The child protection system is a notoriously challenging context for parents to navigate successfully.

As well as managing the anxiety of potentially losing their child, the complexity of child protection processes can prove overwhelming and confusing in equal measures.

It’s also difficult for the social workers themselves.

Their work requires them to investigate, probe, and impose statutory processes to a degree that feels oppressive for many parents.  Doing this work within an organisational context that is excessively bureaucratic and highly pressurised means it is challenging for even the most skilled social worker to build meaningful relationships with families.

But a new way of working together could prove transformational according to The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which recommended that all families involved with child protection should be offered Peer Parental Advocacy (PPA).

Research from the US has found that PPA can be an effective, evidence-based way of improving the relationship between social workers and parents, supporting participation, and improving outcomes for children.

Therefore, understanding whether PPA can make a positive difference in the UK, and if so, how it manages to achieve that, is a critical, timely area for enquiry.

Our study of PPA in the London Borough of Camden was the most extensive evaluation of the new initiative in the UK.

It had two aims.

Firstly, to understand parents’ and professionals’ perceptions of parental advocates.

Secondly, to develop a programme theory, whichexplains how and why an intervention is expected to work.

Before we get into the findings, let’s briefly explain what PPA is and what it looked like in Camden.

PPA is support offered from one parent with statutory social work involvement from another parent who has previously had statutory social work involvement.  The advocate has experienced the system before, managed to turn their life around, and is well positioned to offer support to a parent in a similar position.

Camden has 17 Peer Parental Advocates. All parents engaged in a child protection case conference in respect of their child were informed of the option to receive support from an advocate.  

What Parents, Peer Parent Advocates, and Professionals think of PPA

For the first part of our study, we interviewed parents supported by parent advocates, peer parent advocates, senior managers and social workers who had experience working with parent advocates.

We found four key themes

Firstly, parental advocacy supported and improved parental engagement, which was achieved in three ways.

  • Parents often found thelanguage inaccessible and jargonistic, and the processes they are subjected to are complicated, leaving them frustrated and confused.  Peer Parent Advocates were able to provide explanations they could understand.
  • Peer Parent Advocates helped rebalance power relations and improve parents’ ability to communicate effectively. 

One parent we interviewed said, “I think for me there’s something very powerful about lived experience and knowing that someone has been there and for a parent, going into a child protection conference to be supported by someone else who has in the past themselves been through a child protection conference brings a very unique sort of support and equalisation of power…”

  • When parents described feeling overwhelmed, impacting their ability to communicate, peer parental advocates helped with their emotional response.

Secondly, Peer Parental Advocates were able to support parents and social workers in building trust.  Parents’ fear of losing their children was a recurring concern, and advocates could help them understand the process and intention of the social worker.

A parent in our study said  she realised that social workers ‘work with you to make sure that you can give a safe environment to the children. It’s not just like, oh you know, we’re going to just take them away and that’s it’.

Thirdly, adequate ongoing support and training were identified as critical for success by those we interviewed.  Supervision, training, and ongoing support for individuals who use their lived experience to support others were all noted.

Fourthly, there was some variation in views on professional versus peer advocacy.  

Some thought that the specialist knowledge of professional advocates about processes and support would be more desirable.  Most parents, advocates, and professionals, indicated a preference for peer advocates however, as their lived experience uniquely positioned them to relate to, empathise with, and support parents.

Some practitioners thought that professional advocates would be less likely to get emotionally involved and invested.  However, the advocates we interviewed were clear about the importance of boundaries and vigilant about upholding them.

Understanding why and how PPA works

The second part of our study focussed on understanding why and how peer parental advocacy work.

This is critical for further research. If PPA is to be implemented elsewhere, it is essential to know the context in which an intervention worked, what the intervention entailed, and the mechanisms that led to the achieved outcomes.

The context for the intervention included the complex nature of the child protection system, the position of a parent who encountered the system, and the positive context of advocacy in Camden, which has steadily built up over the last several years.  The last factor is crucial when thinking about replicating PPA elsewhere as conditions may be less favourable.

The intervention included parents with previous experience in social work involvement accessing extensive training, supporting parents with statutory involvement and post-support feedback and evaluation of the advocates.

We identified four key mechanisms:

  1. Engagement between peer parent advocate and parent was aided by the advocate explaining their role,  providing emotional support for the parent. They broke down complex language, roles and processes, increasing parents’ understanding of processes and procedures and ensuring they felt heard and had someone on their side.
  2. Advocates enable effective communication, as parents feel empowered to share their thoughts and feelings and partake in important decisions.
  3. Advocates build and facilitate trust, helping demystify the role of social workers to parents, leading to better relationships.
  4. Advocates are supported to undertake their role effectively through ongoing support, supervision, and training.

Finally, the anticipated outcomes are for parents to have an improved understanding of child protection processes, reducing anxiety and increasing engagement; barriers imposed by terminology and complicated processes are broken down; parents feel empowered in participating and engaging in child protection meetings, improving relationships with professionals; empowerment and improved relations increase chance of engaging in plan of support and improving outcomes for children; and, improved community support and networks.

Our study also examined the barriers to successful implementation and how these could be overcome.

There was some tension about how professionalised advocates should be in terms of being appropriately qualified yet remaining relatable to parents.  In Camden, they managed this tension by providing advocates with an Open College Network (OCN) qualification.

Another potential barrier was how advocates managed their well-being, and it was noted that support and supervision are critical components.

Finally, PPA runs contrary to the prescriptive, professionally led approach to case management, which some social workers might find challenging.  However, we found a positive understanding of the role of peer advocates by professionals, with a clear acknowledgement of the value of their role.  This may be unique to Camden, and in other areas, more significant work might be needed to develop this shared appreciation.

In conclusion, we found that Peer Parental Advocacy shows considerable promise. In line with the Independent Children’s Social Care Review, we support a greater expansion of this type of support.

We also strongly encourage further research, especially in other Local Authorities and with comparison groups.

Written by: Clive Diaz