Why panel members should be more self aware

Dr Arlene Weekes believes that the decisions that fostering and adoption panel members make are too often influenced by their own biases and backgrounds. She is calling for radical reform of how they are hired – and fired

Dr Arlene Weekes is a social work service manager, lecturer, trainer, independent adoption vice chair and fostering panel chair who believes that fostering and  adoption panel members should be more conscious of their biases and trained beyond just knowing the National Minimum Standards.

Weekes recently completed PhD research into understanding how the attitudes and values of adoption and fostering panel members influence their role and the recommendations they make.

The idea for Weekes’ research began many years ago, she says, when she was chairing a local authority adoption panel. 

‘An older male panel member, who was an adoptee from Eastern Europe, who did not believe that his, or anyone’s, cultural origin should play a significant role in recommendations. The negative effects of this were revealed when he made an inappropriate comment to a woman of dual heritage (stating that clearly race had not been an issue for her), who was applying to adopt, and who had herself been adopted by a white woman.’

This incident caused Weekes to question how panel members’ personal experiences and beliefs influence their recommendations. 

‘I continued to encounter panel members and professionals who acted as though their values and personal experiences had no bearing on their judgements, as though they were a blank sheet, completely impartial,’ she says. ‘I was amazed by this. Surely people knew their previous experiences impact the decisions they make.’

Weekes believes class, race and faith have a large bearing on judgements, citing scenarios such as ‘the assumption that applicants or carers who have a faith will inherently be more likely to have adverse reactions to same-sex issues than an atheist’. She also believes that a child’s race has become ‘almost unimportant’ in the matching process over the past decade.

Power imbalance and scrutiny

Weekes’ research reveals a lack of regular, structured support and guidance for panel members. She also highlights that panel members who lack confidence defer to the panel chair or more experienced panel members rather than having the confidence to voice their own opinions.

‘Panel chairs can often go unchallenged,’ says Weekes. ‘People need to remember the chair facilitates panel but doesn’t have any more power in the decision-making process than other panel members.’ 

Panel members are also seen by attendees as the decision-makers, even though, in reality, the ultimate decision is the agency decision maker. ‘Panel members are there to scrutinise the information provided in the paperwork and make a recommendation, rather than interrogate attendees on the day,’ says Weekes. ‘Panel members need to be supported to recognise the power they have and be guided not to abuse this power,’ explains Weekes.

Weekes’ research also stresses the need to ensure good quality assurance and scrutiny is in place rather than a ‘conveyor belt/rubber-stamping of recommendations’.

People who have experienced trauma

Many people who have experienced trauma or suffering in their own childhood may seek roles in the caring professions, such as becoming a panel member. ‘Awareness needs to be raised about this,’ says Weekes. ‘An understanding is needed of the potential risks and benefits of early childhood adversity and adult life experiences, as these are still felt consciously or unconsciously.’

Weekes would like to see all panel members supported to use their life experiences in more effective ways. She explains: ‘These adverse experiences are valuable in providing unique insights which can be used empathically in the performance of an individual in their role, as long as the individual concerned is aware of, and can manage, their conscious and unconscious emotions.’

Calling time on panel

Once recruited, Weekes recommends that panel members have appraisals rather than reviews to ‘constructively explore’ whether they are effectively contributing to the panel, using a coined term from a Panel Advisor colleague ‘current currency’.

‘If panel members are no longer suitable to remain in their role, fostering and adoption services should have transparent processes to terminate their employment,’ says Weekes.

Weekes also recommends a return to a fixed-term length of panel membership in place of the current indefinite term.

Key findings

There are several findings and eighteen recommendations from her research which can be read in the full research available here.

These recommendations include:

  • a need to recruit a diverse panel member in terms of their personal identities, experience, and professional expertise
  • a far more rigorous recruitment process for panel members, to ‘assess character and mindset, alongside their ability to form and maintain appropriate relationships and personal boundaries with others, their emotional resilience in working with challenges and their use of authority and power’
  • transparent contract termination processes and an end to indefinite panel membership terms
  • improved inductions for new panel members which should go beyond an observation of panel before starting but to include shadowing of, and mentoring by, an experienced panel member
  • training for panel members should increase from once to twice a year – and one session should focus on the role and function of the panel, and the other covering topics such as conformational bias, groupwork and anti-discriminatory practice. 

A key outcome is Weekes’ conclusion that ‘increased personal awareness increases professional effectiveness’. In response, she has developed a process called ‘Effective Personal and Professional Judgement’ (EPPJ) whereby individuals fit into one of four different quadrants that determines their levels of self-awareness and how this influences how effective their decision-making is.

‘By recognising, analysing, and adapting personal values and preferences,decision-makers will become professionally proficient, particularly in relation to decisions about others, she says.  ‘the notion of being non-judgmental is a fallacy, it is not possible to avoid stereotypes and generalisations, instead individuals and groups need to guard against unconscious acting-out of our biases - in a discriminatory way.’

Read the full research paper.

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