Centre for Social Work Innovation and Research

Research highlights

Moving beyond the 'risk paradigm' in mental health

The ‘mentality of risk’ can obscure and distort the lived experience of mental health problems. The multiple structural disadvantages those living with mental illness experience are exacerbated and perpetuated, generating specific dilemmas for mental health practitioners and those in mental health leadership roles. Foregrounding mental health risks as issues of human rights and social justice can help policy makers, managers and practitioners to ‘speak back’ to the distortions of the risk paradigm. CSWIR members have a longstanding commitment to speaking back to the risk paradigm in this way, in critical and practical terms alike.

Project title: Beyond the Risk Paradigm in Mental Health Policy and Practice

Research funder: Book contract with Palgrave

During the past year the CSWIR contribution in this field has centred on co-editing (with colleagues from the Universities of Tasmania, Connecticut and Kent) one of three books exploring the dominance and impact of ‘the risk paradigm’ respectively in mental health, child protection and criminal justice policy and practice contexts.  The first of these volumes, ‘Beyond the Risk Paradigm in Mental Health Policy and Practice’, brings together researchers, practitioners and mental health service users to engage critically with how ‘risk thinking’ has come to dominate discourses and practices in the mental health field. Highlighted in particular are the theoretical, policy, ethical and practice controversies that arise in work with ‘risky’ and ‘at risk’ populations and individuals. This book, and the series, are now in press and due to be published in early 2017.

Further information: E.Sharland@sussex.ac.uk

Reforming adult safeguarding in the context of self-neglect

Cases of self-neglect are complex and pose ethical and practice dilemmas for social workers and other practitioners, who must negotiate between the demands of respect for autonomy and of a duty to promote safety and wellbeing. A diversity of factors contribute to self-neglect and services have not always adequately engaged with the complexities of individual autonomy and decision-making in these circumstances. Self-neglect presents distinctive challenges in assessment, intervention, multiagency working, risk management and safeguarding governance.

Project title: Identifying and learning from best practice in self-neglect

Research funder: Department of Health, UK

In collaboration with the University of Bedfordshire, CSWIR members have carried out research with practitioners, managers and people in situations of self-neglect, and collated and analysed the learning from a set of serious case reviews, which has laid the foundations of an emerging evidence base for self-neglect work within England. Findings have shed light on the lived experience of self-neglect, identified promising approaches to engagement with people who self-neglect, shown the need for strong legal literacy, suggested mechanisms for coordinating inter-professional intervention, and emphasised the importance of organisational support for timely involvement with individuals. Work is ongoing with Safeguarding Adults Boards and the organisation Research in Practice for Adults (RiPfA) to ensure that the lessons from the research findings feed through into frontline practice. 

Contact: D.Orr@sussex.ac.uk

Reforming child protection with children's rights in mind

Revival of intense public concern cross-nationally about the prevalence of neglect, abuse and (sexual) exploitation of children has generated a significant challenge to the hegemony of long established policy and practice assumptions in child protection in many service jurisdictions. England is no exception and CSWIR members have been at the forefront alongside statutory bodies and colleagues in partner research centres in making sense of the new political conjuncture and its impact on social work and allied professional roles and tasks. Comparative policy perspectives are being brought to bear in this expanding body of work, which asks fundamental questions about the distinctive nature of the contribution of social work to new articulations of inter-disciplinary and multi-professional theory and practice in safeguarding children and supporting family life. A core consideration here is how best to re-design practice systems which might contain and channel legitimately and effectively the tension between contrasting rights attaching to children, understood with their parents as being active participants in achieving safety and self-determination in family life.

Project title: Evaluating the role and impact of innovative models of interfacing between the NHS and children’s social care

Research funder: Department of Health, National Institute of Health Research, UK

In collaboration with public health researchers at the University of Warwick Medical School and colleagues at Loughborough University, Centre for Child and Family Research (CCFR), a review of the literature and case study evaluation of innovative models of safeguarding was undertaken for the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). Project findings confirmed that despite policy exhortation in support of better alignment of (public) health perspectives and social work little progress has been made on the ground in embedding this thinking into practice and evaluating impact, especially from the perspective of children and parents as agents in the protection process. The main finding from the CSWIR-led review was that safeguarding should be understood as a process involving dialogue as well as diagnosis. ‘Dialogic integrity’ should be a key commitment informing service development and framing evaluation research. Further work has continued on case studies of effective practice with the full project report due soon.

Further information: B.A.Luckock@sussex.ac.uk


Project title: Piloting and evaluating the practice efficacy of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ‘See Me, Hear Me’ Framework

Research funder: Office of the Children’s Commissioner, UK

Working alongside the OCC and with colleagues in three local authorities in England (Brighton and Hove CC, Oxfordshire CC and Sandwell MBC, a team of CSWIR researchers is exploring ways in which a child’s-rights centred approach to safeguarding can be developed effectively, in the context of ‘sexual exploitation’.  With social anxiety and political demands intensified in recent years there is a risk that children will be positioned too simply in policy and practice once again, being seen as ‘objects of concern’ alone. The ‘See Me, Hear Me Framework’ is distinctive in seeking to secure for children not only their right to safety in the face of newly identified threats but also their right to a say in the process. Foundational here is the role played by trusting relationships formed with ‘child protection’ professionals, including social workers and police. How can operational practices and organisational systems be designed to support such relationships in these anxious and fraught encounters, where the pressure is on to show quick results?

Further information: M.Lefevre@sussex.ac.uk or K.Hickle@sussex.ac.uk

FINAL REPORT: Piloting and evaluating the 'See Me Hear Me' framework for working with child sexual exploitation [PDF 1.11MB]


Project title: Innovation in Children’s Social Care, Department for Education (2015-2020)

Research funder: Department for Education, UK

The University of Sussex represented by CSWIR (in collaboration with the University of Sussex Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY) and the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Centre for Adoption Research) has been contracted by the Department for Education to undertake implementation and impact evaluations of four ‘Stage 1’, Innovation Programme projects. This £200m two-stage, five-year reform Programme is expected to stimulate the design and implementation of effective practice systems and interventions and their embedding in agencies across England, such that social work impact is enhanced. The three Stage 1 studies led by CSWIR members focus on new approaches to social work practice with children, from first involvement designed to support family life at home (Islington LBC), through to practice designed to achieve ‘early permanence’ for children who have to live elsewhere (Cornerstone, Coram).

Findings will be reported later in 2016. In the meantime, Stage 2 of the Programme through to 2020 is now underway and CSWIR members are working closely with three local authorities and one independent user-led organisation to align Centre research expertise with local project leadership and development to secure funding for further innovation.

Further information: B.A.Luckock@sussex.ac.uk or K.Hickle@sussex.ac.uk


Project title: Empower Families

Research funder: Safer London, UK

Dr Kristine Hickle will be providing a 2-year evaluation of Safer London’s (London-based charity org.) new programme named ‘Empower Families’ aimed at supporting parents and carers of children and young people identified as having experience (or at risk of) CSE.

Further information: K.Hickle@sussex.ac.uk


Project title: ‘Scaling up and digging down’: exploring developmental issues arising in the implementation of the Family Nurse Partnership model

Research funder: Collaborative studentship between University of Sussex and Family Nurse Partnership

Introduced in 2007 under the auspices of the Department of Health, the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) is a licensed, intensive, preventive home visiting programme offered to vulnerable young mothers having their first baby. FNP commences its support in early pregnancy and continues until the child is two years old, seeking to develop attuned, emotionally supportive relationships, especially between the primary care giver and the child. The programme goals are to improve antenatal health, child development and economic self-sufficiency and it is delivered by specially trained family nurses. Three large scale research trials have shown significant and consistent short and long term benefits to children and parents. However, as systems can be as, if not more, difficult to alter than people it is imperative that research is undertaken that explores the obstacles to and opportunities for integrating the FNP model into the FNP specific organizational structures and the wider structures underpinning public health programmes and services available to young children and their parents in England. Such research, however, is complicated by the impact of the professional and societal anxiety underpinning work with vulnerable families, and particularly defenceless infants on organisational functioning. To explore these issues the collaborative studentship is developing a fine-grained, qualitative methodology that will complement the current, largescale evaluation of the FNP project. Drawing on psychosocial and ecological theoretical frameworks the research will adopt an innovative approach to understanding the implications of complex organisational dynamics on the implementation of the FNP model. Founded on the premise that organisations are comprised of visible and invisible practices and structures that arise in response to the anxiety inherent in the organisation’s primary task, the study will explore, through a psychosocial lens, the nature and extent of the dynamics operating ‘beneath the surface’ of the organisations in which the FNP model operates.

Further information: G.Ruch@sussex.ac.uk

Responding to social injustice in times of political crisis

Movements of people across countries and continents due to political conflicts are now taking place on an unprecedented scale. Natural disasters become more likely with the escalation of climate change. The CSWIR commitment to explore the implications of ‘extreme events’ of these and other kinds for citizen rights, social justice and personal wellbeing has been actively engaged. The impact of political conflicts and natural disasters on social work is an under-theorised and under-researched domain. Centre members are active with colleagues locally and globally in developing a research programme alongside policy and practice interventions based in the concept of ‘engaged scholarship’.

Project title: Social Work and Extreme Events Network (SWEE)

Research funder: University of Sussex

Support for people facing natural disasters and political conflicts presents an on-going challenge for both countries directly affected by such extreme events and those trying to provide assistance when they happen. Contemporary practices during such extreme events have several common traits. First, the majority of emergency and even long-term support is mainly provided by international organisations, rather than local governmental organisations and other local stakeholders. Second, because of this, existing knowledge is about relevant support is not necessarily generated or held by local experts and support agencies. While they do collaborate on such endeavours, the majority of knowledge is held and shared on international and supranational level. Finally, while there is evidence and knowledge regarding emergency responses, less is known about the support for long-term reconstruction and support in countries affected by political conflicts and natural disasters.

Extreme events such as natural disasters and political conflicts do not impact all groups in the same manner. People who use social services, such as children (particularly children without parental care), people with disabilities (including people with mental health problems), and older people’s existing support needs increase and/or require specialist attention within the broader community level responses. During 2015/16, the Network member activities mainly focused on the promotion of the Network existence and to define the joint research agenda. Future planned research aims to explore effective processes of long-term social service reconstruction following natural disasters and extreme events, with a particular focus on the experiences of service users such as children without parental care, people with disabilities and older people.

Further information: R.A.Maglajlic@sussex.ac.uk

Re-imagining the psychosocial dynamics and digital mediation of the social work relationship

There is a substantial body of knowledge about the circumstances surrounding social workers' interventions with children particularly in relation to child protection. In stark contrast far less is known about how social workers communicate with children in ordinary, everyday practice, the challenges they encounter in this process and the sense that social workers and children make of their interactions and conversations. Of particular note is the absence of detailed empirical data on what social workers do in their everyday encounters with children and their families. To date we have relied largely on the retrospective reflective accounts of participants in these social worker-child encounters. We have some ideas as to what happens (children are overlooked or inadequately engaged with), how it happens (parents' use of space, and physical presence to exclude child from conversation) and why it happens (time pressures, power, intimidating emotional dynamics, exposure to risk, fear of what might be said and what to do with what is said). What is missing is the direct observation of everyday social worker-child interactions. The first two of these studies explore how social workers communicate with children in their ordinary, everyday practice and how the social workers and children experience and understand these encounters.  The third explores technology-based ways of enabling children to explore and convey to professionals their sense of their relationships with people in their lives. 

Project title: Talking and listening to children

Research funder: ESRC, UK

In collaboration with colleagues at the Universities of Cardiff, Edinburgh and Queens, Belfast, CSWIR researchers are concluding a four UK nations, ESRC funded project exploring social workers everyday interactions and encounters with children. Generating ethnographic, interview and video stimulated recall data, the project is filling an important gap in our knowledge of ordinary everyday practice and how it can be understood developed and enhanced.

Further information: G.Ruch@sussex.ac.uk


Project title: Learning from the communication process between Social Workers and children to improve social work practice

Research funder: Sussex University Research Development Fund

The home visit to families is a key tool for assessing and working with families and is the place most conversations with children occur.  However, little is known about what really goes on during these encounters. This pilot study is testing the feasibility of social workers videoing their interactions with children in the family or foster home and then subjecting it to Conversation Analysis, a linguistics-based method of micro-analysing talk.  Children and social workers are also asked to comment on the videos of their encounters.  Having now successfully engaged two local authorities in the pilot, and learned how to overcome practical and ethical complexities, further funding is being sought to extend the project.  By learning more about the ways in which social workers can navigate sensitive topics in challenging circumstances with children who may be angry, frightened or anxious, we aim to establish a model for good practice.

Further information: M.Lefevre@sussex.ac.uk


Project title: People in My Life: A conceptual and technological exploration of relationship dynamics for social work practice

Research funder: Jacobs Foundation

Dr Sevasti-Melissa Nolas and Dr Lel Meleyal have launched a new collaboration, the People in my Life project, with colleagues at the Free University in Berlin (Antje Rauers) and Hasselt University in Hasselt (Johannes Schoning). People in my life is an innovation project that explores relationship dynamics for social work practice.  In particular, the team are experimenting with haptic technology in order to create a tablet based app that can be used with figurines to play out and track the movement of different relationships in child’s life. Over the summer the team will be testing the new app against traditional pen-and-paper approaches (e.g. ecomapping) sampling from children on the beach in Brighton.

Further information: S.Nolas@sussex.ac.uk

Death and the social work and allied professional response

Interdisciplinary perspectives are especially helpful in making sense of the psychosocial dynamics of social work and allied professional encounters, where death the focus of concern. The sociology of ‘emotional labour’ emerges as a substantive and theoretical resource for thinking about the difference between effective and ineffective ways in which emotion is managed in practice encounters triggered by death. This is the case especially, perhaps, where a ‘rapid response’ is required of the professional role. Working alongside partners at the University of Chichester and Child Bereavement UK, CSWIR researchers are launching a major strand of work on death, dying and social work. A conference is planned for the autumn and a Special Interest Group will be established. Once again the focus falls on the gaps in the education and training curriculum in social work and elsewhere and on the development of novel approaches to fill them.

Project title: Meeting Child Death at Work

Research funder: University of Sussex

Sudden, unexpected child death in the home is an event which reaches to the centre of concerns about the balance to be struck in multi-professional practice between systematic statutory investigation and sensitive support. Foundational doctoral research undertaken from a psychosocial perspective is being combined with a systematic review of the field at the interface with sociology to support the development of new theory and practice in this field. The ‘Rapid Response’ after a child’s death includes forensic investigation from police, health, and social care professionals, followed by a series of multi-agency meetings leading to a Child Death Review. Although the needs of bereaved parents and other family members are meant to be respected within this process, the evidence is that professionals own struggle to cope with the demands of the emotional task can leave families having to deal with the aftermath largely unsupported.

Further information: Dr Tish Marrable L.F.Marrable@sussex.ac.uk / Dr Denise Turner D.Turner@sussex.ac.uk

Digital socialisation and the social work curriculum

CSWIR members continue to take lead roles in innovating social work curriculum development. During the past year research attention at Sussex has been focused in particular on the pressing need for ‘digital socialisation’ to be recognised as a priority for social work training and continuous professional development. A programme of work is now underway in which direct practice experience is being used in a variety of innovative ways to advance the theory and practice of digital socialisation in social work.

Project title: #ASYEngage

Research funder: University of Sussex

Supported by the University of Sussex Research Opportunities Fund, #ASYEngage brings together CSWIR researchers and social work practitioners in East Sussex, Brighton and Hove and the voluntary sector, to explore the ways in which newly qualified workers encounter digital platforms within their practice. Research participants have kept reflective blogs and used these to record significant incidents precipitated by social networking or digital technology. The result has been a vivid record of the practice challenges and opportunities created by digital technology. Work is now underway, funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and undertaken in association with the Sussex Digital Humanities Lab, bringing practitioners, learning technologists, social work students and developers in skills sessions aimed at developing a bespoke digital curriculum for social work education.  This project featured in The Guardian Social Care Network.

Further information: Denise Turner D.Turner@sussex.ac.uk

Extending and innovating social work research methodologies

During our inaugural year, Centre interest has centred on the task of finding ways of accounting more robustly for impact in social work practice and education. There is growing recognition in social work that methodological diversity and rigour taken together are the necessary conditions for evidence building and sense making. During the past year CSWIR has consolidated its quantitative research commitments, capacity and partnerships. This work adds to longer standing concerns at Sussex, to push forward research frontiers in qualitative methods and ‘engaged scholarship’.

Project title: Social Work Over Time

Research funder: Nuffield Foundation, UK

This Nuffield Foundation funded project, undertaken in collaboration with colleagues from Universities of Cardiff and Lancaster, has used secondary analysis of four national longitudinal cohort or panel surveys (British Household Panel Survey, Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, Millennium Cohort Study and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children) to look at the predictors and outcomes of routine social work use among children and parents in Britain since the early 1990s. The project explores the predictors and outcomes of routine social work use among children and parents in Britain since the early 1990s. Largescale quantitative analysis of this sort is relatively rare in UK social work research. Use of these national datasets is even rarer. But they have unique potential to allow us to follow children and families over time, and to compare the circumstances and outcomes of those who use social work with similar others in the general population who do not. This research has produced some expected and some unexpected findings. Among the predictors of social work contact were single parenthood, divorce or separation, parents’ poor health or disability, homelessness and precarious financial circumstances. Teenagers were more likely to receive social work if they were female, mixed race, came from lower socio-economic status families or had special needs or poor relationships with their parents. More surprising, and at face value concerning, was that in general families and children who had contact with social workers reported worse mental health, wellbeing and educational outcomes than others who appear to have experienced similar adversities but did not have social work contact. How might we explain these findings? Is the self-report method of the original surveys sound in itself? We do not know how and why contact with social work took place, nor about the focus of the intervention or the family and social circumstances in each case. What is now clear is the need for much better longitudinal data about social work than we still have, and better linkage of this information to social work administrative datasets.

Further information: E.Sharland@sussex.ac.uk


Project title: Developing and evaluating ‘mentalizing’ capacity and skill in qualifying social work education

Research funder: Department for Education, UK

Attachment theory provides a developmental account of the psychosocial dynamics of the social work relationship in practice. The evidence-base for the salience of core concepts, such as ‘reflective functioning capacity’ and ‘mentalization’, used in this approach to ‘relationship-based’ practice is now well-developed in clinical professions in psychotherapy and psychology. Undertaken in collaboration with clinicians and researchers at the Anna Freud Centre, London, and social work educators and statisticians at the University of East Anglia, this Department for Education, National Prospectus Grants Programme-funded project developed and trialled a novel measure of reflective functioning/mentalization capacity for use in social work education and beyond.

Further information: B.A.Luckock@sussex.ac.uk

FINAL REPORT: Developing and evaluating mentalizing capacity and skill in qualifying social word education [PDF 505.51KB]

'Many Minds'

The School of Education and Social Work was keen to become a Founding Institutional Sponsor of the new Association for Psychosocial Studies, which emerged out of the Psychosocial Studies Network in 2014. CSWIR members have taken the lead in convening and supporting a ‘Many Minds’ forum at Sussex, in which new frontiers of psychosocial research methodology are being explored. New methodologies are being applied within funded faculty research projects and doctoral work alike, providing and exciting new set of synergies across all levels of research in the Centre.

Project title: Supporting adoptive family life through the social work relationship

Research funder: ESRC/CoramBAAF

A growing body of psychosocial work uses longitudinal observational methods to examine everyday practice in social work. This doctoral research employs a single case study design to illuminate the significance of the relationship between a social worker and a prospective adoptive parent.  Drawing on methods from within the tradition of infant observation developed at the Tavistock the emotional dynamic of ‘adoption support’ as observed and experienced by the researcher is tracked over time. Consistent with the method, stakeholders in adoption are brought together as a 'Many Minds’ group to examine observation notes in a facilitated and structured forum. This group acts as a research body through which emerging themes from the observation experience are noted, examined and considered over time.

Further information: Louise Sims L.M.Sims@sussex.ac.uk