**Recently updated 2016
Many of us are aware of how our environments can impact our moods, how we interact and move. How we act at home is different from how we act at work. At home we may spend the evening for hours on end with our feet up, simultaneously playing on our phone or tablet while watching TV. We may yell across the room asking our partner to bring us a drink while telling the whining dog to be quiet. At work, we might be sitting upright, professional and focused on our work. Our language will probably be more guarded and we may engage with more eye contact and hand shakes. The space itself, though familiar, will be more sterile and we may be mindful of how we behave in that space. If we are sitting on a company couch, we aren’t likely to suddenly throw our legs up under our feet, grab a magazine and lay back and relax. We are mindful that this space is not ours. This is a professional public space.
This isn’t news to most of us, but in the context of social work and observing families in their current environment, how we view space can play a major role in our assessments and can influence decisions made in the best interest of the child. Professor Harry Ferguson, in (Walks, Home Visits and Atmospheres: Risk and the Everyday Practices and Mobilities of Social Work and Child Protection, British Journal of social work, 2010) and ( Performing child protection: home visiting, movement and the struggle to reach the abused child, 2009) brilliantly explores how movement and space can impact a social worker from leaving the office, to the car, and then entering a family’s home and how each step plays a role in how we reflect and engage with the service user or family. Moreover, how access or lack of access to families, can affect our interventions. Professor Ferguson highlights how when we enter a home, we are walking into a family’s “atmosphere” We breath in their world so to speak (Ferguson,2010). Each room in the house has a story and how that space is utilized can affect our interactions and our ability to gain as much knowledge as possible of a family’s routine.
When we do a home assessment, we are observing a family in their environment to the best of our ability. We are aware of body language in the home and the dynamics between family members and how they utilize their familiar surroundings. Furthermore, how objects are arranged, manipulated, used to conceal or to highlight something. Home visits tend to give us a glimpse, whether staged or not, of daily life for the family in question. With all this is mind, how does this affect our engagement and assessment outside the home? This is what I have been reflecting on in my work with families in a contact centre.
I currently observe families for hours on end while they interact together in rooms designed to mimic the comforts of home but which are obviously institutional. Families will choose a room that usually has a sofa, lamp, a breakfast table, boxes of toys in the corner, a changing station and occasionally a television set. Most of these objects and comforts can probably be found in their homes. Yet it’s not their home. These are not their things. The toys do not belong to the children. They have no personal attachment or relationship with the objects or the space they find themselves in. They are expected to interact with each other and with the objects around them, as if they are at home. The space is meant to offer the illusion of familiarity so that we may observe them, to the best of our ability, as if they were in their own home and “atmosphere”.
These observations are meaningful. Our observations will be used alongside home assessments, and meetings to determine whether a child will return home to a parent or if one parent can be alone with the child unsupervised, or to monitor a weekly visit between a parent and child who is up for adoption or crown wardship. Our case notes need to be objective and to reflect what we see and hear without assumptions. The challenge is of course, the environment. During one such observation, my supervisor was reflecting on how one family was sitting and watching TV and playing on their phone/tablet devices during the entire visit. I remember remarking how it was too bad that they weren’t using this time to engage with each other more since they only had a few hours together. My supervisor’s response was, “but this is what they would be doing at home.” He is right.
Most households would be sitting around together watching TV or playing on the computer or phone. We had to take that into consideration. To a point. These families were using the space as they would at home. However, equally and crucially, they were not at home. This was a chance to have quality time with their children for a very short amount of time.
I also discovered how the environment could work in their favour. Some families took advantage of the toys and games and spent a good amount of time engaging with their children. One parent remarked “look at this! I wish we had something like this at home.” They seemed genuinely interested in the objects around them. Some of these families had limited economic resources and as a result, limited stimulation at home other than television. Therefore, these objects were sometimes welcomed and unconsciously used as attachment building tools between parent and child.
The concept of space and environment is unique to each person. It can be challenging for families to find comfort in the space they are given to enjoy quality time together. Furthermore, the dynamics can be influenced by the fact they are being observed. When we observe families at the centre, this is done in three ways; through one-way windows, cameras, or physically going into the daycare room every ten minutes to observe them. The latter is for families that have the least amount of supervision requirements. I have noticed that with more seasoned families that come into the centre, many will choose the rooms with no windows. They are still aware we can see and hear them via cameras; however, the lack of a one-way window gives them the illusion that they are on their own and are not being observed. This isn’t at all uncommon. Think about when you are in the subway or walking down the street. You may notice CCTV cameras everywhere. Eventually you forgot they are even there. Yet, our every movement is captured.
In the context of a supervised visit, the illusion of being alone, whether in a room with or without one way windows can sometimes determine how attachment and behaviour is played out. Many families begin to relax, act, and speak as if they were in their own home. This can work both in their favour and sometimes against. Some families may forget they are here to work on their relationships with their children and they may not engage with them directly or make an effort. This can affect the visit immensely as well as the child’s view of the visit. It is interesting to observe the families with the one-way window. Most are aware they are being watched directly and depending on lighting, can see into the observation deck quite easily. I have noticed that a few families welcome our observations. Especially those that are currently close to regaining custody of their children and new kinship adopters. Some of them seem to find this a very supportive environment or one where they have a chance to demonstrate their affection and attachment towards their children. Moreover, if they are feeling nervous or overwhelmed we are there to pop into the room and support them if needed. This is especially true of families with very small children. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some families find the one-way window hostile and will attempt to block it.
When families find our observation intrusive they will use the space and objects differently. I had one family that would constantly close the blinds. We could still hear them but could not see them. Depending on their supervision order, we may or may not accommodate that. Some families would use the objects around them to conceal. Not unlike something you may come across in a home visit. One family I had, put a family movie on that had adults and children in the film. They then put the volume up to maximum. I could hear a conversation between child and adult, but only from the film itself. It was interesting to see how the space and objects in the centre could be used to mask, hide, and alter the situation. I really began to reflect on environment and space and it’s role in how we engage and interact and how it can affect dynamics. I think that sometimes we focus too much on verbal and behavioral cues without giving much emphasis as to how those cues may be influenced by space and environment. Moreover, how the environment may suppress or energize the dynamics between adult and child. Here is one mother’s experience with supervised contact visits. I would highly recommend reading it.
What are your thoughts and experiences around the concept of space when working with clients or families? How has the environment and atmosphere influenced your thoughts and emotions? What positive or negative assumptions have you derived from your observations and how can it better inform practice?