The role of ‘Kintsugi’ in contemporary child protection practice.

Richard Devine, senior social worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council considers the application of the art of Kintsugi to contemporary child protection practice.

This is a guest post by Richard Devine who shares some ideas from his ever questioning mind.

Here he reflects on the application of the Japanese art of Kintsugi to contemporary child protection practice.

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), also known as Kintsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”),[1] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique.[2][3][4] As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.”

Strengths versus deficit orientated practice: A false dichotomy?

In recent years there has been a strong focus on strengths based approaches to working with children and families. Such an approach has responded to the deficit orientated, problem saturated way of conceptualising the challenges families that we work with experience. The introduction of Signs of Safety into the Local Authority I worked for in 2014 had the effect of rejuvenating my passion for social work because it came at a time when I was beginning to feel demoralised and disillusioned by the nature of our work in child protection. During a five day residential I attended, Andrew Turnell argued that safety planning is dependant to a large extent on comprehensively understanding the safety and strengths within the family.

By asking questions about times the parents have overcome adversity (e.g. when a mother or father decided to separate from an abusive relationship; a parent took the children to the park instead of using drugs: a family member cared for the child when the parent was depressed), we develop an understanding of past examples and times when the parents or the wider family system has been able to function in a way that protects the children from danger. With this understanding, we can begin to exploit the families pre-existing coping strategies and strengths in a way that gradually improves the safety of the children. This constitutes not just a technique but rather a paradigm shift in which you proactively seek out latent strengths within the family and facilitate their growth such that transformational change is encouraged.

Many strengths based models are similar in nature to signs of safety in that they identify risks or deficits and seek to redress these with strengths and then capitalise on the latter. However, is it right to assume that risk or deficits are aspects of functioning that are to be mitigated, or minimised? Or to assume that the effects of risk and deficits are best ameliorated by the expansion of strengths?

Through learning about the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (Crittenden, 2016), I developed a new theoretical lens for understanding typical child protection problems. Many aspects of parental functioning that represent risk or deficit in parenting capacity are usually a sophisticated self protective coping strategy. Often these coping strategies developed in early childhood when the parent was themselves a young child. Behaviour that was once adaptive may have become maladaptive in adulthood or is incompatible with parenting. Put another way, there is a misfit between a coping strategy and the context of the parent’s current life. Alternatively, psychological trauma linked to early exposure to danger or loss interferes with the parents ability to protect themselves and their family. For example, a perpetrators need to control and coerce a partner may have developed as a self protective strategy in childhood to manage intimate relationships that were characterised by deception and unpredictability. The strategy likely developed out of conscious awareness and has been unintentionally carried forward from childhood into adulthood. Or, what if a drug user is attempting to ameliorate the psychological distress associated with past trauma in the absence of any other reliable means to do so? What if depression is seen as a developmental experience of uniformly disappointing relationships, leaving the individual to feel despondent, worthless, unable to rely on others and/or achieve emotional closeness.

Perhaps then, deficits and risks aren’t issues that should be minimised or mitigated against, rather a reflection of the intrinsic capacities of the individual to cope with adverse experiences. With this understanding, deficits and risks could be seen as unique strengths illustrating an individuals courage, tenacity and ability to cope without support that would of enabled alternative ways of coping to be utilised. We should be careful therefore not to pathologise or demonise the coping strategies that have provided effective psychological safety, at least from a phenomenological perspective. The goal might then shift to helping the individual feel safe enough to develop a wider array of self protective strategies. That is promote flexibility and adaptation. Which will of course require flexibility and adaptation in the child protection system.

2 thoughts on “The role of ‘Kintsugi’ in contemporary child protection practice.”

  1. To bring strengths based practice into the difficult areas of statutory social work we need greater depth and nuance about how we think about and engage with service recipient’s strengths, resistance, resourcefulness and resilience. Richard Devine’s use of the Kintsugi analogy is a powerful metaphor for our professional imagination as we think about our our weaknesses and breakages as well as those we work with – all power to you Rich, practice based social work theorising at its best!

    1. Richard Devine

      Great to hear from you Andrew. Many thanks for taking the time to read this blog and for providing such generous and lovely feedback. Often I think about the inspiring 5 day residential training you delivered in 2014 in Northumbria. I think Signs of Safety and Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model coalesce nicely together; the underlying ethos of each framework is remarkably similar yet the methodological approach and
      resolutions proposed differ but in ways that compliment one another. The integration these two approaches has been an integral aspect of my practice in recent years.

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