Case study 1: Dave and Jenny Smith

Background information about the family.


Dave and Jenny Smith are white, married, in their early twenties and live on a London housing estate. They have two children; Sean aged four years, and Sarah, aged two. Their marriage is very stormy, prone to repeated rows and occasional violence. Jenny accuses Dave of spending the house-keeping money on drinking and gambling. Dave admits that he spends about £40 a week at the bookies, and he goes to the pub about three times a week. Jenny spends money each week on a mail order catalogue.

The family have rent arrears and hire purchase debts. Two weeks ago they received a letter from a loan company threatening to repossess items to the value of the money owed to them.  Most of their problems are about money, and each blames the other for Sean’s behaviour, which is described by the nursery staff as wilful and aggressive. They only seem to communicate when rowing. Dave works irregularly on building sites as a labourer. Jenny’s mother lives in another part of London, but Dave’s parents are from the north of England. The couple moved into the estate two years ago and hardly know anyone in the area.

Sean is attending the local day nursery and a mother and toddlers group was offered for Sarah, but the offer was never taken up. Both Dave and Jenny would like help with their financial difficulties. Jenny would also like their relationship to improve. Dave says the only thing wrong with their relationship is their lack of intimacy since Sarah was born. The family was referred by the Health Visitor, who felt the family’s problems were affecting Sarah.




‘ practice without a theory is to sail an uncharted sea;

theory without practice is not to set sail at all…’

(Hardiker and Baker, 1991)


This paper seeks to examine the above case study. It first explains what social work theories are and their limitation. It then goes on to explain the different types of theory I intend to use and why I chose such theories. Finally, I will analyse the case study using my chosen theories, followed by brief conclusion and any references I used.

Beckett (2006: 33) defines social work theory as a “set of ideas or principles to guide practice”. Howe ( 2009: 2) contends that if we can understand theories, then we are ‘half way towards knowing what to do’. However, one needs to understand that there are different types of theories and they have limitations, for example “informal” theories might not be useful in this case as they tend to incorporate prejudice and assumptions’ and hence do not ‘merit the word theory’ but they need to be taken into account for their existence. (Beckett, 2006: 185) Formal theories however, are more complex, beneficial and express our understandings of social issues and might help us understand and make sense of a complex human world. For example, how family become dysfunctional? Why people become offenders? Or why some children misbehave? And so on.

The difficulty of choosing a particular perspective in Dave and Jenny’s case is that, while some theory can be right for their case; incorrectly applied theories could prove disastrous. For example, a social worker who rely his or her own informal theory for assessment and interventions would be very limited in scope. Having said that, there are number of social work theories that I believe are suitable for this case. Payne, (1997) emphasises that the use of multiple theories are more effective than single theory, and use of single theory can be defective and out of scope. (Payne, 1997: 36) Thus, I intend to use more than one theory for this case study.

And for this reason I intend to use Psychodynamic, Attachment, and system theories Feminist viewpoints, behavioural therapy and Person-centred approach would also be considered. My choices for these theories are based on the idea that Dave and Jenny’s relationship problems might be rooted in their childhood upbringings. The case study shows that their relationship is not healthy, and their argument often lead to violence, and their behaviour is affecting the wellbeing of their children.

The couple have indicated that they are willing to accept help in finding solution for their problems, and most importantly, seeking help should be seen as a sign of responsibility and not failure.  The first thing a social worker needs do in this stage is to talk to them, and  explain that the only way they can fix their problems is to talk and   communicate well and  be ready to receive professional advice and support. The social worker should be holistic in approaching their problems, keeping in mind that this is not onetime event but, rather continuing process which would lead to plan of action that is suitable for them. ‘When the problems are identified, the social worker and the family need to agree to prioritise their problems and to identify which ones they want to work on’. (Cree and Myers, 2010: 93).

Anti-oppressive practice requires that social workers need to undertake least interventions (Payne, 2005: 286), working in partnerships with a social worker and finding ways to enable Dave and Jenny to become more aware of their own problems, One element of anti-oppressive practice is to make sure that people’s rights are not violated. (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995: 57) Social worker must put the needs of the children’s first, but also need to respect the family’s human rights, including rights to liberty, private and family life.

In the case study, it’s not clear who is oppressed, one can only assumed that Dave is using his masculine power to his advantage. My aim here is to avoid placing oppression into a hierarchy and prioritising one form of oppression over another, as Jenny might also be the oppressor. Feminist theory in domestic violence emphasizes gender and power inequality in family relationship, it points out the traditional norm that endorses a male’s use of violence and aggression against their female partners  (Pence and Paymar, 1993). They also pointed out that the cause of violence against women is that, the society turns blind eye to the violent behaviours perpetrated by men against them. (Pence and Paymar, 1993) In this regard, Dave might be using his physical power to oppress Jenny; however, critics of this theory would also point out that, this is not always the case as issues of power and abuse have also been identified in lesbian relationship. (Lawson, 2003) Therefore it is difficult to pin point who oppressing who.

As professional worker, it is important to note that the main concern here is the family’s ‘problematic situation’, it would be unethical and judgmental to see either of them as problem.  (Thompson, 2009) I would encourage the couple to take the lead in solving their problems, ‘given that empowerment is central to social work intervention’ (ibid, p 15). Educational skills such as communication skills might be needed to overcome their problems. Seeking counselling might help ease tension, learning basic budgeting skills might also help reduce their financial problems, and better communication skills might also reduce tension. And lastly they need to learn how to ‘channel their emotion and feelings more responsibly’ (Thompson, 2009: 80-81)

Sigmund Freud’s Psychodynamic theory suggests that “ our behaviours come from movements and interaction in our minds” (Payne, 1997: 72-73)  according to this perspective, Dave and Jenny’s repeated rows and aggression is driven by their id, thus a good co-operation between their ego and superego would have resulted a better understanding of Dave and Jenny’s marital problems. Furthermore, Dave’s intimate violence against Jenny might mean that he did not receive adequate nurturing in early years. Therefore understanding his early childhood experiences might be central to understanding their trouble relationship. Talking to Jenny’s mother might be helpful if both parties are willing to accept, with support they would need to develop solution to overcome their problems. They would also need to learn and to focus as a team a meaningful goal to improve their relationship, such as seeking anger management treatment and taking responsibility for their actions (Thompson, 2009)

One of the strength of psychodynamic theory is that it focuses on the causes of one’s aggressiveness and behavioural problems and links this to their early childhood experiences (Trevithick, 2011). Freud’s theory also led to other theorists such as Piaget developing theories on childhood development. It is weaknesses are that, it suggests that behaviour is pre-determined and individuals are “under control of instinct” this contrast to Humanist perspective, which suggest that individuals are able to decide for themselves and have “potential for their own development” (Atkinson and Wells, 2003: 25) Another weakness is that Freud theory is Eurocentric and did not take into account other none European cultures.

The case study, suggest that Dave is using the housekeeping money on gambling and alcoholic drinks, these tragic problems are not specific to Dave.  In fact, studies suggest that gambling is a major problem in the UK and is out of scope of social care agencies (Rogers, 2013: 41-60). People of similar life style and income situations as Dave and Jenny’s are known to spend significant amount of their income on gambling than those on higher income (ibid). Thus, Dave’s gambling problems needs to be addressed as it’s a major source of their conflict. Much of the literature I have come across seems to have said little about gambling problems, and as Roger (2013) suggests, “It remains an inadequately understood entity and an under-theorised area of human behaviour”. (Rogers, 2013: 50) Psychodynamic theory would suggest that Dave’s gambling problem happens at an unconscious level. In sociological theory on understanding compulsive gamblers’ Bernhard (2007, 137) argues that “our habitual process are products of sociological as well as psychological factors”. (Bernhard, 2007: 122-138)



Good relationship between social worker and the family are central to the effectiveness of good anti-oppressive practice. Another social work theory that might be suitable for this case would be Person-centred approach. This perspective seeks to understand the needs of the family, what do they want and how can this be accommodated. The social worker needs to explain what support is available for them and how they can get access to such support. These include counselling, support and budgeting and other support that can best meet their needs (Thompson, Kilbane and Sanderson, 2008). Not all interventions work for all, thus, social worker needs to consult with the family. Using person-centred approach, both should be reminded, that Dave’ tendency to use the housing keeping money for drinking and gambling and Jenny compulsive catalogue spending would have dire effects on their lives. The rent arrears, hire purchase debts as well as the threat of repossession to their personal belongings needs to be addressed too. This theory emphasises self-empowerment, so Dave and Jenny are aware of their situations and are  able to take responsibility for their actions, however they may make too lofty of goals that are not achievable.

It is clear in this case study that financial difficulties and unemployment are another major cause for their problems. The main goal of intervention should therefore be, to restore the family’s stability as there are two vulnerable children among them. Thus, the social worker should identify any financial support the family might be entitled to and how to get such support, work with Jenny’s mother and apply the intervention that will be most effective in restoring the family’s stability. The logic behind all these is the social worker to enable the family to help themselves.

The social worker should not jump into conclusion regarding child removal, and remind him or herself that the best interest of parents and the children is to “support children and family to stay together.” (Children Act 1989). it is clear in this case that Dave and Jenny’s rows and repeated disputes has affected  their children,  Sean’s behavioural problems at the nursery is a good example. The fact that the family has moved into this areas recently suggests that they are experiencing social isolation, contacting and consulting other family members are therefore vital for this case.   Even though none of the children is physically abused, Hague and Malos (1998) believe that the kind of behaviour shown by couple constitute child abuse (Hague and Malos, 1998). In this scenario children need emotional support to help them emotionally and to enable to sustain attachment and pleasure’ with their parents (Caroll, 2000: 11-12).

Evidence suggests that, parents who mistreat their children often have drinking problems, and in some cases may be suffering mental health problems. (Davies and Carolyn, 2011: 4) Jenny’ apparent detachment from Sarah and the lack of intimacy with her partner might be sign that she is suffering a depression. In these scenarios attachment theory might help explain Jenny’s lack of attachment and intimacy with Sarah and Dave.

This perspective focuses on the parent and child relationship as well as spousal relationships. It suggests that mother and child attachment is vital for emotional development of the child. Like Psychodynamic approach, attachment theory suggests that children’s earliest bonds with their caregivers shapes the development of their childhood and continues to affect throughout their life. Thus, violence at home affected their children and therefore they may not develop an emotional security. The argument here is that ineffective or lack of attachment in their childhood could have been responsible for the mother child detachment in this case study (Lishman, 1991: 59)  so Jenny’s detachment with her daughter and lack of intimacy with her husband may have its roots to her early childhood development. Attachment theory is an ideal for to use in dysfunctional family situations because it seems to correctly explain behavioural and relationship problems as typical to Dave and Jenny’s (Lishman, 1991: 14)

It is paramount importance that the social worker needs to get as much information as possible in advance before he or she first arranges meeting with the family. This ideally involves checking multi agency records to see whether the family is known to the authority, and what information is held about them, particularly the children. The report on the  death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 stressed the importance of social workers reading case files, this is to substantiate whether common assessment framework on Sarah already exist, this will allow the social worker to decide whether Sarah is considered to be child in need under  section 17 of Children Act 1989 (Laming, 2003). And if this is the case, carry out the necessary steps.

The health visitor’s referral did not mention whether Sarah is in danger, social worker needs to take into account about this. In this scenario Social worker must adopt a “position of healthy scepticism” (Laming, 2003) as social worker, I would need to be aware of the concerns raised by the health visitor, but at the same time be ready to independently and fairly assess the situation. In this case ‘Common Assessment will be helpful in clarifying the health visitors’ concerns  as well as the  needs of Sarah and at the same time identifying the services that the family require’ (Cree and Myers, 2010: 32) while it is right that any social worker might be thinking of child protection issue in this case, the Children’s Act 1998 reminds us that, the best interest of children is to “support children and family to stay together” (Children’s Act 1998)

The family’s traumatic situation might be the reason the couple are struggling to meet the emotional needs of their children and the lack of intimacy between them. Because both couple are anxious about financial difficulties, they become preoccupied with their own problems and neglected their children’s emotional feelings. Referral to relationship counselling would probably help the couple to overcome such difficulties. The nursery describes Sean’s behaviour as “wilful and aggressive” the couple’s problems, particularly Dave’s, violence and behavioural problems from the perspective of attachment theory suggest “insecure infant attachment and intergenerational transmission of violence”  (Killeen and McClellan, 2000: 353-360) Thus, Sean’s behaviour at the nursery could be indicative of the caregiver’s deficiency as children’s “patterns of attachment is influenced by what their attachment figures do” (Lishman, 1991: 59) However, contrary to explanations of attachment and psychodynamic theories, not all children who are ‘abused or witness abuse incidents  follow the footsteps of their caregivers  (Killeen and McClellan, 2000: 353-360)

In conclusion, social work theory is ideas and principles that guide us to understand social issues that affect us on daily bases. While theories may not give us expected outcome, the critical and logical approach they provide ensure that assessment and interventions are consistently made on the best information and with professional judgment. Learning social work theory is crucial in understanding social crises such as Dave and Jenny’s case and how we might best respond to such crises. It is vital that social workers read case files before doing any intervention and reach firm but professional judgment keeping in mind the human rights of service users. And finally I would like to share the following interesting quotation as they sum up the importance of social work theory.  “To practice without a theory is to sail an uncharted sea; theory without practice is not to set sail at all”  (Hardiker and Baker, 1991) without social work theory the social worker is at the mercy of discouragements” (Marchal 1946, 1; quoted in Lishman, 1991: 41)



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