The Voice of Children in Social Work Assessments: What They Say? or What They Play?
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Child protection and welfare social work practice is faced with many challenges in its statutory duty to protect children at risk of abuse and/or neglect. Numerous child care tragedies have highlighted the importance of social workers engaging with children in relation to their experiences. Child care policy strongly advocates for the voice of the child to be represented in all assessments concerning the protection and welfare of children. One of the primary arguments underpinning this research is that social workers need to be skilled communicators to engage with children about deeply personal and painful issues. This study examines social work education and training in Ireland with regard to the acquisition of age-appropriate communication skills to engage with children. There is a wide range of research that maintains play is the language of children and the most effective way to learn about children is through their play. Considering this, the overarching aim of this study was to investigate the role of play skills in supporting communication between children and social workers during child protection and welfare assessments. To establish a theoretical base for the study, four core themes were examined: play and play therapy; attachment theory; child protection and welfare social work practice; and social work education. A mixed methods approach was used to collect data. The quantitative study captured the views of a wide range of child protection and welfare social workers (n=122) and veteran social work practitioners (n=25) in Ireland. The qualitative study involved a team of child protection and welfare social workers and managers, two classes of social work students and one focus group of social workers. The data collection was designed to establish the thoughts and/or experiences of participants in relation to a Play Skills Training (PST) programme designed by the author. The study identifies participants¿ views regarding pre- and post-qualifying social work training in Ireland. The key findings of the study reveal that the majority of social work participants rate the use of play skills in social work assessments as a key factor to effective engagement with children involved in the child protection and welfare system. These findings have implications for policy, practice, research, education and training. The author concludes the study by recommending a number of messages for each sector to consider. Of particular importance, these messages address how social work services can ensure, in a child-friendly manner that the voice of children is heard and represented in all assessments of their well-being and future care options.