Blaming the public for social work’s problems

Social workers took a lot of flak after the Baby P case, but a government campaign to recruit more is hypocritical.

Ken McLaughlin

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Suddenly, it would appear that we all love social workers. First, we had Community Care magazine’s ‘Stand Up Now For Social Workers’ campaign, followed by Take a Break magazine giving away ‘Thank God For Social Workers’ badges and the positive portrayal of social work on BBC television’s The One Show. The latest endorsement comes from a government-backed series of TV adverts, where a succession of celebrities extol the merits of social workers for both the individual and society.

The TV adverts are part of a bid – ‘Help Give Them a Voice’ – to recruit up to 5,000 new social workers. The adverts will feature celebrities such as the fashion designer Sadie Frost, former EastEnders and Bionic Woman star Michelle Ryan and the singer Goldie, who will each play a child or adult in need of a social worker. Launching the appeal, actress Samantha Morton, who was brought up in social services care, said that she had had ‘some wonderful social workers who supported me and helped me achieve my goals in life’, whilst Goldie said that he would not have achieved as much in life without a lot of help from social workers. In addition, the children’s secretary, Ed Balls, stated that social workers ‘transform lives’, making a difference ‘in ways most of us can only begin to imagine’ (1).

This media campaign is a response to the fallout from the death of Peter Connolly, the 17-month-old child from north London widely known, due to a court order demanding anonymity during legal proceedings, as Baby P. Connolly died in August 2007 after a life of neglect by his mother, and cruelty from her sadistic boyfriend and his brother. At numerous stages in the case, social workers had failed to intervene decisively to save the boy.

The Baby P case has damaged social work’s public image, led to fewer people entering the profession and made it harder to retain experienced staff. It is certainly the case that social work has a rather poor public image and that it seemingly can do no right whatever it does. At times, the profession is castigated for putting children at risk by failing to intervene early enough into family life, whilst on other occasions it is criticised for undermining parental authority by interfering too readily.

As I pointed out recently on spiked, public suspicion of social workers is actually nothing new and has more to do with their role in contemporary society than with media misrepresentation. A healthy suspicion towards social workers is a good thing for both the individual and for society (2). The government’s obsession with the lack of public trust in social workers is instructive in that it not only betrays a disdainful assumption that it is the general public who are the problem, but also that it ignores the role that both the government and its regulatory bodies have played in the creation of such a situation.

Social work has long been subject to political attack. It is a commonly held view that its most vociferous critics come from the political right, who view social work as creating dependency on welfare, interfering in family life and being overly concerned with ‘politically correct’ stances around issues of race, sexuality, gender and disability etc.

However, social work has also been attacked by the radical left, many of whom were working within the profession, and who criticised it for, amongst other things, individualising and pathologising social problems and upholding exploitative social, ideological and political relations (3). This trend continues, for example, with the recently formed Social Work Action Network (SWAN) manifesto, which notes how social work is increasingly defined by its role for the state and that it often does nothing more than supervise the deterioration of people’s lives (4).

Such criticisms are valid. However, there are other factors involved in the lack of public love towards social workers that implicate the government, professional bodies, and indeed many professionals, rather than the public for such a situation.

The setting up of the General Social Care Council (GSSC) and its introduction of the social care register, codes of conduct and expansion of criminal records checks represented the institutionalisation of distrust (5). Such measures have done little to improve service provision or public safety, but they have helped heighten public anxiety as everyone, even those purporting to care, is viewed with suspicion.

Such measures only increase anxiety rather than alleviating it, but the response to increased suspicion seems to be demands for ever greater regulation. Examples include the GSCC’s campaign to roll out its regulatory powers further, to institute ever more checks on the workforce (6) and to regulate personal assistants (a move which effectively says to disabled people ‘you can choose who you want as long as we approve of your choice’) (7). Behind the rhetoric of care and protection lies a deep distrust of all social care workers. It is possible to argue that the government and GSCC have a far lower opinion of social workers than the general public does.

The opportunism of politicians such as Ed Balls in relation to Baby P also gives the impression that such tragedies are widespread and that social services are guilty of woeful neglect. In reality, a recent study into the rate of ‘child abuse-related deaths’ in England and Wales from 1974 to 2006 found that such deaths ‘have never been lower since records began’ and that significantly greater progress has been made here than in the majority of the other major developed countries (8). If the government stood up to tabloid headlines, rather than pandering to them, that would show a real commitment to improving services and granting more respect for the often-difficult role carried out by frontline social workers.

As for professionals, they do need to be wary of their own role. As the Social Work Action Network correctly points out, the job of the social worker is increasingly a functional one for the state. However, this role is at times more subtle than many professionals think. Social work professionals are frequently tasked with implementing many top-down ‘lifestyle’ and ‘health’ initiatives, for example around obesity, diet, smoking, drinking. Such universal rather than targeted initiatives frequently contain a moralistic and authoritarian dimension that many people find both patronising and an offensive invasion of their privacy.

Social workers are tasked with traversing the public/private divide. Whilst often necessary, this task is inherently contentious, and rightly so. Ensuring that the divide is not crossed too readily and only when necessary will help improve social workers’ public image in a way that media celebrities, politicians and increasing regulation will not.

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’, argued that suspicion of social workers is healthy and described the harms of ‘scattergun social work’. Jennie Bristow said the tragic case of ‘Baby P’ should not be used as a springboard for spreading suspicion. 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 Baby P.

(1) Campaign seeks new social workers, BBC News, 1 September 2009

(2) See Suspicion of social workers is healthy, by Ken McLaughlin

(3) See Bailey, R. and Brake, M (eds) (1975) Radical Social Work, London: Edward Arnold

(4) A taste of their own medicine?, by Ken McLaughlin

(6) Employer loophole could leave social care users at risk, says GSCC, General Social Care Council

(7) Consultation announced on the regulation of personal assistants, General Social Care Council

(8) Colin Pritchard and Richard Williams, ‘Comparing Possible “Child-Abuse-Related Deaths” in England and Wales with the Major Developed Countries 1974-2006: Signs of Progress’, British Journal of Social Work, advance access 10 August 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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