How to change perceptions of social work in the media

Social workers have long felt that they have a troubled relationship with the media.  The  profession often feels that criticisms of social work are only periodically punctuated with the even a balanced story, let alone a positive one.  For us its like being invited to a party and only briefly being allowed to engage in meaningful conversation, as long as it is a darkened corner, before being publicly water-boarded in the middle of the room.

It is perhaps then understandable that many social workers just do not want to go to the media party.  The odds never seem to look that good.  This leaves social workers in a constant state of anxiety about the media.  Anxiety is never a healthy thing.  So what is to be done?

Social work has never been an easy thing to describe. If someone was asked to describe the work of a teacher or nurse or police officer, most people would readily be able to get a reasonably accurate portrayal of them.  However ask the same questions of social work, there will almost always be a lot of “ums” and “errs”, unless of course that person has had  direct experience of social work.

Social work remains something that happens, in the most part, away form the public gaze.  It often deals with the issues that most trouble society and yet most of society has little or no concept of the role of social workers.  It has been easy to fill this void with at best misunderstanding and at worst dishonest portrayals.  Those with an axe to grind or a point to prove have been given the open goal and far to often social workers, their agencies and organisations have not even been on the pitch.

Participation with media is often blocked with reasons such as confidentiality or legal proceedings.  These are perfectly reasonable justifications for not engaging openly with the media but they only add to the sense of a closed, secretive and potentially untrustworthy area of work.   This ever decreasing circle had pushed social work, more often than not, to stand firmly behind the ramparts and sporadically shout about how unfair it all is.

It seems  more recently that there has been a positive change, perhaps less from corporate social work, but instead from individual workers who have found a voice through new and social medias.  This human and real face of social work has slowly started a process of demystification and education but, at present, only to a limited audience.

This proactive, personal and honest view of social work is one that would help to open up  real social work to society and one that could be embraced by social work organisations and agencies.

In looking at writing this piece, the phrase “people fear what they do not understand” often seemed an appropriate adage.  Apparently this comes from a latin proverb “damnant quod non intelligunt”, which literally translates as, “they condemn what they do not understand”. It is up to social work to increase that level of understanding and a certain amount of bravery will be needed to do this. If social workers do not do this, then it is unlikely anyone else will

Presenting a view of social work as one that is confident and most importantly able to fight it’s corner will need the media, whether it be entertainment or news.  In doing this,  workers cannot always push for the positive view of social work only but instead should advocate for an honest portrayal. We have accepted the bad cop or poor teacher on our TV screens because we knew thats exactly what they were, not the norm but the “bad” character.  With social work, it has not always been that clear.  As we have seen in the recent Eastenders plot line, social workers should correct gross factual and procedural inaccuracies rather than insisting on the positive only view.

There is no doubt that social works more proactive involvement with the media would be a bumpy ride, but the ultimate outcome is much ore likely to a positive one.  The opening up of the work done, including the mistakes made, will humanise social work.  In doing this our time at the media party is likely to be less torturous enabling us to move into the light and engage in meaningful media conversations.

This article appeared in the Guardian Social Care Network on 30th November 2012.


Lead like lambs into his hands: Is light entertainment more important than child protection?

The Jimmy Savile abuse story has mushroomed into daily revelations that become increasingly disturbing.  Certainly, what seems now, significant evidence that he was abusing children is in itself abhorrent. What has followed has gone beyond this and becoming truly shocking.

Perhaps it is the fact that Savile appears to have abused children over a number of decades that should shock us.  Or that he molested children in hospital where they were more vulnerable and in need of protection than  normal.  Maybe it was that it seems that there were professionals that knew of his behaviour and instead of protecting the children, looked the other way.  All these issues are, of course, deeply troubling.

What, I would suggest, is perhaps even more troubling is that Jimmy Savile continued to be promoted by national organisations as a significant public figure to, not only advocate for children but also to protect them.  Those of us of a certain age in the UK knew him as synonymous with the Clunk Click advertisements, which promoted seat belt wearing, yet, for instance, he also appeared in a handbook on child minding (see below).  We cannot forget him as the presenter of his most famous program, Jim’ll Fix it, a program about making children’s dreams come true.

Jimmy Savile promoting a child minding publication

All this endorsement of Jimmy Savile as an individual who was safe, kind  and thoughtful of children now comes with the knowledge that he was widely known, especially in media circles, to have been abusing children.  This is perhaps the greatest disgrace.  Not only did people’s inaction cause further suffering to children but that people, in effect, facilitated and sanctioned  his abusive behaviour through peddling these untruths.

There has been much discussion over recent days about the fact that it was a very different time in the 1970s and child protection was perhaps not as clear in the publics mind as it is now.  I will remind people that Jimmy Savile died on 29 October 2011, less than a year ago, with a list of honours – (and I doubt this is an exhaustive list).  The fact that he died so recently, in a time where child protection has been a significant public debate on several occasions, and yet no one stepped forward, should shame those who knew and did nothing.  In this, I certainly do not mean, or blame, the victims.  Instead I turn to the professionals, media and people in positions of influence who, by their own admission knew of his abuse of children.  Those people were content to let him die an exalted man.

Child protection can never be a matter for just professionals but instead must be a concern for the whole community.  Those who see or know about the sexual abuse of children should have little doubt about its destructive outcome and how utterly wrong it is.  Therefore there can be few excuses for allowing it to continue.  There is ALWAYS something you can do.

I am sure we are only at the beginning of a worrying journey concerning this and there have been clues that maybe the light entertainment industry has more questions to answer.  As someone, like many, who grew up with Savile on the BBC, this whole episode has left a bad taste and has significantly tainted my previously high regard for that organisation.  Unfortunately, apologies and independent enquiries may do little to  mend the damage done to many childhood memories and more importantly to the victims of Jimmy Savile who were led like lambs into his hands.

Yet again it appears we must trust in those people and organisations who looked the other way to the sexual abuse of children to investigate their own inaction and apathy.  There seems little we can do.  Or have we heard that before?

Child protection: try walking in the social worker’s shoes

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.”

Adoption, delays and a moral panic

There is often a phrase used within the court system when talking about adoption. Since the abolition of capital punishment the making of an Adoption Order is the most draconian measure a state can take against an individual, i.e. the removal of their child for ever and from the child’s point of view, the seveing of their relationship for ever.

The following may be of interest:

In Sir James Munby (Family Rights Group, 2006), he notes (page 24) the impact on the decision made in the European Court in Johansen v Norway (1996: 23 EHRR 33) and stated that “the complete severance of the family tie and total deprivation of the parent’s family life, which is brought about by adoption is justified only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ “. He goes on to say that “domestic law is clear enough. I need only to refer to what the Right Hon. Baroness Richmond has said in a number of key decisions: ​

•Any interference with family life must be ‘necessary’.
•‘Proportionality is the key’ and
•Just as Section 1 (5) of the Children Act 1989 does, the ‘no order’ principle in Section 1 (6) ACA – the statutory embodiment of the principle of proportionality – mandates the ‘least interventionist’ approach. “

He later summarises (page 25) that “The court must be vigilant, recognising that:
•It is not enough merely to assert adoption is in the child’s best interests;
•Adoption must be ‘necessary’ or ‘required’ in the child’s best interests; and
•Adoption must be justified only in ‘exceptional circumstances’. “

I find this view a wholly sensible and fair one and one that the courts should and do take into account. When making such significant decisions it is necessary that they are considered fully and with all appropriate information. We cannot return to the days where the adoption of a child was the great and good arranging the removal and adoption of children against what was seen as inadequate parenting. In these circumstances children were a commodity to feel sorry for and were picked like cabbage patch dolls and too often returned when they didn’t live up to expectations. Old local authority records are full of these cases. The concern is that a “crusade” in favour of adoption smacks of this “saving” of children and places them at real risk of poor placement.

Certainly adoption breakdown rates are rarely discussed. The limited research suggests that the break down rates of adoption as opposed to properly matched long term fostering are comparable. But this is rarely discussed with foster care being seen as bad and adoption good. Unfortunately things aren’t that simple. Breakdown rates are a good benchmark and they suggest adoption is no better. Beth Neil at UEA does excellent research on adoption but this is often ignored. It is unfortunate that there is so little effective research into adoption and in particular its relative merits.

In the end we must come back to the strong arguement that adoption should be necessary or required and not just desirable. Such significant decisions should take a great deal of assessment and discussion. It is rarely the case that a local authority turns up to court with all assessments done and more often than not the assessments are either inadequate or not balanced and fair. Instead they try and prove a point, something that is a side affect of an adversarial court system. The lack of any real resources for social workers is also far too often the reason for this. The parent and the child, through a court Guardian, deserve every chance to ensure that these significant decisions are made with ALL evidence discussed fully and gaps assessed or reexamined. This is just a matter of fairness to ensure that it is entirely the right decision to sever these family ties. Any short cutting of this process exponentially increases the risk of the wrong decisions being made and decisions that are irreversible.

Therefore it takes it absolutely necessary that time is taken to make these decisions and is rarely the fact that matters are cut and dry. Unlike the generally held view that parents involved in care proceedings are vicious abusers, the truth is that too often they were children in care themselves, are learning disabled, have mental health issues, are involved in domestic violence or have had very poor parenting/guidance. This does not reflect well on a society that has done little to invest in preventative work or to generally help the most needy. The more recent cuts in budgets has almost decimated such work so be ready for a big increase in care proceedings in the next few years. But in terms of adoption it is apparent to anyone who had or does work in the court system that there is rarely an uncomplex case.

However the courts themselves have been cut significantly over the last few years. Listing for hearings are getting longer and longer. It is now not unusual to wait 9 months to list hearings. So even if a case is ready it is unlikely to be heard for some months. This is to the frustration of all involved, especially the judges. Again with further cuts it will get worse. This is even more so with the cuts in legal aid forcing people to act in person in private law family cases further clogging up the system. Thus each time further hearings are listed the length of time between beginning to end of proceedings carries on increasing. Even what are generally considered straight forward cases where the outcomes appear inescapable are taking a significant amount of time to go through the court process.

Judges making decisions are in the main thoughtful and fair and wish to ensure, rightly so, that every chance is given for a child to live with their natural parents. Judges are not seen as the most liberal or reactionary group of people and always want to make sure that the right decision is made as quickly as possible but unfortunately the court system often doesn’t let them. However the fact they don’t always make Adoption Orders should speak volumes about the number of children where adoption is absolutely necessary.

We cannot assume that adoptions being down is in itself a bad thing. They could be a myriad of positive resonant for this. For instance strong family ties or sibling attachments continuing may make foster care a desirable option. There are many societies that do not view a favourable and in some case will not consider it instead using family and community more significantly. In Europe and in particular Scandinavian countries there is a very different and sometimes extremely effective ways of dealing with the same issues. We should not assume that adoption per se is inevitably the right way forward and perhaps it says a lot more about the reduction in the importance of family and community in the UK. Instead it is state agents who we always turn to and then castigate when it inevitable all goes wrong.

It does seem that their is regularly an anti social work undercurrent to discussions on adoption. This has now made social work risk averse with workers being petrified to make the wrong decision for fear of abuse and castigation. This slows down any process with checking and double checking going on. For adoption social workers this is even more the case. Any wrong move here in assessing potential adopters affects a child’s whole life. It is unfortunate that children do get abused by their carers although reasonably rare remains a risk. Reduction in assessment time increases the risk of abuse and placement breakdown. Social workers would soon be blamed for such events and it is this chance of risk combined with the time needed for assessment which makes the assessment of adopters long and in depth. You can’t have safe and quick. Make your choice.

The term “political correctness” is often used in blaming social workers for refusing some assessments and the pool of adopters. The reason adoption works on occasion is because of careful matching. Breakdown rates remain too high as it is, something rarely mentioned, but they will rise if matching does not happen. However they should not be the be all and end all and cross cultural placements can be extremely successful. In addition health issues must be considered but there should not be fewer bars to adoption and instead people should be taken on their merits as a whole rather than any one issue. Of course significant issues will always cause problems.

In saying this few people appear ready for the in depth nature of the assessment. This is especially so for a society that remains relatively guarded about personal lives. However this deep level of personal assessment is necessary to safeguard the children and far too often potential adopters don’t to see this, instead complaining of intrusive assessments and nosey social workers. Social workers remain in a lose lose situation on this front. More clear preparation for adopters and an fuller understanding of the process is necessary. In addition adopters would benefit from being kept up to date on what is happening with a child if they are matched. Anyone wanting to care for children should be cherished as a vital resource and treated with as much respect as possible. But on the flip side people need to understand the difficulties that social workers have in this emotionally charged and demanding work.

With the raising of threshold criteria for child protection in local authorities, the children coming into the court process often have significant issues. These may include sexual, physical and emotional abuse and in particular attachment issues. It is often the case that child need time and work to overcome this difficulties. These often presents in huge behavioural issues. Unless the work is done, the chance of placement breakdown is high. The time between reception into care and adoption is often a fruitful one for the child. Delay is therefore not always a bad thing.

To clear up the law on adoption. If adoption is seen as the right plan, a Placement Order is made by the court which enables the local authority to place with adopters. The first point is that this placement stage is not always successful for lots reasons but if it is then it is up to the adopters to apply for the Adoption Order. The parents can oppose this and and are very occasionally successful. Just to note that there are recent cases about this very issue. However there can be a big gap between the orders being made and often this is merely the adopters not proactive enough in making their application. Certainly a year between placement and adoption is not unheard of.

As you can see the matter of adoption is an extremely complex one and certainly not one that statistics or simple soundbites can answer. The “crusading” approach that seems to be taken by some at present, significantly simplifying the arguments to political soundbites and self congratulatory remarks. The complexity as noted above still does not take into account the political and societal issues that underpin many of the difficulties and moral issues of which adoption is the tip of the iceberg. However they are an essay in themselves but suffice it to say that people too often have moral outrage about troubles in society that when the issues go out of sight are ignored. Quick fix solutions for wider societal issues never work and it is easier to blame those involved, such as social workers, than blame ourselves or our communities. This has meant that social work and child protection has moved from one quick fix solution to the next moral outrage rather than considering the issue of children, families and community as a whole.

The massive cuts to all those involved in child protection such as police , socials workers and and a myriad of support services both state and voluntary is inevitably going to impact on the quality and level of work in this area. That is until the next child death or moral outrage. The issues that are coming to light in adoption are but a refection on a system that has been creaking at the seems for years and clearly is going to get significantly worse. The whole system relating to children is a hotch potch of ideas that often have no central theme or ethos thus pushing agencies into conflict with each other. This is not only about budget protection but also different agendas. This can be seen clearly in adoption both pre and post placement.

The issue is that the people making decisions have little or no direct knowledge of these problems and see things from an extremely simplistic standpoint. And worse still, this will affect just one part of a system that is their particular moral outrage without considering how this may impinge elsewhere. The puzzle keeps moving and the pieces keep changing and yet social workers get on with it. If the people making policies don’t have a clue what they are doing, how can there be any stability in a system to protect children. We concentrate on adoption one day then child abuse tomorrow then disaffected youth the next day. They are not all unconnected but they seem to be treated as such. Social workers do not try to do things wrong but instead work in an ever moving, ever critical environment where bad decisions are not a loss of profit but a loss of life, both literally and in terms of children’s wellbeing into their maturity.

What children would want to know about decisions being made on their behalf and particularly severing of their family ties through adoption is that they were fair and well informed. They would want to know that they could live with the family, including siblings and extended family where at all possible. If not they would want to know that they were going to a safe and loving family. Nothing about any of those decisions are simple. They take time and need to be fully considered or bad decisions are made. Sir James Munby points these issues out clearly and insightfully in Family Rights Group publication in 2006.

Yes, sometimes this can be done more speedily but that requires investment and joined up thinking. Neither of these currently exist.

Get me out of here… I’m an independent social worker

Over the past few weeks or so, there have been more than a few grumblings from the world of independent social work. ISWs are not best pleased with the implications from a draft order published by the LSC (Legal Services Commission) in February 2011. The basis of the concern relates to only one paragraph right at the end of what is a rather lengthy document. Under the title “independent social work”, it reads:

Where independent social work services are provided within England and Wales, the costs and expenses of such services are payable as a disbursement at rates not exceeding the rates routinely paid for such services by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service or the Children and Family Court Advisory Service Wales.

This is in essence pegging the rate of ISW fees to that paid by CAFCASS, who have historically used the services of ISWs to undertake work as Children’s Guardians and the like. So that would seem quite a reasonable thing for the LSC to do wouldn’t it? Well let’s look at that little more closely.

Prior to this order being published, and it was certainly not the easiest document to obtain, the LSC had talked about a consultation process in respect of expert fees, of which ISW fees are allegedly part of. However no real consultation took place and it was relatively well know, certainly amongst ISWs, that the CAFCASS cap was on its way. Bearing in mind this draft order came to the attention of ISWs at the end of February at the earliest and its implementation is indicated at the beginning of May, there appears to be a negligible amount of time to “consult”. In reality it presents as a done deal. A like it or lump it proposal.

There has been murmuring from the LSC about expert fees for some time. An examination of whether public monies are being well spent cannot be argued with as long as that process is both transparent and open. What does appear rather strange is the singling out of ISWs. No other experts have been capped in this way. Only ISWs have been targeted as wasteful and overpaid [my words not the LSCs].

Certainly I am aware that the LSC has been making ad hoc decisions on expert fees for some time. Often these interventions appear both random and incomprehensible, as well as not contained only to ISWs. The recent evidence given to a parliamentary select committee on family justice noted that a wide range of experts in family proceedings have had fees reduced sometimes significantly. These are done even though judges have signed them off as a reasonable expense and the parties in the proceedings, who are very aware of the public purse, see the expert as the both necessary and reasonable. I take this slight side step to show that the LSC appear to have little recognition of the legitimacy of the courts as well as the impact of this kind of decision making on expert availability to family proceedings.

The impact of these ad hoc interventions by the LSC will not only undermine the availability of experts to the courts but will certainly reduce the quality of such expert assessments. By reducing fees for significantly qualified and experienced people, no matter what their expertise is, there is highly likely to be a haemorrhage of experienced experts, which cannot be either be in the best interests of justice nor serve the often vulnerable people, both adults and children, who are part of such difficult proceedings.

In many ways fees for all expert work varies wildly. There are certainly people who overcharge and people who perhaps do not charge enough. However payments to experts should reflect levels of expertise, experience and quality, not just a whim of an officer or manager at the LSC.

Notwithstanding this and returning to ISWs, social workers are often paid, and the research confirms this, the least of any expert witnesses. Certainly ISWs do not charge the significant hourly rates that other experts charge. Often medical experts charge 3, 4 or 5 times that of an ISW. They may very well be worth those fees but it seems somewhat strange to pick out for capping the fees of those paid the least. It would seem that the cap would almost half what was seen as a reasonable ISW fee. So this is not a slight reduction. It is a 50% reduction. Could you imagine anyone accepting that kind of pay cut in the real world? However this is not the real world, it is the LSC universe where quality, independence and experience court for zero and cost counts for everything.

So why peg ISWs to a CAFCASS rate? They are both ISW tasks aren’t they? Indeed they are, but there are significant differences in the roles. The CAFCASS ISW historically has taken on long pieces of work, certainly months and sometimes years, and generally not the ad hoc work done as an expert in court proceedings. As with all contract work, one can charge less where there is a sense of security and longevity of work. Finances can be planned and hence rates can reflect this. Indeed with any contractor, a mix of long term and short term work is reflected in the charging rates. This is not only the case with LSC work but any contractor work in any sector. It is clear that the LSC draft order does not reflect this reality. Instead it seeks to peg a rate that suits its means rather than one that fairly reflects what would be a real and fair market rate. In fact there has been a serious concern about the CAFCASS rate for some time bearing mind the ISW must pay all his or her on costs. In fact CAFCASS has employed agency staff at a higher cost than ISWs. So one could perhaps assume a more political motive to the cries of “too expressive” and that is I suggest one to do with that lack of control and influence on ISWs. The system’s mistrust of independence in social work appears to be a growing theme.

In addition, the reality of the CAFCASS rate is that it has not moved to any significant degree for years. CAFCASS has continued to rely on the good will and dedication of ISWs to keep its experience workers. However over recent years this has dissipated as CAFCASS has sought to marginalise workers it has little control over, which has led to an exodus of ISWs from CAFCASS to be replaced by relatively inexperienced in-house social workers. Anyone well versed with family law at the moment will know of the almost complete destruction of that was seen as a truly independent, knowledgable and dedicated staff group. Therefore comparisons of work and remuneration cannot sit closely between a CAFCASS ISW and court based ISW work.

So social work has yet again been picked out as the poor relation. The capping of rates at such a low level combined with no such exercise for any other expert shows an astonishing disregard for the importance of social work. In the end long standing and well regarded workers will just end up leaving as they already have. This will be to the significant detriment to the vulnerable, particularly in care proceedings, who need and deserve that independent voice in court. With the dismantling of CAFCASS as an independent voice in court ISWs had taken that role in many complex cases. However yet another independent voice has been taken away and the family justice system will certainly be less informed and therefore less just than it should be.

With family lawyers being squeezed to the point of bursting, judges overwhelmed and Children’s Guardians moving away from independently ensuring fair play and justice for the child, the treatment of the ISW is just another nail in the coffin of what had been a relatively fair, enlightened and thoughtful family law system, as family justice systems go anyway. Although there are certainly areas that need overhauling, the surreptitious undermining of this system from different directions will have a significantly negative impact on the future and I’m already putting my money on social workers getting the blame.

Social work continues to be a relatively week group of workers in terms of influence and voice but try, where possible, to serve the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society and particularly of children. The LSC’s view of social work just reflects the ongoing view of social work as the whipping boy and scapegoat of institutional and societal disfunction.

As Noam Chomsky says, I cannot be held accountable and morally responsible for the outcome of the actions or inactions of others. However I certainly can for my own. So I for one cannot stand by and watch the continued degrading of the social worker and the ongoing undermining of systems designed to protect and give a voice to the most vulnerable in our society. In the end, those with a moral conscience, and social workers should inherently have this, must do something to stop the slide or be complicit in the outcomes. The signs are that the outcomes are not good for social work nor for a society that does not best protect all of its members.

Trust me I’m a social worker

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.