Registering distrust

It will take more than checklists and codes to restore public confidence in social workers.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

The new Social Care Register came into force in England on 1 April 2003, as similar schemes were launched in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The aim of the register is to regulate the estimated 1 to 1.5million workers employed in the social care sector, thereby increasing the public’s confidence in the profession. Rodney Brooke of the General Social Care Council says the register is ‘good news for the public, who will benefit from higher standards of care and public protection, [and] is also good news for the social care workforce’ (1).

But tighter regulation of the social care profession is no solution to the problem of distrust – which is about something far deeper than the absence of rules and codes.

The register follows the publication of the first-ever national Code of Practice for social care workers in 2002. The code ‘is a list of statements that describe the standards of professional conduct and practice required of social care workers as they go about their daily business’. Those who fail to comply with the code will be deregistered as a social worker. In addition, the training courses for social work are being extended from two years to three.

The stated aim of these developments is to gain public confidence and improve the quality of care offered by social workers. Many reports have shown low public support for social workers in recent years. In one study, only 40 percent of respondents thought that social workers played a very important role in society – in contrast to police, teachers and nurses, who all got over 80 percent, and doctors, who got 96 percent (2).

No wonder that a key aim of the General Social Care Council (GSCC) is to ‘promote awareness of and respect for the social care workforce’ (3). According to UK health minister Jacqui Smith, ‘we need to continue to improve the public’s confidence in social workers and the Social Care Register will be a key part of that work’ (4). This won’t be an easy task, when you consider that, according to the UK Guardian, the public view social workers as ‘politically correct dipsticks’ (5).

Joining the register is voluntary at present, but it is expected to become mandatory within a few years. Those who apply to join it will have to be of ‘good moral character’, will have to declare any previous criminal convictions and undergo an enhanced criminal records check (which will show any cautions and/or acquittals), and will be expected to submit a suitable reference. Soon, only those on the register will be able to call themselves social workers.

The Code of Conduct and the Social Care Register are couched in terms of public protection, and service and image improvement – as progressive developments that are long overdue. But anything that seeks to regulate up to 1.5million workers deserves a far more critical appraisal.

Public suspicion of social workers is not particularly new. For example, when more commonly known as ‘welfare workers’, they were often referred to as ‘farewell workers’ by the West Indian community; there was a common perception that as soon as social workers got involved in a family, it was ‘farewell’ to the kids.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were some high-profile cases involving children and social services. After tragic failures to protect children such as Jasmine Beckford and Kimberley Carlisle, both of whom were killed by their carers, social workers were accused of not intervening quickly enough. By contrast, when, in a period of five months, social workers removed 85 children from their parents in Cleveland, on a suspicion that the children were being sexually abused, they were accused of being over-zealous and failing to consider the rights of parents (6).

The case of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie – who was murdered by her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend in 2000, just six months after being discharged back to their care following hospital treatment for severe scalding – shows that the tensions involved in social work will not be easily resolved by setting up a register. None of the terrible cases cited above were the result of criminal or unofficial social workers. Rather, they came about as a result of problems within the mainstream social care profession.

In fact, the expansion of criminal records checks is unlikely to make much impact at all. Frontline workers involved in child cases are already subject to enhanced records checks, and the extension of such checks is likely to have little effect on reducing the number of tragedies or instances of malpractice. And the ‘new’ codes of conduct for social care work are not particularly new – they are merely a nationalisation of the kind of models of good practice that already exist in most localities.

Seen in this light, the social care register looks more like the enforcement of a new moral code, rather than something that will improve either social workers’ practice or their pubic image. The register and the code will give the authorities more room to intrude into social workers’ lives. However, such is social workers’ lack of trust in themselves that, according to one opinion poll, 87 percent of social workers were in favour of these developments (7).

Increasing public confidence in social workers will take a lot more than codes, registers and regulations. If people are anxious, then some within the social work profession have played a part in cultivating such hostility. Instead of concentrating on the relatively rare instances of serious abuse towards children and adults, the social work profession now claims that such problems are endemic within society. Social care professionals have blurred the definitions of abuse, rendering the term almost meaningless; they stress both their own vulnerability and that of the general public, portraying us all as either abusers or abused.

This sense of distrust affects how social workers view themselves. The profession is ever-more suspicious of those who want to become social workers. Students who undertake social work training are immediately required to submit to an enhanced criminal records check.

The introduction of the social care register needs to be viewed within this broader climate of suspicion. The strong support for the social care register and related measures seems to be less about the protection of vulnerable people, than an attempt by a vulnerable-feeling profession to hide behind a barrage of regulations and codes of conduct.

Today’s prevailing suspicion is ultimately destructive. When teachers, health visitors and social care workers are encouraged to be ever-more adept at spotting ‘hidden’ signs of child abuse, and organisations such as ChildLine (who never actually see a child) refer more and more cases to social services offices, it is not surprising that social services get overburdened with unnecessary assessments, and sometimes miss the most obvious signs of child cruelty (8). The end result is a suspicion of both parents and professionals, a sense that danger and abuse are around every corner.

The irony is that the more the social work profession highlights abuse, danger and vulnerability as being everywhere, the lower people’s confidence in social workers will get. A profession that sees its role as preventing abuse is admitting its own failure when it portrays things as always getting worse. One way to improve the image and effectiveness of the social care profession would be for social workers to have faith in the ability of the vast majority of people to cope without them, and to stop viewing everyone as a potential abuser.

After all, if we don’t trust the public and we don’t trust ourselves, then why should the public trust us?

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Read on:

The missed lesson of the Climbie inquiry, by Helene Guldberg

Every bruise now means an investigation, by Virginia Hume

Stressing vulnerability, by Ken McLaughlin

(1) See the General Social Care Council website

(2) NOP poll of 1018 people interviewed between 27 February and 4 March 2003. See the General Social Care Council website for full details

(3) See the General Social Care Council website

(4) See the General Social Care Council website

(5) ‘Unsocial Services’, David Batty, Guardian Society, 16 October 2002

(6) See N Parton (1989) ‘Child Abuse’, in B Kahan (ed) Child Care Research: Policy and Practice, London, Hodder and Staughton

(7) MORI poll on behalf of the GSCC between 17 and 20 September 2002. See the General Social Care Council website for full details

(8) See The missed lesson of the Climbie inquiry, by Helene Guldberg; and Every bruise now means an investigation, by Virginia Hume

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Topics Politics


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