A copy if my article in Guardian Social Care Network. It can be found at:
The first office I worked in had two pictures side by side on the smoking room wall showing a social worker being lynched. In one, the crowd said: “Why didn’t they do something?” In the other, “Why are they sticking their noses in where they’re not wanted?”
The ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ tag is always brought up when it comes to child protection.
The new documentary on the BBC, Protecting Our Children has, for a short time at least, brought the realities of the children and families social worker to the attention of the general public. Normally the only time social workers come into the media spotlight is when things are, or have been perceived to be, horribly wrong. Most social workers feel the perception of them is poor.
But whenever I’m asked what I do and I reply that I’m a social worker in child protection, the response I almost always get is positive. I get comments like “what a worthwhile thing to do”, and “I couldn’t do such a difficult job”.
I know that the people who generally ask are not those who would as a matter of course come into contact with child protection workers and therefore would not see them as a threat. However there are sections of society who do see social workers as meddling, overbearing but incompetent do-gooders.
In many ways the social worker is a parent who has to both set firm boundaries and to care. As many parents know this is often a difficult line to tread and not always an easy one to get right. However this split in the social worker’s role does in create some of the difficulties in the perception of them. Child protection workers are tasked to get alongside often vulnerable and disenfranchised people and help them.
One of the issues that social workers face relates to their place as a “professional”. In perhaps all other professions we trust these people as in general terms they are more expert in their fields. With, for example, doctors, teachers, architects and accountants, they know things we don’t know or perhaps know a little about. We see them as the expert there to help us. With children and families social work everyone has a view on being a parent and having a family.
Everyone has their own views and experiences and often strongly held ones. This invites the perception of the social worker as less as an expert and more as a “judgmental busybody”.
It may be near impossible to change the perception of the social worker because of the nature and area of their work. What they can do however is continue to do what they do well. This involves working alongside people to try and instigate positive change as well as setting clear and helpful boundaries for the families we work with.
This type of work gets increasingly more difficult as social workers get bogged down in paperwork and procedure as well as the sometimes hostile and unwelcoming environments they find themselves in. However that should not hinder the desire to help that brought them to social work in the first place.
Social workers should maintain a keen interest in social justice both at an individual level and in society as a whole. They need to remain critical and radical in their thinking and not, as so easily done, get pulled into a managerial approach.
Social workers are human and should not be afraid to show this. I remember the first time I removed a child from his parents. I shall never let go of the way it made me feel, the reactions of the child and his mother. Social work is first and foremost working with people.
For those so readily willing to criticise and castigate the child protection social worker, it may seem I would like to leave you with the lines of one Depeche Mode song: “Before you come to any conclusion try walking in my shoes. You’ll stumble in my footsteps. Keep the same appointments I’ve kept. Try walking in my shoes.”