Trust me I’m a social workerPosted: December 16, 2011
Let’s face it, social workers have never been viewed by anyone as particularly useful and desired. When I talk about social work I refer particularly to social work with children and families and more particularly child protection. They are the state workers who check up on people’s kids and put there nose into private family life where it is not wanted. They are seen as ineffectual by the general public and unwanted by those who most need their help. Thus it was always so and thus it will always be (probably).
The difficulty with social work as a profession is that everyone has their own view on children and families, and this varies wildly. But in essence most people see themselves as the expert on their own family, and in particularly on their children. We, on the whole, trust our doctors and nurses as well as our dentists, teachers and opticians. We trust them because we believe they know a lot more than us about their stuff. When I have my liver removed I’m pretty sure I won’t be arguing with the surgeon about whether he knows what he’s doing. We just assume, and rightly so, that they know their stuff. With children and families its different. In the end social workers can rarely do work with families without criticism because we generally do not believe that they know best. The thing that we so readily accept with most, if not all, other professions.
I remember in the very first social work office I had the privilege to work in, there was a poster on the wall. There were 2 identical cartoon pictures of a social worker being lynched. One read, “he should have done something sooner” and the other read, “he should’ve kept his nose out and given us time”. It is these balancing acts and conundrums that continue to be the tension for social workers and perhaps what sets the work apart from any other kind of profession. But perhaps the word profession is where the problems start.
Social work has always, certainly as far as I can remember, been a somewhat odd ball vocation. I use the word vocation specifically, setting social work apart from a “profession”. Why so? When I started as a social worker I never saw either myself or my colleagues as professionals. Instead we were people who desired to help, whose vocation it was to get our hands dirty, both metaphorically and physically, and make a difference in the lives of children and their families. Often this would mean a sense of honesty and loyalty to the families we worked with. Investment and trust in their abilities to change for the better.
The professionalisation of the work has meant a move away its humanity, the wish to help, to a more authoritarian and punitive system. This world of policy and targets where press officers and number crunchers are charged with keeping the workers in line and on message has become a de facto families police force. Please do not take that as a anti-police rant as they have their own work to do but instead a move away from the core of what social work was and certainly should be. The making of individual connections where real change can be facilitated and the freedom for workers to work and make a difference.
Social work was just on this turn to professionalism when I started. Court suits were only worn to court and not every day because workers did not want to turn up like authority figures who are there to take your children but instead gave the essential message that I am you and I’m here to help. Recently a friend of mine was reprimanded for using ‘colourful language’ with his clients and this was seen as unprofessional. Certainly from my experience and many of my longstanding colleagues, there is a need for people to know that you are them, you speak in the same way as they do and you’re not trim and proper. Again this comes back to the element of trust and connection and if this means I say to my client that their house is a “fucking shit hole”, then thats just the way it is. I would not suggest everyone should be like this with all their clients and it, again, is about making judgments, about what is both appropriate and effective. But in the end if it’s a shit hole it’s a shit hole. To the reprimanders I say, shove your professionalism if it means i become an unfeeling, ineffective worker in a suit. I have certainly had much better responses form using “colourful language” than saying, “excuse me but this house is particularly unkempt and unhygienic”.
There have always been good and bad social workers but it is my view that the trend has been to move away from the humanistic and critical to the authoritarian and unquestioning. The use of younger and and less life experienced workers has meant the further disconnection between workers and families. There remain some great newer workers out there but too often they are battered into what the corporate managers want and not what they could be. Working with people should be firstly about people and not be almost entirely about paperwork, performance and professionalism. I recall my first area director giving me a book called “Marxist Social Work in a Capitalist Society”. Neither her nor I were marxist in any sense of the work but the message was clear to me: be critical, be thoughtful and be creative and most of all care about the people you work with. I think if it were today the book would more likely be on management or customer care. This management approach gives the social worker neither the time or the authority from their employers to make these human contacts.
There lies the change and from point of view a significant change for the worse. I do not contend that there was any golden age of social work but there certainly was a time where there was a vocation. Unfortunately the corporatisation and professionalisation of social work has now left it was personality crisis and a lack of any direction. Certainly the local authorities have becomes large unwieldy and corporate structures where social work has become a distant third place to policy and targets.
The concern is not a wish for a bygone age but instead that workers work in the interest of their employers and not their clients. I have seen the more regular occurrence of social workers holding the party line where they are clearly uncomfortable about this but worse still, workers being complicit in lies and cover ups designed to defend the interests of their employers against the interests of the families and the children. This is unfortunately the way of the management driven system.
Having seen at first hand this move to corporate social work it was strange to me that the last real state social work being done in the UK was within the confines of perhaps the most restrictive and authoritarians part of the social care system; this being the court system. Although working via a large state agency (CAFCASS), the Children’s Guardians were very much working for themselves and responsible only to the court. Although having no real management structure, other than oversight, the individual responsibility of those social workers interestingly made them, in my opinion, the most respected and effective. It is even more interesting that the corporatisation of CAFCASS, now full of new targets, policies and procedures, has decimated what had been considered a flagship service. This process has happened only over a period of no more than 24 months and the damage is clear to see, not least from the legal profession who regularly show dismay at the rapid transformation.
Those Children’s Guardians had been in place as a checks and balancing exercise and had, for the most part, ensured that local authorities were doing things properly. What had been seen over a period of time was a change from the balanced reporting of local authorities to statements and viewpoints that proved a point. These proved that parents were not good enough rather than giving the courts a balanced view of good and bad in order that a balanced decision could be reached. However the changes within CAFCASS and the wholesale removal of experienced workers from that organisation has meant that critical analysis and has too often been replaced with rubber stamping. The inexperience of new workers and the overloading of cases has, by all accounts, meant that children and families have little other than the most shallowest of services.
All this has come at a time where there is almost non-existant preventative services for families and instead work is very much concentrated on the point proving (noted above) rather than a real wish to move families away from the punitive nature of care proceedings. The lack of any real preventative services, services that assist and support families, has not only undermined the chances of children remaining within their families but also has undermined the trustworthiness and honesty of social work.
This brings me back to the issue that I started with. Social work has always struggled to balance its competing demands and to know what social work is and needs to be. The move of social workers to more punitive corporate employees has, in my view, significantly undermined a whole tranche of its most necessary work. The most effective and constructive work has always traded off and balanced support and guidance with the duties of child protection. To remove one element of that has made social work merely another police force and one that often is mistrusted and avoided.
In the end social work is not a profession it’s a craft. A craft that has to be nurtured over time and comes with experience. Yes a degree is helpful in ensuring the academic underpinning of the work but experience counts for a great deal. Leaving university with the social work qualification should be the beginning for the apprentice social worker to learn their craft from those who have been round the block. The trouble is that many of those experienced workers are being driven from the work by unbearable pressure and management tasks. They are unwanted within a system that needs them to do and not think. Without that longstanding experience new workers have no real critical counterbalance to this management approach.
So what needs to happen? Thats the million dollar question. To be more trusted and effective, social workers need to be more involved within communities and not be outside wagging their fingers. The large child protection authorities are clearly not working judging my the increasingly severe nature of cases that reach the courts. The nature of working with children and families needs to change dramatically to enable social workers to once again effect positive change and protect children in a more holistic and proactive way. Hence a model of community social work needs to be advanced that draws families willingly into contact with social workers that currently are wholly avoided by large areas of the community.
Lets stop just fire fighting, petrified of the next newspaper headline or serious case review, and instead do the work that is needed. Its time to completely rethink and reverse a system where the reliance on policy, procedure and targets far outweighs the needs of the children and families that require its help and guidance. Social work is always at its best when it engages and assists on the broadest level both with individuals and communities. Working with children in particular needs to be based on relationships of all who have contact with them whether they be parents, teachers, social workers or voluntary bodies.
Time to put our thinking caps on and consider how best to serve and protect our children. It is time to reinvent the community and the community social worker. Then perhaps the social worker can be trusted and wanted. In those circumstances everyone wins.