Suspicion of social workers is healthy

Social workers are trying to improve their image post-Baby P, but the fact is they will always be controversial.

Ken McLaughlin

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‘Thank God for Social Workers.’

Now there’s a headline you don’t read every day. Yet there it was on the front cover of last week’s Take A Break, Britain’s weekly ‘true life’ magazine aimed at women. Take A Break published social workers’ accounts of times when they have made a significant difference to the lives of their clientele, and it has asked readers to send in further examples.

The magazine has decided to highlight the ‘everyday miracles’ performed by social workers and to recognise the ‘wonderful good’ the profession does for society (1). It is also giving away 500 ‘Thank God for Social Workers’ badges.

Along with this week’s episode of The One Show on BBC television, which detailed some of the complexities of frontline social work as it shadowed two Children and Families teams going about their daily work (2), the Take a Break campaign represents something of a publicity coup for a beleaguered profession.

The General Social Care Council’s (GSSC) remit includes the task of improving the public image of social workers, but this is something that has looked less than likely following the tragic, high-profile case of ‘Baby P’. The child protection services of the London borough of Haringey were widely criticised for failing to protect ‘Baby P’ who died at the age of 17 months in August 2007 after suffering abuse at home. Social workers were subjected to sustained media and political attacks and the profession also faced much public outrage. Ever since, it has seemed to be fighting a losing battle in its attempts to promote its role and improve its reputation in society.

There have been calls for the media to offer a more balanced view of the role of social workers. For instance, the social care magazine, Community Care, launched its ‘Stand Up Now For Social Work’ campaign, with the specific aim of improving ‘media portrayals and public perceptions of the profession’ (3). The more radical Social Work Action Network (SWAN) issued a statement condemning media reporting of the Baby P case, in particular that of the Sun newspaper. The Sun had published the names and photographs of those professionals it deemed responsible for failing to protect Baby P, launched a petition calling on them to be sacked, and requested that anyone who knew them contact the newspaper with any relevant information (4).

This campaign provoked much anger amongst social workers, not only for its maliciousness but also because the media reporting was frequently inaccurate and emphasised personal failings over more structural problems within the child protection system. In addition it was noted that the Sun’s campaign was counterproductive; some argued it would increase the likelihood of another tragedy occurring by hampering recruitment and retention of staff in what is generally acknowledged to be one of the most complex and stressful areas of social work practice.

The Sun’s campaign certainly was both malicious and counterproductive. It is also true that social workers do some very good work every day, often making a real difference to people’s quality of life. With 20 years experience in social work I am well aware of this, and I often get frustrated at the way the complexities of the role are subsumed under political soundbites and media headlines. But while the Take a Break campaign can be seen as a refreshing change to witch-hunt-style media coverage, we nevertheless need to be careful before we all rush out to hug a social worker.

The GSCC, Community Care and SWAN all more or less share the view that biased and inaccurate media reporting is the root of social work’s problems. Community Care Live went so far as to approach the celebrities’ favourite publicist, Max Clifford, for advice on how to improve its media and public image. This seems to have paid off given the recent positive media coverage (5).

However, it is not the image of social work that creates tensions but rather the role that social work plays in contemporary society. Social workers operate at the juncture of the public/private, personal/political divide. The tension inherent in negotiating this fluid and complex situation is not the result of negative media coverage but of real political issues that get reflected in social workers’ interactions with individual citizens. When should we have freedom from state interference and when should the state (social worker) have the right or duty to intervene in our personal lives and daily interactions?

In addition, access to, and allocation of, scarce resources is frequently decided on a social worker’s assessment, as is the threshold for compulsory admission to a psychiatric hospital, the instigation of court proceedings to remove a child from its parents, or the approval of prospective adoptive parents. No matter how appropriate the social worker’s decisions in such individual cases may be, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is frequently a controversial one with a highly significant outcome for those subject to the social worker’s power.

Social workers also play a part in the internal control of immigration and in the removal of failed asylum seekers. While the immigration authorities frequently use physical force to remove failed asylum seekers, social workers try to ‘persuade’ and ‘prepare’ asylum seekers for deportation. This is a role that many people see as an inappropriate one for social work (6).

Such aspects of the social work role are inherently contentious. They are not the result of media (mis)portrayal or poor public relations campaigns. They are political issues to do with individual autonomy, resources and control, with social workers frequently trying to negotiate the tensions between them. In this respect, a healthy suspicion of social workers is actually a good thing for both the individual and society. It would be to all our detriment if we passively conceded our autonomy or accepted the low level of resources available for social care. People should not be expected to accept their lot with silent ‘dignity’.

However, in many cases they are doing just that. Despite all the negativity around cases such as that of Baby P, social work involvement in our lives is, if not positively embraced, certainly accepted more meekly than in the past. For example, the social work literature of the early 1970s details cases where social workers faced community hostility due to being seen as part of the state machinery with which the community was in conflict. In the 1980s, the explosion of inner-city riots was influenced, at least in part, by a desire for autonomy from the state (7). Similarly, the solution to the threat of mass redundancies in this period was seen, not in the appointment of more social workers, but in collective resistance.

Today, by contrast, we are far more suspicious of each other than we are of the state, and all too readily allow professionals to colonise our interpersonal and community relations. Challenging such a situation will benefit us all. The resources for change, support and protection are predominantly within our communities and wider society.

Social workers are necessary, but we need to cultivate a society where they are seen as the exception not the rule. In short, we need more friends and fewer professionals. This would also allow social workers to concentrate their interventions to those occasions where it is most needed.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.

Previously on spiked

Ken McLaughlin looked at the legacy of ‘radical social work’. Jennie Bristow said the tragic case of ‘Baby P’ should not be used as a springboard for spreading suspicion, while Ken McLaughlin described the harms of ‘scattergun social work’. Back in 2003, Virginia Hume thought Social Services was failing abused children, because it was too busy scrutinising ordinary families. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1)Top real-life magazine backs our Stand Up Now for Social Work drive, Community Care, 25 June 2009

(2) See the One Show.

(3) Community Care’s campaign to protect the social work profession from media distortion, Community Care, 6 July 2009

(4) Petition: Stop the Witch Hunt of Social Workers, Social Work Action Network, 16 November 2008

(5) CC Live: Improving the Image of Social Work with Max Clifford, Community Care, 12 May 2009

(6) See ‘An Unacceptable Role for Social Work: Implementing Immigration Policy’, by Beth Humphries, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 34 2004, pp.93-107

(7) See There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The cultural politics of race and nation, by Paul Gilroy, Hutchinson (London), 1987

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