Family Complexity and Social Work. A Comparative Study of Family-based Welfare Work in Different Welfare Regimes

The aim of the FACSK project was to describe and analyse how social workers that work with families across different contexts understand notions of family and how they describe their practices with families in four service areas: child welfare, addiction, migrating families and mental health. Countries included are Bulgaria, Chile, Ireland, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and UK, representing different policy regimes.

The study applies welfare regime theory on the personal social services. Further, it addresses how professionals’ conceptualisation of their clients (families) is conditioned by the systems and organisations they work in, and how this affects priorities and expected outcome. The project refines comparative research methods based on its composition of contextual and qualitative data from social practice. It also adds to the development of complexity theory for social work research, going beyond existing constructs of the complex nature of social work, to capture the interactive relationship in and between complex needs, relational and contextual complexity.

There are substantial differences in how the notion “family” is expressed on macro and meso levels in the four regime-types that the project has explored, ranging from familialised to individualised notions. The Latin American countries and Eastern European countries of the study have partly different, but still familialised systems, Sweden and Norway stand out as less family-oriented and more individualised, while UK and Ireland are partly de-familialised, partly familialised. The differences were on the whole consistent with previous studies on welfare regimes, and indicated that the main traits of these regimes are present also in the subfield of personal social services.

Variations between different countries in social work approaches with families with complex needs need to be understood as involving a complex interaction between: a) family policy characteristics; b) service structures and the access to organizational resources, c) street-level worker’s professional discretion, values and competences, d) the problem pressure in terms of seriousness and complexity of the difficulties that families face as well as their access to the extended family and networks.

Mental health and addiction treatment are relatively individualised in Scandinavia, while less so in the more familialised countries. On the other hand, child welfare services are more family-oriented also in Scandinavia. The area of migration services contains many complexities due to different patterns of migration (refugees, labour, transit etc.). Professional discretion appears to be comparatively limited in some countries due to regulative structures (as in UK) and/or access to resources (as in Lithuania and Bulgaria).

In spite of system differences, social workers in all countries share mostly similar understandings of the relevance of family ties, as resources in their work. This shared understanding may indicate that a “global social worker ethos” plays out as an aspect of discretion and of increasingly harmonised social work education. Notable though, are the differences in the emphasis on the nuclear family (e.g. Lithuania), vs. more openness towards diverse family forms in other countries.

End-users from policy-makers to social workers will gain new knowledge about different conceptions of the family and services provided. Social policies have, with different degrees in European and Latin American countries, integrated specific cultural roots in which the family has the role to face social problems. The project addresses the improvement of competences for students and people working with interventions for vulnerable children and marginalised families. It follows the Europe 2020 (New skills for new jobs) and Lisbon Treaty goals of providing professionals with improved competencies to match the need of the labour market and to promote social cohesion and inclusion.

Website: bit.ly/FACSK2