the likely experience of being unprepared. As one of the participants noted, it helps to be prepared for the fact that you will face something you cannot foresee. It is not possible to eliminate uncertainty or the feeling of not knowing, still the awareness that this will occur may make the situations less overwhelming. For the workplaces, this study illuminates the importance of allowing the newcomers to be newcomers. There is a general understanding of the importance of arranging a learning environment where the new professionals get supervision and gradually are introduced to more and more advanced aspects of the professional conduct. Still, often reality strikes back and good intensions have to give priority to more urgent problems. This constitutes a challenge for the newcomers and their possibility to take part in the professional work in ways that help them develop competency, including to deal with complexities in all forms. In addition, the extensive use of standardisation and the challenges this may constitute when it comes to providing a learning environment that facilitates competency that includes how to understand and deal with complexities has to be considered. Acknowledgements The study was funded by Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Science. References Baginsky M. , Manthorpe J. ( 2016 ) ‘The views and experiences of step up to social work graduates: Two and a half years following qualification’ , British Journal of Social Work , 46 ( 7 ), pp. 2016 – 32 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Braun V. , Clarke V. ( 2006 ) ‘ Using thematic analysis in psychology’, Qualitative Research in Psychology , 3 ( 2 ), pp. 77 – 101 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Bruner J. ( 2002 ) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life , Cambridge , Harvard University Press . Carpenter J. , Patsios D. , Wood M. , Shardlow S. , Blewett J. , Platt D. , Scholar H. , Haines C. , Tunstill J. , Wong C. ( 2011 ) Newly Qualified Social Worker Programme: Evaluation Report on the Second Year , London , Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC ). Fish S. , Hardy M. ( 2015 ) ‘ Complex issues, complex solutions: Applying complexity theory in social work practice’, Nordic Social Work Research , 5 , pp. 98 – 114 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Fook J. , Ryan M. , Hawkins L. ( 2000 ) Professional Expertise: Practice, Theory and Education for Working in Uncertainty , London , Whiting and Birch . Gillingham P. , Humphreys C. ( 2010 ) ‘ Child protection practitioners and decision-making tools: Observations and reflections from the front line’, British Journal of Social Work , 40 ( 1 ), pp. 2598 – 616 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Guerin S. , Devitt C. , Redmond B. ( 2010 ) ‘Experiences of early-career social workers in Ireland’ , British Journal of Social Work , 40 ( 8 ), pp. 2467 – 84 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Gulbrandsen L. M. ( 2012 ) ‘Being a child, coming of age: Exploring processes of growing up’, in Hedegaard M. , Aronsen K. , Højholt C. , Ulvik O. S. (eds), Children, Childhood and Everyday Life: Children’s Perspectives , Charlotte, NC , Information Age Publishing Inc . Haavind H. ( 1987 ) Liten og stor: mødres omsorg og barns utviklingsmuligheter [The Big and the Little One: Maternal Care and the Developmental Possibilities for Children] , Oslo , Universitetsforlaget . Hood R. ( 2014 ) ‘ How professionals experience complexity: An interpretative phenomenological analysis’ , Child Abuse Review , 24 ( 2 ), pp. 140 – 52 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Kousholt D. ( 2012 ) ‘Family problems: Exploring dilemmas an complexities of organizing everyday family life’, in Hedegaard M. , Aronsen K. , Højholt C. , Ulvik O. S. (eds), Children, Childhood and Everyday Life: Children’s Perspectives , Charlotte, NC , Information Age Publishing Inc . Kvale S. ( 2007 ) Doing Interviews , London , Sage . Lave J. ( 1993 ) ‘Situated learning in communities of practice’, in Resnick L. B. , Levine J. M. , Teasley S. D. (eds), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition , Washington , American Psychological Association , pp. 63 – 82 . Lave J. , Wenger E. ( 1991 ) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Learning , Cambridge , Cambridge University Press . Law J. ( 2004 ) After Methods: Mess in Social Science Research , London , Routledge . Munro E. ( 2010 ) ‘ Learning to reduce risk in child protection’, British Journal of Social Work , 40 ( 4 ), pp. 1135 – 51 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Munro E. ( 2011 ) Munro Review of Child Protection: A Child-Centred System, London , Department for Education . Riessman C. K. ( 1993 ) Narrative Analysis , Newbury Park, CA , Sage Publications . Smeby J.-C. , Mausethagen S. ( 2011 ) ‘Kvalifisering til “velferdsstatens yrker”’ [‘Qualifying for “professions of the welfare state”’], in Utdanning 2011: veien til arbeidslivet [Education 2011: The Road to the Job Market] , SSB (eds), Oslo , Statistisk sentralbyr å, pp. 149 – 69 . Stevens I. , Cox P. ( 2008 ) ‘ Complexity theory: Developing new understandings of child protection in field settings and in residential child care’, British Journal of Social Work , 38 ( 7 ), pp. 1320 – 36 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Stevens I. , Hassett P. ( 2007 ) ‘ Applying complexity theory to risk in child protection practice’, Childhood , 14 ( 1 ), pp. 128 – 44 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Utdanning.no: Videreutdanning I barnevernfaglig veiledning [‘Education beyond qualification in cps supervision’], available online at https://utdanning.no/nn/utdanning/hioa.no/videreutdanning_i_barnevernfaglig_veiledning (accessed 3 October 2017). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

‘It’s So Complex!’: Understanding the Challenges of Child Protection Work as Experienced by Newly Graduated Professionals

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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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Abstract

Abstract Newly graduated social workers often experience their first period as professionals as challenging. Complexity is a word frequently used to describe not only the newcomers’ situation, but also social work in general. The present study is based on life mode interviews with social workers who started their careers in child protection services, focusing on their daily lives as newly graduated professionals. Theoretically, the study draws on theories of situated participation in communities of practice and narrative theory. In order to explore aspects of complexity in professional work, thematic analysis was used. Four aspects of the participants’ accounts of their daily work were found to be prominent: multiplicity, uncertainty, professional divergence and emotional strains. In addition, the article discusses how being a newcomer intersects with these aspects of the professional conduct. The article provides useful knowledge for the educators who prepare students for their professional lives, as well as for those who guide and support the newcomers at the workplaces. Complexity, social work, child protection work, newly graduates, professional development, professional everyday work Introduction When newly graduated social workers start their professional careers, they often experience their first period as professionals as challenging (Smeby and Mausethagen, 2011; Carpenter et al., 2011). Their professional everyday life is often described as chaotic and compound, and complexity is a word often used to define social work (Fish and Hardy, 2015; Fook et al., 2000). Yet what is this complexity about? The professional conduct of social workers is undoubtedly complicated. However, often complexity is spoken of as an inherent feature of the work and the fact that the professional conduct of social workers is complex has become more or less a truism. The aim of this article is to explore and ‘unpack’ the concept of complexity as it is reported in narratives about the everyday professional lives of newly graduated child protection workers. There are several reasons to address this issue. Child protection work is known to be a field that is especially challenging, for a number of reasons, and many graduates in this field experience their first period as professional workers as worryingly demanding. Some choose to quit after a short period and start new careers elsewhere. Those who choose to continue to work in this field often find it meaningful, yet challenging. Social workers who are seniors in the field of child protection might be referred to in the following manner: ‘She has stuck it out for twenty years!’ This accentuates a common understanding of how demanding this type of work can be. It is rare to hear an engineer or a doctor referred to in this way. In order to prepare students for their future professional work, and to organise a viable work situation for graduates, both the relevant educational programme and field of practice need knowledge of what it is like to be a newcomer. Knowing that the work is experienced as complex is insufficient. We need to know what such complexity is about and how it is experienced and comes into play in the daily work of new professionals. In the present study, social workers educated to work within child protection services (CPS) were interviewed about their daily lives as professionals. They spoke of a daily conduct that can certainly be characterised as complex. This complexity—or these complexities—is obviously related to being a newcomer and to lack of experience in the field of practice. It is also related to the work itself—and the two, lack of experience and the characteristics of the work, add to each other. The article aims at answering the following questions: How is the professional conduct involved in child protection work understood and experienced by newly graduated social workers? How does complexity come into play in the new professionals’ narrative accounts? Empirical and theoretical points of departure There have been several attempts to give both theoretical and empirical accounts of complexity within child welfare practice. One example is the use of complexity theory in an attempt to handle uncertainties and unpredictability (see e.g. Stevens and Hassett, 2007; Fish and Hardy, 2015). The outset for such efforts is the acknowledgement that social workers deal with complex systems, and that traditional linear thinking with cause-and-effect explanations will be insufficient. Stevens and Cox (2008) emphasise that ‘Complexity theory demands that attention be paid to the ever-changing nature of the system and asks for an intuitive approach as the practitioner comes to understand that they, too, are part of the complex adaptive system’ (p. 1323). Other approaches have also been employed in attempts to understand complexity in social work. For example, in his analysis of complexity within CPS, Hood (2014) seeks to address various challenges involved in complex cases. He not only looks at how the cases themselves are complex, but also how complexity comes into play in working with these cases. He outlines where complexity may arise in four areas: first, in the cases characterised by volatility and unpredictability; second, in managing risk with respect to outcome; third, in dealing with uncertainty when it comes to decisions; and, finally, in handling group dynamics, conflicts and co-operation (Hood, 2014, p. 29). The insight that uncertainty and unpredictability are unavoidable aspects of CPS cases has fostered a greater attention to the development of professional skills and judgement among those who work within the CPS. The seminal work of Eileen Munro emphasises precisely how child protection work is characterised by complexity and uncertainty (Munro, 2010, 2011). In order to deal with this, her suggestion is to establish work environments with feedback loops and which allow professional judgement to take a central role. When it comes to the newcomers, focus has been directed on their qualifications and how to provide sufficient support in order to secure work and facilitate necessary professional development. Studies which explores graduates’ assessments of competency (e.g. Smeby and Mausethagen, 2011; Baginsky and Manthorpe, 2016) reveal that many feel unprepared for work. Guerin et al. (2010) have in their study of early-career social workers in Ireland shown a high degree of mobility among the newcomers due to, for example, absence of support and supervision, huge responsibility, lack of resource, stressful encounters with clients and feeling of isolation. Initiatives as the ASYE-programme in the UK, which aims to support newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) through their first year (Carpenter et al., 2011), and the newly established education for supervisors working with NQSWs in Norway (utdanning.no) are efforts to improve the work situation for newcomers and secure quality of professional conduct. This article aims to explore complexity, not only in the cases the social workers deal with, but also the complexities that form a part of the professionals’ daily conduct across different aspects of their work. The methodological approach has been to focus on everyday life, which also has a theoretical foundation. The graduates enter into a specialised field where they shall perform and learn how to become well-functioning professionals in the precise context of professional conduct within which he or she is situated. The newcomers’ narrative accounts are understood as interpretations of what happens grounded in the specific context in which they take place (Riessman, 1993). Lave and Wenger have, with their seminal theory of learning through participation, directed attention towards how processes of learning are situated in the professional conduct of everyday life (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Lave, 1993). The transition from being a legitimate peripheral member to a full member may be described as a journey through which the newcomers gradually participate ‘in segments of work that increase in complexity and scope’ (Lave, 1993, p. 73). Acknowledging that learning is situated in the context of a specific practice makes it vital to focus on what goes on in the daily lives of the new professionals. The study The results presented in this article stem from a qualitative research project that involved graduates from three professions: police officers, pre-school teachers and social workers. In this article, the focus will be on the social workers. It is necessary to explain that, in Norway, there is a special type of education for social workers who aim to work within the CPS. There is also a more general type of education in social work and the professionals who have graduated from this education may also work within the CPS. The CPS education is, however, more directly oriented towards this kind of work and all the social workers who took part in this study had undertaken this particular education. The recruitment of the social workers was conducted by sending invitations by mail to all former students in a class shortly after graduation. Twelve graduates agreed to take part and these were interviewed three times over a period of fifteen months. The first interviews took place within a year after graduation. The participants had entered into various kinds of work, with eight as caseworkers in child protection offices, three as milieu therapists in residential homes and one as a pedagogical leader in a kindergarten. Complexity was especially expressed as a feature of the daily work by those who had chosen to be caseworkers, and they will be the subjects for the analysis presented in this article. This group consisted of seven women and one man, aged twenty-three to forty-eight years. Several had work experience before they started their education, but none from child protection offices. In order to preserve anonymity, all the participants will be referred to as ‘she’/’her’. The participants were interviewed about their everyday lives at work. We used a life mode interview (Haavind, 1987; Gulbrandsen, 2012). Our aim was to gain access to the graduates’ involvements in professional conduct and their experiences of themselves as professionals in the specific contexts they are engaged in. The interviewees were asked to describe a day at work, preferably the previous day, from when they arrived in the morning until they left in the afternoon. Our focus was on their work assignments, their social interactions, what kind of knowledge and skills they used and sought out, and how they understood the professional conduct. In addition, we asked open questions related to themes such as knowledge acquisition and employment. All participants gave written consent based on an information letter and also oral information given before the interviews started. The study is approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD). The interviews were tape recorded and later transcribed. The transcriptions were then analysed longwise and crosswise (Kvale, 2007). Four themes from this initial analysis were found to be prominent in the graduates’ descriptions of professional everyday life. These themes were complexity, unpredictability, seriousness and responsibility and, although noticeable across the professions, they were described and had significance in different ways. In the present article, attention will be directed towards one of the professions, namely social work, and the focus will be on the first theme, complexity, which was especially noticeable in the social workers’ narratives. However, all of the aspects of professional everyday life mentioned above are interconnected and therefore, to some extent, they all will be dealt with. The ‘unpacking’ of complexity was conducted as a thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006), where the participants’ accounts were interpreted by the meaning of content. The various segments were grouped in order to find common features that might make it possible to describe and understand the complexities of daily life that the participants described. Complexity often takes the form of chaos and to make order of chaos also entails reducing complexity. Deciding how to approach this has been a challenge. The result of the process of analysis consist of four categories that may describe what is involved when professionals speak of the complexity of work. However, as noted, unpacking or deconstructing complexity inevitably results in reducing complexity. Some of the narratives are presented at length in order to show the many features and facets that are involved in the graduates’ accounts of their professional work and how intertwined such features are. The analysis was conducted by the author and subsequently presented and discussed among colleagues with special knowledge of qualitative research in order to ensure the validity of the interpretations of the participants’ narratives. Complexity and everyday life as a new professional This account of the professional daily lives of the graduates begins with an excerpt from the first interview with one of the graduates: I sit and think about … I was asked to take a case to court (the county social welfare board) … some time ago and I said no …. Because of the simple reason that I felt I was not able—that I could not contribute with what … I thought the child needed in court. I have not worked on a case that will be brought to court for taking over custody yet. However, I have worked on an acute placement that also has to be taken to court, and that has been appealed. And everything that has to be fixed with regard to that appeal … and things I never suspected that I should do … regarding papers that have to be organized, everyone that has to be spoken with, arrangements that have to be made, applications that have to be sent, documents that have to be reviewed … And what I think—what I wished is that someone would have told me during the study that … because of that, basically tiny little appeal, I have to put aside the remaining families that I work with, because I have no time to deal with them. And there I stand knowing that … I have two children that I am responsible for, whom I know … more or less 100%—are being beaten at home … and I just have to let it happen, because I have no time to do anything about it. When we look at this newcomer’s descriptions of the professional life, her narratives speak of complexities in several ways. First, there is the complexity related to child protection social work itself, as also reported by Stevens and Cox (2008) and Hood (2014). Hood (2014) relates this to both the multiplicity of the clients’ problems, which makes it difficult to define the situation and prescribe solutions, and the challenges of collaborating with professionals, who are often based in different disciplines. It also has to do with the multiplicity of tasks that have to be carried out, including paperwork, meetings, appointments and applications. This kind of complexity is sometimes increased by conditions at the workplace, such as restructuring or staff shortage. Finally, being a newcomer and not yet knowledgeable will impact on and add to the experience of complexity. Even if the social workers’ education is directed towards this specific field of practice, the participants in our study expressed that they had basic competency from their study. They spoke of themselves as not yet fully professionals and, in this respect, very much mirrored Lave and Wenger’s (1991) understanding of what it means to be a newcomer. The narrative above speaks of unpreparedness, a lack of knowledge and experience, a shortage of time and, as a consequence, severe ethical dilemmas. We shall take a closer look at these and other aspects of the graduates’ experiences of their daily life. The next section will deal with aspects that can be related to casework in general. The section following will examine aspects of the professional work that are more significant for graduates. To separate these aspects is not to say that these features are divided. Rather, the experience of different aspects of the professional life is influenced by being a newcomer and vice versa, and this will be discussed later. Characteristics of casework In the following section, four aspects of the participants’ professional conduct are presented: multiplicity, uncertainty, professional divergence and emotional strains. Multiplicity Multiplicity is a key feature of the graduates’ accounts, as the excerpt above can inform us. It pertains to multiple tasks, multiple roles, multiple concerns and considerations: This case, it began with an acute placement by the child protection emergency office … because the mother tried to kill herself with the child present. So this is a quite serious—serious case. And then …. It has been like both—a lot of practical work with follow up on the child and the father, you know, who were contacted. And—and lots of meetings with treatment—the mother’s treatment institution …. And how shall I put it? Sort of … observing how mother and child behave together and … observe communication between the parents … where we have had our assessments …. Yes …. And a lot—lots and lots and lots of telephone calls (laughs a bit). … Yes, very many calls, both about practical matters, but also like … the father needs to say his part on the phone, and the mother needs to say hers and—Yes. … Then, I think … as a fieldworker in the CPS you are like a potato, you know. You assist the parents in practical matters, if THAT is what is needed, or do enquiries and investigations or … a conversation partner—We do incredibly different things, and no case is alike, even if there can be nuances of sameness, sort of. Carrying out many different tasks during a day was common. Only a single case would involve a multiplicity of chores, as the excerpts above indicate. This is in itself not surprising, but still the number, speed and entanglement of the tasks sometimes seem to be overwhelming. The graduates’ narratives also speak of multiple roles. This is, of course, related to all the different tasks they need to undertake, but also to the different relationships they engage in. They have to take on different roles in different cases and often undergo rapid shifts. One of the caseworkers spoke of how, within one hour, she had to take part in emergency decisions in one case and, in the next moment, got a phone call from a desperate mother and had to try to calm her down and engage in what she described as crisis counselling. Even within a single case, there are multiple roles to deal with. The responsibility to help, secure and control is a well-known dilemma within CPS, and the participants described how they tried to balance these obligations. This participant gives an account of her interaction with a young mother whose child has been taken into custody and the caseworker engaging her in measures in order to help her to be able to get the child back: And it is of course a voluntary measure, but how much is it experienced as being voluntary?, THAT … you don’t know that. Or you do know something about it, because it isn’t THAT voluntary, you know, when we say it is. It is both—I am both an inspector and a—how shall I put it?—something—I demand she does these things to get her baby back. So she does. And in the next moment I ask: Are there any practical issues? Shall I drive and get you something? Shall I—is there anything—So, you see? First, I raise a warning finger and then afterwards I give a helping hand. Multiple concerns and considerations are about often inharmonious interests between the involved parties (e.g. between parents or parents and children). In addition, the Child Welfare Act is based on principles that may conflict, such as the biological principle and the child’s best-interest principle. Dilemmas that may arise when social workers are to make their judgements and decisions based on these principles are part of the students’ curriculum. Still, as one of the participants claimed, there is no way an education can provide sufficient accounts of the gravity and compounding nature of the cases they may get involved in. It has to be experienced in the management of everyday professional life. One task that challenges the newcomers is documentation work. This has to do with the number of written documents required, but also the various considerations they have to undertake when they write. There are, for example, documents that serve the purpose of giving information to the court and that need to conform to an appropriate juridical format. At the same time, these documents should be understandable by the clients as well, and they should present information in ways that do not cause offence to the parties in question. The task of writing then has to be given extensive consideration. Uncertainty As Hood (2014) points out, complex systems are characterised by the fact that it is difficult to figure out both what is going on and what the best response is to what is going on. All of the participants in the study talked about uncertainty and unpredictability as part of their daily work. This had to do with how difficult it could be to make judgements about the case circumstances: Is the care situation sufficient for the child? How can they know? One of the participants explained this in the following manner: I have another case that is also like «maybe, maybe» and I really don’t want to take that one (to court), because I am so much more uncertain about it. And I think, this is difficult, and this isn’t all about me, it is a very hard case, very hard to get a grip on. The uncertainty the participants speak of is both about the facts (e.g. is the child subject to violence) and how to assess the impact of such facts on the child in question. It is also about the effect of the measures the caseworkers prescribe. There is no way to be certain about the results of their work, as there is seldom one solution to resolve one simple problem. Several of the caseworkers expressed concerns about how difficult it was to know what to do and that in some cases the help they offered could actually turn out making things worse. Divergence Multiple tasks, roles and concerns, joined with uncertainty, make the undertaking of evaluation and decision making difficult. The graduates speak of a lack of consensus among colleagues, between themselves and their clients and between the professions involved in a case. Sometimes this divergence may be about different conceptions of reality and assessment related to norms about what constitute satisfactory upbringing conditions, development and care: We have such different views on what is good and what is good enough. So when you sit and discuss a case—and I may have the opinion that yes, this will be sufficient, then someone else might say; No, but it isn’t! There can also be professional disagreement grounded in different theoretical/moral positions: [T]here is some disagreement in the office about how to meet the family. … We have those who feel that they should be met with very strict requirements and very strict—and things and like that, eh and I have tried a bit rounder approach and a bit more recognition and more …, yes, to get them more involved then. Tried to give them a bit more support. That they shall feel there is more support than demands. In Norway, as in many other countries, several perspectives, theories and methods exist side by side within CPS. Sometimes the graduates experience conflicts between the perspectives on social work that they have been taught at school and the practices they meet in their new workplace. Some speak of how their perspectives are welcomed and that they actually contribute to professional development in the workplace. Others speak of how they try but have to put their efforts to rest and deal with the divergence in perspectives as best they can. In some situations, this can lead to frustration, but most of the time, it is met with pragmatism. This pragmatism may stem from a realisation of their limitations or from a more epistemological insight into how difficult it is to claim one perspective superior. As one of the graduates stated: ‘It is very compound—People are compound, ergo the knowledge we have, has to be compound.’ Disagreement can also exist between professionals from different fields of occupation. This next social worker speaks of a present case where the mother of a young boy has psychological difficulties and co-operation between psychiatry and CPS is required: There is no doubt the mother is ill, and then the cooperation goes OK. It is worse when you have, for example, a child and you see that the child—this is not a child protection case, but perhaps psychiatry and—perhaps. And then the discussion starts—is this psychiatry or is it a child protection case? Those cases, they are tough. Do you have these kinds of cases now? Oh yes, I do. Yes. And they are difficult. In times where there is an increased acceptance of the benefit and necessity of inter-professional co-operation, there are still huge obstacles to face that have to do with epistemological position, resources and power. Emotional strains Working within the CPS involves great responsibility. The newcomers consider their work very consequential and its significance surely adds to the responsibility they feel. The cases they deal with are often grave and there are often serious decisions to make that will greatly affect people’s lives. In addition, failing may have severe consequences. This becomes even more profound because there are seldom clear answers to problems or obvious solutions. Dealing with the volatility of open systems (Stevens and Hassett, 2007) paired with seriousness of the work represents challenges to the newcomers. The newcomers also need to deal with the clients’ resistance and sometimes anger and hostility, like this social worker who had to find a new care arrangement for a child and, in order to find solutions, had to meet with the child’s grandmother: It is a tough job. And like—just like—quite concretely then—this grandmother, who we had a meeting with—you know, she ended by stomping out of the meeting room, saying: Damn you, Lisa! Like—You create a hell of a lot of problems—Like that—Just like that …. Quite simply …. And it is obvious that if you—Like—of course, it’s—you get it straight in your face. But you cannot let yourself be knocked off your perch either. You have to expect, I feel, that both—that those we speak with get angry, frustrated and sad and shocked and how this affects this family’s child and—you see—So you need to be kind of prepared so that you—it is not OK to be threatened or—and like—that kind of stuff. But you need to endure a bit, I think. The time pressure and lack of resources also require the caseworkers to prioritise between cases, which may leave them in a state of distress. This was surely the situation for the participant who was quoted in the first excerpt. She spoke about how she had to make decisions that allowed children, whom she almost certainly knew were being beaten at home, to continue to stay at home, because she did not have the time to pursue the case. One of the others spoke of how she had to learn rapidly when confronted with the realities of the profession: Reality is really tough. You sit with parents dissolved in tears, and you just say ‘sorry, you can’t keep this child. You aren’t managing! … It’s not working. We have tried SO much’ … It—Yes –it’s a harsh reality. A tough reality. … It’s facing this reality, but also how little you in some cases have to offer …. One feels really helpless in some settings. Like –You’re not accomplishing anything. You do as best you can, but that is not enough …. You wish that …. No, it’s a tough and hard reality, then. Again, the kind of emotional distress that may follow the knowledge they acquire, for example, about what has happened to a child, the decisions they have to make and the reactions of the people they meet, is something the graduates learned about at school and even to a certain degree got a sense of during their practice periods. The full extent of the emotional aspects of the professional conduct, however, is closely linked to the responsibilities they have as professionals and, as the caseworker quoted above explains, you have to experience it. Multiple considerations and concerns also involve multiple and often conflicting loyalties. What is given priority when the various considerations conflict with each other? One of the participants spoke of how she felt torn between herself and her values, her colleagues, the families she worked with, her leader and the department she worked in. CPS work involves quite a few ethical dilemmas. Some of them are an inherent part of the professional conduct, and this is part of the social work education curriculum. Others are more specifically related to the workplace. In each case, they may result in an emotional distress that puts extra weight on the shoulders of new social workers and which they are aware they have to deal with in order to be able to stay inside the profession. Being a newcomer The description of the professional life and conduct provided above is the result of an analysis of narrative accounts given by newly graduated professionals. The fact that they are newcomers into this professional world surely contributes to their experiences and the way they convey them—in several ways. First, the participants spoke of how they were unprepared for the realities of professional life. Unpreparedness has to do with lacking knowledge about the compounding characteristics of ‘real’ professional everyday life. Even if the graduates had two periods of work practice as students, they spoke of this as something qualitatively different from being a professional. The responsibility and scope of professional work are manifested quite differently when a student transitions into becoming a professional. Some of the participants spoke of how their education presented an idealised version of social work. At the same time, they stated that it is an impossible task to prepare students entirely; they have to experience what it is like to be a professional to become a professional. When the graduates speak of ‘praxis shock’, it is this unpreparedness for the totality of professional conduct, the sum of everything involved and associated with the daily work, that they refer to. The full extent of being a professional is not possible to understand unless you are fully engaged in the professional conduct with all the responsibilities it entails. Unpreparedness, then, is constituted as a feature of being a newcomer. Second, what all the participants emphasised was their lack of experience. When asked how they developed professional competency, they all stressed that the most important thing to them was experience. They spoke of how every case was new and unfamiliar. This becomes even clearer in hindsight and the participants spoke in the second and third interviews of how they had now gained experiences that helped them recognise similarities with former cases. In the latter interviews, several of the participants spoke of a gradual formation of security, or a feeling of standing on safe ground, which stemmed from having a better overview of issues that could arise and the knowledge that they had tackled difficult and similar situations before. It was about a growing sense of mastery, and one of the participants said the following in the third interview: ‘… everyday life has not changed, but I do not get knocked off my perch in the same manner as I used to.’ Third, the participants also expressed how they lacked concrete knowledge. This lack of knowledge is of course related to lack of experience, though not solely. They could, for example, lack information about progress in casework, procedures for co-operation with other professions or juridical matters. They said that the education had provided them with basic skills and knowledge, but that was far from enough to be able to understand and handle the variety of challenges they faced. As one of the participants stated: ‘As a graduate, to stand alone and make those assessments, that … I can with absolute certainty say that I am not qualified to make those assessments after three years of education.’ Adding to this, of course, was the fact that the newcomers were newcomers not only in the professional field, but also at their specific workplace, where they had to learn the routines, culture and practices that applied there. Being unprepared for these realities and lacking the relevant experience and knowledge will of course influence how the graduates experience their initial period as professionals and the complexities of professional conduct. The uncertainty they speak of related to being a newcomer adds to the experience of work as ambiguous and unpredictable, and vice versa. The lack of overview and recognition that stem from lack of experience may add to the feelings of complexity, chaos and lack of control. Most of the participants spoke of how they had access to supervision and also that, in the beginning, they were gradually introduced to different tasks. However, they also spoke of how the work situation quickly forced them to take on more responsibility, additional cases and more severe cases. Lave writes about how ‘partial participation in segments of work that increase the complexity and scope’ (1993, p. 73) will allow newcomers to gradually develop necessary competence. For many of the newcomers who took part in this study, it may seem that the possibility of being gradually introduced to the complexities of practice was limited. They were thrown out into practice, not only because of—first and foremost—the staff situation, but also because of the characteristics of the work itself. One aspect of the participants’ narratives were puzzling. Embracing the variety of theories and perspectives on one hand, many of the participants also welcomed the use of standardised methods for assessment and treatment. Few reflected on how the use of these methods could conflict with theoretical or ethical perspectives employed in other situations. One understanding of this is that, for newcomers, such standardisations may be welcomed as a way to organise and structure their work. There is, however, a risk that this standardisation leaves little room for reflections that will lead to the development of a competency that may help new professionals be able to deal with complexities. There are several studies that emphasise how professionals judge standardised methods as overly simplistic and unable to deal with the complexities at hand (se e.g. Gillingham and Humphreys, 2010; Stevens and Cox, 2008). This may be a challenge to professional development if we regard understanding and dealing with complexities as part of the professional competency. Unpacking complexity Gulbrandsen (2012) describes how research interviews can be a part of meaning-making processes where the interviewer and interviewees are engaged in a mutual assignment of making meaning about something that is previously not fully understood. As it is uncommon to give detailed accounts of one’s daily life, the interviews constitute a situation of interaction of what Bruner (2002) describes as narrative meaning making. The stories are situated within what Kousholt (2012) has called structures of social practices. When the narratives seem tentative or unorganised, certainly not premeditated, this may be seen as both a reflection of the disorder that exists in the everyday life of participants and as an element of their attempts to bring about meaning and order. Law states that, if the world is complex and messy, we have to give up on simplicities and learn to think, know and practise in new ways (2004). Yet, in order to embrace and handle complexity, we require knowledge of the messiness of the world. Unpacking complexity as a phenomenon will result in reduction and ordering. The aim here has been to unpack in a way that sheds light on the conduct of everyday professional life without reducing its complexity. This, of course, is an impossibility. However, in order to understand, we need to organise our knowledge. It is the awareness of what we do, and the fact that social workers, as researchers, do not discover and represent realities, but that they ‘participate in the enactment of those realities’ (Law, 2004, p. 45), that leaves us with a perspective that renders us able to reject simplistic understandings. The narratives of the newcomers speak of complexities that involve all aspects of professional life, including ontological and epistemological diversity. It has to do with the many, sometimes contradictory, theories and understandings available in the field. The participants also described a variety of methods based on different epistemologies. However, this is not necessarily seen as problematic. Rather, it can be seen as a necessity because, as one of the participants stated, human beings are compound and therefore we need theories that are compound. The complexities of the real world justify theoretical and methodical multiplicity. There is also ethical and existential complexities. This has to do with dilemmas—that is, how to prioritise between equally important issues and intersecting demands. Some of the dilemmas are seen as inherent features of CPS work itself, like dilemmas of conflicting interests. Others result from things like management decisions or lack of resources. In either case, the emotional strains can be huge and the participants spoke of how they needed to learn how to protect themselves in order to keep up with the work. Still, several also expressed a concern about this. They did not want to ‘become cynical’. Being emotionally involved was viewed as an important aspect of their work and this underscores an important existential dimension of their everyday professional life. Implications and closing This article aims to shed light onto how newcomers in the field of child protection work experience and explain complexity at different levels and in different areas of their professional conduct. Often we speak of complexity as a characteristic of social work, as it is an inherent characteristic of professional conduct in a self-explanatory way or as a synonym for ‘difficult’. The words ‘complex’ and ‘complexity’ are employed both as descriptions of social work and as accounts of why professionals find their work challenging. By analysing narratives of everyday professional life, four features of the complexities of professional everyday has been described: multiplicity, uncertainty, professional divergence and emotional strains. Knowledge of the professional life as it unfolds and how those who enter into the profession enact it is of significance both for educators and those who supervise and facilitate the newcomers at their workplaces. For us who educate, the study reveals the importance of conveying realistic pictures of the professions our students will enter and engage in. This requires updated knowledge about the everyday life in relevant workplaces and how the newcomers experience and tackle this. It may, however, be equally important to prepare them for the likely experience of being unprepared. As one of the participants noted, it helps to be prepared for the fact that you will face something you cannot foresee. It is not possible to eliminate uncertainty or the feeling of not knowing, still the awareness that this will occur may make the situations less overwhelming. For the workplaces, this study illuminates the importance of allowing the newcomers to be newcomers. There is a general understanding of the importance of arranging a learning environment where the new professionals get supervision and gradually are introduced to more and more advanced aspects of the professional conduct. Still, often reality strikes back and good intensions have to give priority to more urgent problems. This constitutes a challenge for the newcomers and their possibility to take part in the professional work in ways that help them develop competency, including to deal with complexities in all forms. In addition, the extensive use of standardisation and the challenges this may constitute when it comes to providing a learning environment that facilitates competency that includes how to understand and deal with complexities has to be considered. Acknowledgements The study was funded by Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Science. References Baginsky M. , Manthorpe J. ( 2016 ) ‘The views and experiences of step up to social work graduates: Two and a half years following qualification’ , British Journal of Social Work , 46 ( 7 ), pp. 2016 – 32 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Braun V. , Clarke V. ( 2006 ) ‘ Using thematic analysis in psychology’, Qualitative Research in Psychology , 3 ( 2 ), pp. 77 – 101 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Bruner J. ( 2002 ) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life , Cambridge , Harvard University Press . Carpenter J. , Patsios D. , Wood M. , Shardlow S. , Blewett J. , Platt D. , Scholar H. , Haines C. , Tunstill J. , Wong C. 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( 2011 ) ‘Kvalifisering til “velferdsstatens yrker”’ [‘Qualifying for “professions of the welfare state”’], in Utdanning 2011: veien til arbeidslivet [Education 2011: The Road to the Job Market] , SSB (eds), Oslo , Statistisk sentralbyr å, pp. 149 – 69 . Stevens I. , Cox P. ( 2008 ) ‘ Complexity theory: Developing new understandings of child protection in field settings and in residential child care’, British Journal of Social Work , 38 ( 7 ), pp. 1320 – 36 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Stevens I. , Hassett P. ( 2007 ) ‘ Applying complexity theory to risk in child protection practice’, Childhood , 14 ( 1 ), pp. 128 – 44 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Utdanning.no: Videreutdanning I barnevernfaglig veiledning [‘Education beyond qualification in cps supervision’], available online at https://utdanning.no/nn/utdanning/hioa.no/videreutdanning_i_barnevernfaglig_veiledning (accessed 3 October 2017). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Sep 1, 2018

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