Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Relationship-based practice with families in need

Hazel G Whitters, Senior Early Years/Child Protection Coordinator in a Glasgow Voluntary Organisation reflects on her experiences working with asylum seeking families.

Jungle, asylum, war, removal, displacement, help… the daily descriptors that we are becoming used to reading in our newspapers or viewing on our televisions as we eat an evening meal.

Familiarity can breed complacency. A plan of responsive action and prioritising resources is easy to achieve from the perspective of our armchairs as we view the world through our screens. I have great respect for policy and decision-makers who examine, and respond to the current humanitarian crisis from a strategic perspective inter-mingled with personal stories of human atrocities and suffering. But at best the world is not yet ’Getting It Right for Every Child’.

It seems so much easier to be a practitioner. Traditionally, child care and education workers are used to embracing new ventures, stimulated by the challenges, sympathetic to the child’s needs regardless of the cause, and immune to the frenetic political communications. Play is our medium of interaction and care. Play is our therapy to heal the effect of adversities, and to promote achievement. Play is our world’s common language.

Government statistics tell us that in the UK 36,465 asylum applications were made in 2015-16. I always think it is useful and relevant to place statistics in a context of practice. The cause of human needs must influence the approach to intervention in current proactive response by services. Many years ago practitioners encouraged parents to forget childhood adversities and focus on the future - the premise being that out of sight = out of mind. Today, research (Whitters, 2015, 2016) has given us a greater understanding of human development, and the significant impact of historical influences upon our abilities to operate as successful individuals and effective contributors to society. A high level of human involvement in a learning environment can only be achieved if accompanied by emotional well-being. A plan which has goals, and a process to recognise success. Empowerment which is gained through decision-making for a life-plan is key for human beings to rehabilitate post-trauma.

The voluntary sector is well-placed to respond to these needs as service planning and delivery can incorporate responsive personalised care. A therapeutic approach to supporting the needs of people who are striving to create a different inner working model is essential: Healing of mind and body for people who are determined to forge a positive pathway through life, and who have decided to embrace the culture of another country as a source of support. Engaging with parents who are seeking asylum is straightforward in practice as language and cultural differences are certainly not barriers but provide focus for interaction. Our clumsy attempts to reproduce dialects prompt laughter and shared moments of partnership with parents.

Interactive guidance, in the form of supported play with parents and children, creates a learning environment for families which provides ample opportunity for the promotion of mental and physical good health for children and parents. Experience has shown me that human beings can identify positive aspects from childhood and adulthood. A young teenage mum, who spent time in the infamous jungle at Calais, told me of the community spirit which enabled her to walk tall and view the world with dignity. She talked about the creation of an athletic club in the camp which enabled her to demonstrate physical prowess, and to shine amidst the mud and misery. The resilience of human beings is legendary…

Politicians, strategic planners – good luck. Practitioners - continue what you do best - relationship-based practice with families in need – innovative intervention which helps us to learn and improve alongside families who are embracing life from a different perspective.


Hazel G Whitters has worked in child protection for over 30 years and was awarded her PhD from the University of Strathclyde in 2015. Her thesis 'Perceptions of the influences upon the parent-professional relationship in a context of early intervention and child protection' is available online from the British Library

Whitters, H. G., (2016) The Parent-Professional Relationship in Child Protection. A WithScotland Briefing. pdf:

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Sexual Abuse: A Crisis for Football?

Following her CRFR seminar series on childhood sexual abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson reflects on the recent disclosures of abuse in football.

In the space of a mere three weeks, since several former professional footballers spoke publicly about their sexual abuse as young players, more than 850 people have called a special NSPCC helpline. More than 55 professional and amateur clubs have been linked to allegations; in excess of 20 police forces are investigating; and helplines receive more calls daily.

Does this mean that football is somehow more prone to childhood sexual abuse than other sports? The answer to that anxious, understandable question is likely to be “no”.

Football is played more widely than any other sport among 11-15 year old boys, and thus the sheer number vulnerable to abuse is bound to be greater. In addition, it is not a particular sport, a particular religion, profession, or group within society which is most likely to have perpetrators of child sexual abuse (CSA) within it. It is the way in which particular values and other factors come together, encouraging abuse to continue in that particular setting.

Especially with respect to abuse from outside the family – as in this case - they include:

  • The extent of power the adult has over children (in football, control over the boy in achieving his longed-for, dream career);
  • The importance of children’s obedience to adults (in children’s sports, the coach’s role; in many other settings, strongly patriarchal values towards women and children);
  • The extent to which parents and community trust, or defer to, the abusive adult (in children’s sports the selfless, helpful coach; with clergy, supposed men of God);
  • The social stigma and low credibility faced by some children and teenagers (only relevant to some children in this case, but very relevant to abuse in care and child sexual exploitation);
  • The culture of the particular setting, in silencing, dismissing and/or disbelieving victims (“macho” male values and bravado in football, rugby, boxing or snooker; in some ethnic and religious groups, the power of shame).
It may perhaps seem surprising that opportunity is not included above. However, the factors described create it in themselves. Also, abusers rarely need special or additional opportunity. They skilfully create opportunities out of little, even in “plain sight” of others - as the prolific abuser Jimmy Savile demonstrated.

Football coaches are not somehow more dangerous than people elsewhere. It is not that most coaches are abusers, but that youth football is one ideal setting to which the minority of abusers against boys will gravitate. This is precisely why no-one involved in coaching should take personal offence at the need for clubs and schools to be extremely vigilant about their recruitment and monitoring.

Nor should men involved in coaching the sport now protest that they are not trusted any more, that children or parents will think they are unsafe, and that they are put off volunteering at all. There can be a defensive self-indulgence about this, though it may sound harsh to say so. Adults working in professions where there have been scandals can be assured that children and young people sense when the ways in which adults talk, behave and touch are safe or unsafe. Survivors of sexual abuse will confirm this. If you are a safe person, and with no sexual interest in young people, they will sense it.

It is still very understandable that parents will feel more anxious than before. They can find at least considerable reassurance in the children’s safeguarding initiatives, in football and other sports, which are now in place. They can take an active interest in what these are, and how they might be improved, in their own children’s clubs.

One of the greatest of safeguards lies in parents telling their children repeatedly to let them know straight away if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable in a sexual way, and that they will not be angry with them, will not dismiss nor blame them -whoever that person is - even a family friend, relative or respected member of the community.

When parents say this, they need to mean it too. So they should talk through with each other, or with a support organisation, any understandable difficulties they would have in taking on board difficult information about somebody they trust.

Amongst the genuinely disturbing scale of current revelations about football there are some very encouraging aspects. In a “macho” sport notable for silencing any issues of sexuality which do not involve boasting about women, numerous men continue to come forward publicly with courage and strength, to talk openly and angrily about an abuse which still fills many men with deep shame and humiliation.

They have set a striking example to others who remain silenced. They have spurred on inquiries about past, unacknowledged crimes – and a greater alertness to current ones.

Sarah Nelson is author of Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support (Policy Press, 2016). Several chapters in this book describe research carried out at CRFR, including research with male survivors.

The Scottish Football Association urges anyone with any information relating to abuse or inappropriate behaviour – whether current or historic – to get in touch via the NSPCC’s helpline 0800 023 2642, or email

Monday, 5 December 2016

Expanding our ideas of childhood and children’s participation in decision making

CRFR co-director Professor Kay Tisdall asks, why do so many children and young people find it difficult to have their views given due consideration, in matters that affect them?

Children and young people’s participation is key principle embedded within the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. The Convention was ratified in 1989 –twenty-seven years ago – and it is the most ratified of any international human right treaty (only the USA has not yet ratified it). We know of notable initiatives, at national and local levels. But children and young people’s participation rights are still not consistently respected.

I had the chance to publish two journal articles in the past month, on children and young people’s participation. In some ways they are very different. One deals with children’s participation in family law proceedings in Scotland. The second considers children’s participation in child protection, including international child protection in humanitarian settings. But both have similar conclusions: that we need to expand our ideas of childhood and children’s participation, beyond concerns about their vulnerability and requirements for autonomous agency, to change how we both perceive and organise decision-making that impacts on children and young people.

In the first article, Subjects with agency? Children’s participation in family law proceedings, I investigate current and recent trends in family law proceedings in Scotland. Children’s participation has been institutionalised in Scottish primary and secondary legislation, as well as procedures. But it is limited because children’s views tend to be accepted only if they are judged to be rational, autonomous and consistent. If their views are considered irrational, manipulated or distressed, their views are given less weight. This misses that children are likely to be emotional at times of parental separation and divorce, and that over lengthy court proceedings, their views may well change. Concerns about children’s vulnerability increasingly results in them being excluded from courts themselves. I conclude that courts and their decisions may be child-focused in Scotland, centring on children’s welfare, but they tend not to be child-inclusive, involving children in decision-making.

Are there alternative ways of perceiving children and young people’s participation, which could assist? My second article, Conceptualising children and young people’s participation, considered three popular concepts. These are:
  • ‘vulnerability’ (i.e. what would the world look like, if we recognised that all people were vulnerable?),
  • ‘social accountability’ (i.e. civic engagement to hold duty-bearers to account), and
  • ‘co-production’ (i.e. involving lay people in designing and delivering services or research).
All three seek transformative relationships between the State and service users, that are more emancipatory and address power. Would one of these provide a very promising alternative?

By the end of my exploration, I find that vulnerability and social accountability have their contribution but still place children and childhood as especially vulnerable and then fail to adequately question adult power. Co-production, both on paper and when looking at recent local and international practices, has potential. It is co-production’s (re)claiming of children and young people’s expertise and knowledge that distinguishes itself from vulnerability and social accountability and makes it promising as a way to perceive and promote participation.

We know children and young people can influence decisions that affect them. There are many examples where practice and structures have improved, and initiatives have been developed. But we need to break through the familiar list of challenges, to find meaningful, effective and sustainable ways to recognise children and young people’s rights to participate.


Tisdall, E.K.M. (2016) ‘Conceptualising children and young people’s participation: examining vulnerability, social accountability and co-production’ International Journal of Human Rights 10.1080/13642987.2016.1248125

Tisdall, E.K.M. (2016) ‘Subjects with agency? Children’s participation in family law proceedings’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Lawn, 38(4): 362-379. 10.1080/09649069.2016.1239345

Further information

For further information about CRFR’s programme of work on children and young people’s participation, see our partnership with Young Edinburgh Action and our support for the IMPACT project.

Professor Kay Tisdall and Dr Susan Elsley deliver a two-day continuing professional development course Developing innovative research with children and young people. The course is an opportunity for researchers and others working with children and young people to explore the latest methods and debates in childhood and youth research. Further information can be found on the CRFR website

Monday, 21 November 2016

Understanding the wellbeing of international migrants

CRFR associate director Philomena de Lima introduces her new book International Migration: the wellbeing of migrants, in which she provides a contemporary understanding of migrants and migration processes and trends with a particular focus on issues related to the wellbeing of migrants and their access to services.

Migration appears to provide a dumping ground for all that is perceived to be going wrong with society at present. It has been a focus for articulating the concerns of sections of the electorate aided by specific political interests across Europe against a background of welfare reform, poor access to services, unemployment and anxieties about national identity. This trend was reflected in the UK Brexit referendum results in June 2016, the growth of ‘far right parties’ and xenophobic discourses about migrants in the European Union (EU) and ‘contracting out’ of EU border control to ‘third countries’ such as Turkey. These external border control practices are matched by internal bordering practices; migrants’ rights to access to public services such as health, housing and education are being restricted or withdrawn and regulations regarding immigration and granting asylum are being tightened. This increases the risk of negative impacts on the physical, social, emotional and psychological, cultural and economic wellbeing of migrants.

The international migration landscape is complex and diverse, with some migrants being more welcome than others. The book provides a contemporary understanding of the complexities of international migration focusing on the potential factors impacting on the well-being of migrants throughout the migration journey.

Why focus on international migrants and their wellbeing? The wellbeing of international migrants has tended to be neglected or marginalised in public discourses and in research. The main tendency has been to promote largely ‘instrumental’ views of international migrants from the perspective of host countries. Attention is given to the economic contributions of migrants to host societies and much policy and scholarly attention is spent on how to facilitate the adaptation of migrants (‘integration’) to host societies. That migrants are human beings with similar hopes and aspirations as those of host society populations is lost amid the noise of dehumanising metaphors and emotions of being overwhelmed, which are generated in public discourses. Migrants are members of households, they are parents, children, workers, colleagues and reducing them to their migrant status not only is reductionist, but also conceals their shared interests, emotions, experiences, and concerns with host populations.

Despite the challenges and amid the hysteria about ‘floods of migrants’ arriving at European borders there are also the efforts of concerned citizens and communities supporting migrants, as well as migrants actively involved in self-organising, protesting and demanding a right to speak for themselves.

Migrant wellbeing in the book is understood as a relational process that is created and recreated throughout the migration journey – from pre-arrival to destination and all that occurs in between – and is embedded in social, economic, political and cultural processes. It requires approaches that transcend disciplinary and national boundaries and transverses policy domains.

The book provides an informative overview of international migration issues and debates for social science students, policy-makers and those wrestling on a practical level with the implications of migration.

International Migration: the wellbeing of migrants is published by Dunedin Academic Press and is available to purchase on their website.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Silencing and disclosure in child sexual abuse

Ahead of her two seminar series on Childhood Sexual Abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson writes for us about silencing and disclosure.

There is a great disparity between cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) which are known to the authorities, and its prevalence in society.

For instance, a major report (Children’s Commissioner, 2015) estimated that only one in eight sexually abused children is identified. A meta-analysis of more than 200 international studies of prevalence across 28 years, with 10 million participants, revealed self-reported prevalence figures (18.0% of women, 7.6% of men) which were 30 times higher than prevalence rates reported by authorities (Stoltenborgh et al, 2011). In my own study with abused young people (Nelson, 2008), they gave me fourteen reasons why they had stayed silent in their childhood and teens. These included:

  • fear
  • violence and intimidation
  • shame
  • embarrassment and humiliation, especially with their peers
  • mixed loyalties towards their abuser
  • self-blame and guilt
  • worry about the effect on their non-abusing parent(s)
  • uncertainty about what would happen
  • fear of being in trouble
  • a conviction that they would not be believed

Additionally, in boys there is often a pervasive fear of being thought gay, or somehow unmasculine.

In my book Tackling Child Sexual Abuse (Nelson, 2016), I also chart in detail a worrying and continuing decline in identified cases of CSA by child protection authorities throughout Britain, despite the high publicity for the subject. A considerable fall in CSA registrations and child protection plans has coexisted with considerable growth in those for emotional abuse and neglect. That suggests not genuine declines in CSA, but changed priorities in policy and practice.

For all these reasons, it is important that we renew efforts to find child-centred ways of enabling sexually abused young people to tell what is happening to them. While the new emphasis on, and national strategy towards, child sexual exploitation is very welcome, a failure to address the earlier CSA which makes so many children and teenagers vulnerable to CSE means that such exploitation can never be fully addressed.

In my CRFR seminar this week (Wednesday 16 November) I outline some thought-provoking research findings by Rosaleen MacElvaney and colleagues on disclosure and non-disclosure of sexual abuse among young people. They identify first an active withholding of the secret, which gives some sense of control in an unsafe world. Secondly there is the pressure- cooker effect created by wanting to tell, yet simultaneously not wanting to.

That means the secret is often blurted out without either prior planning or support. Thirdly, there is confiding: few children tell the people they’re meant to tell (teachers, police, social workers and so on). If they tell, it is usually to a friend or to their mother, neither of whom has a support system of their own.

Thus, say McElvaney and colleagues, “in supporting children to tell, the need for the secret to be contained and controlled must be respected”.

That doesn’t mean - nor should it mean - that we can offer them complete confidentiality. It can mean slowing down the process to the child’s pace, offering them more choice and control, creating genuinely child-centred environments, and switching the emphasis from relying so heavily on children’s testimony to a perpetrator-focused strategy.

In my presentation this week I give examples, among others, of Scotland’s innovative “Stop to Listen” (formerly Confidential Space) project being pioneered by four local authorities; of the successful Barnahus children’s houses from Scandinavia, now being actively explored by the Scottish government; of possible statutory sector alliances with confidential children’s services; and of imaginative perpetrator-focused strategies. These include both successful ones from the past which were closed down, and inspiring examples of perpetrator-focused models, which have been used in the fight against child sexual exploitation.

McElvaney, R., Greene, S. and Hogan, D. (2012) ‘Containing the secret of child sexual abuse’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(6): 1155–75.

McElvaney, R. (2013) ‘Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: Delays, Nondisclosure and Partial Disclosure. What the Research Tells Us and Implications for Practice’, Child Abuse Review, DOI: 0.1002/car.2280

Nelson, S. (ed) (2008) See us – Hear us! Schools working with sexually abused young people, Dundee: Violence is Preventable, 18 and Under, www.

Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support, Bristol: Policy Press.

Stoltenborgh, M., van Ijzendoorn, M., Euser, E. and BakermansKranenburg, M. (2011) ‘A Global Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse: Meta-Analysis of Prevalence Around the World’, Child Maltreatment, 16(2): 79–101.

Children’s Commissioner (2015) Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action, London: Children’s Commissioner for England.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Getting evidence into action: how can we understand what we already know?

Our Co-director, Dr Sarah Morton writes about the processes involved in setting up an Evidence Bank to support public and voluntary sector partners in accessing existing research evidence to help to inform decision making.

At the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships we have always valued working closely with non-academic partners. At the end of one particular research partnership with national family organisations (Cool with Change) we started a conversation about what other research the partnership might do together. Many of the topics our partners were interested in were areas where there was already a lot of research, but it was very difficult for these non-academic agencies to get a sense of what that research was. So we set out together to develop ways to make existing research more useful.

We explain the reviewing process we developed to address that issue in an article just published by the journal Evidence and Policy (Evidence synthesis for knowledge exchange: balancing responsiveness and quality in providing evidence for policy and practice). The process focussed on making sure that evidence was useful, timely and relevant, and could be put into action by people working in children and family services.

Why is evidence reviewing important?

Often people need to understand what we already know from research in order to develop services. Traditional systematic reviewing is time consuming and often doesn’t offer very accessible summaries. Our evidence bank process sought to address these issues.

What kinds of topics were reviewed?

We developed a range of ways of interrogating what partners wanted to know from research in order to define review topics. This involved visiting and revisiting questions like:
  • What is the general topic area you are interested in? 
  • What is the issue or problem you are trying to address? 
  • What do you want to know about this issue? 
But we also explored the potential uses of the evidence through questions like:
  • What do you plan to do with the data/report? 
  • Who will the data/report be relevant to within and out with your organisation? 
  • What difference do you hope that using the data/report will make?

In addition to spending time exploring what people wanted, we also created a scoping stage, where we would look at the literature in general terms, get a sense of its size and scope, and return back to a discussion of what the specific focus should be.

Through the process we looked at: Parenting Teenagers; Transitions to Primary school; How families have changed; and other topics.

What was different about the reviews?

As well as being tailored very specifically to real world practice issues, the reviews have a number of distinctive features:
  • They explain how the topic review fits in with the wider literature and which subjects and disciplines it comes from, to give a sense of the ‘evidence landscape’ in which it sits.
  • The scoping and final reports are peer reviewed by an academic and a user reviewer who has practical experience and knowledge of the field.
  • The reports are edited by a knowledge exchange expert, written in plain language with a short summary. 
  • Reviews contain ‘talking points’ that focus on the practical implications of the evidence presented, and aim to move thinking away from the idea that research can tell you what to do, towards the idea that research provides a framework to help decision-making. 
  • They are conducted in a shorter time frame with involvement from partners throughout.

How have the reviews been used?

We worked closely with partners to explore how to make the reviews useful. We tried and tested a number of approaches, from large forums, communities of practice, and linking with improvement approaches. They have led to some specific actions, for example:
  • In West Lothian a review of transitions to primary school was used to test and embed new approaches to supporting children and families.
  • One of the partners from the About Families programme used the evidence to develop new ways of including parents in the design and delivery of services. 
  • In What Works Scotland a review of partnership working has been used by local authorities to reflect on and improve the effectiveness of partnerships for public service delivery.

What next?

The Evidence Bank review process has been taken into What Works Scotland and is being used there for a number of reviews

Monday, 31 October 2016

Living in the shadows of dementia care

Dr Julie Watson is the author of our latest research briefing Face-to-Face: Relating to people with dementia until the end of life in care homes. Julie, a registered nurse, is a Research Fellow in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Health in Social Sciences. Next week some of her work features in the exhibition Living with Dementia: Fostering Hope, Challenging Fear, part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

An inspiring plenary talk by Professor Annette Leibing at the recent ‘Life with Dementia’ conference at Linkoping University, Sweden, described people who are living well with dementia, able to remain active and connected within their communities, as the ‘heroes’ of dementia. However, Professor Leibing cautioned that we must not forget those who are perhaps not seen as living heroic lives, who remain in the shadows.

People with advanced dementia who live in care homes, and those who care for them, remain in the shadows of dementia care. The daughter of a woman with advanced dementia living in a care home recently described to me her sense of her mother living in a ‘twilight zone’, and the sadness associated with this for her as she struggles to connect with her mum. This is an increasingly common experience for families as the population ages and the number of people with dementia rises dramatically. The experience of families who say ‘this is not my dad’ (Sikes & Hall 2016) while at the same time expecting paid carers to ‘maintain the person within’ (Davies et al 2016) points to the tensions and complexity of relationships in this area of care.

So how do we foster hope and challenge fear among people living with advanced dementia in care homes and those who look after them? 

One way might be to re-imagine our relationships – moving away from a focus on language and conversation to other ways we can connect person to person. The recently published briefing paper Face-to-Face: Relating to people with dementia until the end of life in care homes presents findings from a study into how care staff in a care home and people with advance dementia relate to each other, from which we can all learn. 

The Primary Palliative Care Research Group at Edinburgh University have just published a commentary on their vision to establish a Care Home Centre for Excellence, a care home where people would choose to come and live, not as a last resort, where they would receive excellent care and where students can learn and research can help us understand how best to live well with dementia until the very end of life (Hockley et al 2016).

Much has been achieved within dementia care over the last 20 years which is to be celebrated. Now is the time to build on that, shining the light into those areas which are still in the shadows.

8-10th November 2016: Living with Dementia: Fostering Hope, Challenging Fear

Edinburgh Centre for Research on the Experience of Dementia (ECRED), as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in November are presenting an exhibition of photographs and short films produced with and by people with dementia. This exhibition, ‘Living with Dementia: Fostering Hope, Challenging Fear’ shows many people living well with dementia, challenging the stereotype of them as tragic victims of a disease which takes away the person, and the stigma associated with a diagnosis of dementia, which so often marginalises the lives of those living with dementia.

Living with dementia
Some of Dr Julie Watson’s work features in Exhibit 5 of the exhibition ‘Beyond words – the language of body and soul’. 

  • Davies, N, Rait, G. Maio, L. & Illife, S. (2016) Family caregivers’ conceptualisations of quality end-of-life care for people with dementia: A qualitative study. Palliative Medicine DO1:10.1177/0269216316673552
  • Hockley J, Harrison J, Watson J, Randall M & Murray (2016) Fixing the Broken Image of care homes, could a ‘care home innovation centre’ be the answer? Age and Ageing. DOI: 10.1093/ageing/afw154 
  • Sikes, P. & Hall, M. (2016) “It was then that I thought ‘whaat? This is not my Dad”: The implications of the ‘still the same person’ narrative for children and young people who have a parent with dementia. Dementia DOI: 10.1177/1471301216637204