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Stand up for social workers

Posted on 12 March 2009 | 8:03am

I sometimes go on about how Labour politicians tend only to get covered through a negative media prism. But they have it easy compared with social workers, again in the spotlight with the publication of the Laming Review which followed the Baby P disaster.

Of course when something so dreadful happens, it is right to hold an inquiry, right to seek to learn lessons, right to make some of the changes Ed Balls is likely to make. But it is wrong to overlook the incredible work that social workers in this country do, dealing with some of the most difficult challenges society can throw, often overworked and under-resourced and – crucially – without the public and media backing essential to supporting the fight for proper resources.

At least with teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, you hear of the occasional hero story amid all the media negativity and the refusal to accept progress. But when did you ever hear or read of social workers doing good things? Hardly ever. They are do-gooding busybodies ruining people’s lives, if you accept the general view of the press, in the news only when things go wrong, and with such force and venom that the whole damned lot of them get tarred. Then we wonder why people don’t want to become social workers.

One of my Twitter followers (sim89) sent me a message yesterday to say he was going to start a campaign for fair coverage of social workers, and asked if I thought it could succeed. Maybe, but you will need a lot of support and it will take a lot of time.

You also need articulate advocates and so I was pleased to hear an excellent interview with Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, on Five Live this morning, praising the work of social workers and asking for greater understanding of the incredibly difficult job they do.

He also made the compelling point that the same people who reacted so furiously to the handling of Baby P will be up in arms in a few months’ time over an as yet unspecified case when a social worker takes a child from a family. In other words, they are between a rock and a hard place. That is not a place many people have to live their lives. Social workers do, and it is time they got the recognition the vast bulk of them deserve, and the support of all of us for dealing with problems that would test the best.

  • Freya Sykes

    In fairness to the media (and trust me when I say I’m NOT the biggest supporter of the media generally – which IMHO is full of hacks doing poorly researched hatchet jobs!) but as I say they cannot really go round trumpeting when a case is resolved in a way that is good for the child because of anon issues that *need* to surround the cases. If there were some way round this issue then yes maybe more great social workers out there would get the recognition they so richly deserve. I just don’t know how you would get round it in order to balance the needs for the child to grow up without the stigma the publicity surround their case that a “pat on the back” for the Social worker would bring?? Any ideas?

    http://www.freyasykes.com

  • Bronagh Miskelly

    This supportive column will be greatly appreciated by social workers who will be feeling beleagured again today. If any of your followers want to find out more about the Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign, please check out http://tinyurl.com/cjs599.

  • Mennard

    I am a Barrister specialising in Child Care Cases .

    This blog post is so true .

    There can be no profession that is treated with so little respect .

    Yes they are underresourced

    They have to deal with families at the sharp end of life ,living lifes that we can not imagine .They make their judgement calls on the run with little support .

    They make those calls within a beuracratic minefield .

    They then have to find time out of their day to attend Court and have their work examined by smart alec’s like me .Who may be able to make an argument but being constructive is perhaps another thing

    I can think of no other profession ,except something that puts in you in the spotlight of the press where you almost get your work marked in public as a social worker does when they walk into the witness box.

    I have tried in my blog, http://mennard-thestorysofmennard.blogspot.com. To reflect this .Though I come from a lawyers perspective .

    They must have more support

    I may comment again on this as I feel so strongly about it .

  • Emma Maier

    Freya, For me there is a distinction between coverage of social workers in news and in features.
    I agree that front page news about social workers successfully rescusing a child. And, as you say, it probably wouldn’t be desirable because of the concerns around the child’s anonymity and privacy. However, there are other ways of getting the message across – for example articles such as ‘a day in the life of a social worker’ focusing on the professional not the client, interviews with people in the public eye who have had positive interactions with social workers (such as Samantha Morton, who was in the papers this week, or John Suchet, who created a massive boost in inquires about Admiral nurses when he mentioned them in interviews about his wife’s dementia) or interviews with ordinary people who have had contact with social workers at an earlier time in their lives.
    This type of coverage often appears in features in the newspapers or in women’s magazine, or on broadcast media.
    And the wider media also has a role to play – TV drams and soaps do influence the way the public thinks about a profession.
    So I think the key is recognising that the media is much bigger than the national newspapers and news.
    As for the social work sector, in order to improve its coverage it needs to get better at managing press in a crisis and needs to take a more proactive approach to talking about its successes.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Magnificent blog!

  • Jonathan

    I agree with this.

    From the outside looking in, it looks like a demoralised profession with an obsession with form-filling and procedure and which offers little by way of management support or structure for the footsoldiers who are responsible for making big calls. This is a failure of management therefore, I would be looking at reforming management and decision structures if I were in charge.

  • Alina Palimaru

    To Emma Maier: Excellent points about how to approach the message re social workers. This way, the public will not only understand the demands of the job and the tremendous commitment social workers make, but also they will learn about the positive consequences of their work. Most importantly, it will give a human touch to what is, essentially, the ultimate human story.

    Are there any “social worker” blogs out there? Not sure. But from my experience, whenever my colleagues and I tried to raise the profile of certain types of students, we would encourage them to blog about what they were doing, i.e. volunteering for a soup-kitchen, interning with the government, monitoring elections in El Salvador etc. This could be an effective way for social workers to bypass the media monopoly on negative stories and get their message across.

  • Obnoxio The Clown

    Barnardos is a fake charity which suckles at the teat of the government, using taxpayers’ money to berate the taxpayer for not meeting their ideals.

    I wouldn’t set much store by what they say.

  • FIONA TEMPLE ROCHE

    As a journalist for more than 20 years who is now a social work student, I have a special interest in issues regarding social work and the media. I fully support Community Care’s campaign to raise the profile of the profession and agree with Emma Maier that, in order to do this, the profession needs to take some of the responsibility by getting better at managing the press in a crisis – “Friendly journalists have pointed out how unrealistic, ill-organised and incoherent social workers can be when faced with media enquiries” – Aldridge (1994)- written a few years ago, but seemingly still pertinent.
    I will continue to watch, listen and learn as the debate and the campaign continues.

  • cb

    I certainly appreciate the sentiments expressed here. I’m a social worker although in a different field and I try and document my work on a daily basis through my blog (http://fightingmonsters.wordpress.com). Although I doubt what I write is of much interest except to other social workers, it is an attempt at a broader idea of what social work is. There is a massive divide between what the public and media perceptions of social work are and what is actually happening on a day to day basis in offices around the country.
    All I can say is ten years after qualifying, I am still proud and passionate about my profession. I did not go into social work to be loved or even respected but to be ridiculed and mocked constantly does become tiring after a while – mostly because I fear for those potentially excellent social workers who will be put off training in this field because they believe the poorly informed journalists.
    But back to the point – thanks for the support, Alastair!

  • RP

    Mr. Campbell, my frustration with the press is not that it outlines failures from Social Workers, although I do find that no journalist would speak of a doctor, nurse or policeman in that manner even when their failures lead to loss of life. My frustration is that in newspaper coverage Social Workers were singled out even from their employers and treated as if they have extensive power of decision and unlimited time in their hands.

    The reality is that in most cases Social Workers do not make decisions, only recommendations. Team managers need to endorse even basic decisions, but for important decisions it could take 3 or 4 tiers of managers. Social Workers are employees and they need to do as they are told or they can be subjected to humiliating procedures and end up losing their jobs. Social workers are powerless in front of their employers and their only choice is to leave the department.

    As for time, it is already acknowledged that Social Workers spend 80% of time doing paperwork. Is that their choice? NO! They are told they have to do it or they face consequences. At times these decisions on paperwork are made at a higher level than the Local Authority, who has no choice but to accept – see for instance the ICS forms.But these are not the only forms we must complete – there are also Court papers, adoption papers, referrals, requests for money, reports for every single meeting, plans, etc. Should I continue?

    That does not mean that the 20% of time left is spent with the families! How about driving, time spent in multi agency meetings, team meetings, training, etc.
    The reality is that Social Workers will only be as good as what they are asked to do. Even with all the good will in the world and doing unpaid overtime, there is still a limit to what we can do. It is up to YOU as employers, decision makers and the public to ask us to do what is the most important thing for children’s lives.
    I am worried like anybody else that Social Work is failing, but I do not feel it is a failure of the Social Workers!

  • HM

    Thank you for your support for this beleaguered profession. So true in the comments that SW’s can only make recommendations, not decisions. And even managers’ hands are tied by budgets and targets set by the government.

  • Philip Measures

    Whilst such high profile support is welcome there is a real danger in getting away with emotion and missing the harsh realities of the state of the social work profession.

    There is ample evidence of the failings of social work education and to make it a Masters profession as Ed Balls is advocating is not the answer. There needs to be a root and branch revisiting of what social work is and how best for it to be delivered – I would also make a distinction between Local Authority (statutary) social work and that of other organisations (regretably Probation has seen a ‘dumbing down’ politically in recent years).

    The ‘split’ into Adult and Children & Families Services has not been altogether helpful – increasingly there is no longer an ‘holistic’ view of families and I am extremely concerned at the issue of Domestic Violence where increasingly information is recorded against the child(ren) and not the parents – so important social work information on both victims and perpetrators is often not recorded and we all know that perpetrators often move on to new relationships – only Police checks (if carried out) will highlight previous concerns when social work records ought to.

    The extension of ‘Sarah’s Law’ enabling parents to ask if a paedophile is living nearby is also extremely limited – good and caring parents MAY avail themselves of that – others who are less enlightened will not but it scores a few political ‘brownie points!’

    Of major concern is the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) which means many social workers are spending 3-4 days per week innn front of their computers with less and less time available for ‘face-to-face’ contact with children and families. The Government MUST seriously address this. ICS is unhelpful both in the way it records information (it is generally accepted that it does not ‘tell the child’s story’ in an easy and comprehensible / analytical manner) and the limitations in respect of its ability to ‘communicate’ with other databases – Lord Laming’s original Report has not been vigorously followed up to help minimise children who slip through the net – one system that I am aware of (Capita) does not permit searches under more than a couple of names / aliases – useless!

    Yes, social workers do a lot of good but the profession is not in a healthy state. There are insufficient experiences senior preactitioners and many managers are not carrying out adequate and ‘challenging’ Supervision. Enquiry after Enquiry reveals some very basic practice failings.

    Whilst it is perhaps unhelpful to have a ‘blame’ culture we certainly need an ‘accountability’ culture.

    Philip Measures,
    Registered Social Worker

    Philip.measures@gamil.com