Reflective practice was something that was encouraged when I was training to be a social worker, and this post is an attempt for me to reflect. I am not sure its very practical reflection, but I leave you as reader to judge that.
Social work is not an exact science, so much is subjective and context based that we spend a lot of time working in shades of grey when there is an expectation by many of black and white. Yes, there are national standards, yes there is court which imposes a black and white view on us, but there remains much that is subjective and often contradictory. I wanted to explore some of these contradictions here, maybe get them out of head so I can focus on my casenotes.
Many social workers get into social work to work directly with children, our training is based on working directly with children. The reality is that more and more time is spent on reports, paper work, case notes and the like so there is less and less time for children and families. The result is that more and more work gets referred on to other services leaving social workers as case managers, not case workers. This varies from case to case, and office to office, but almost all social workers will agree to some degree that we wanted to work with children, and spend more time working with children’s files.
In response to being on the receiving end of the social control of social workers many of our clients and those who criticise social workers argue that we are all powerful or too powerful, able to do what we want to families and get away with it. The reality is that most of us feel powerless – powerless in the face of statistics and deadline filled paperwork. We feel powerless in the face of Judges and the courts who are the real decisions makers in terms of children coming into care. We feel powerless in the face of what financial decision makers in senior management who decide on services and supports and sometimes a child’s fate without having meet them or the family, and without an explanation to us as to why a certain decision was made. This powerlessness gets made all the worse when the courts demand certain services that management won’t pay for, we can’t change the need for the service but can’t provide it – and for what it’s worth its never senior management sitting in front of an angry judge explaining the failure to fund services. We feel powerless in the face of bullying Guardian ad Litem’s who push around social work departments, get funding for things they never could when they worked for the HSE, and who act like they run the place – and at times it feels like they do. Add to this HIQA and CORU, inspections and fitness to practice tribunals and you can see why morale can be low. HIQA, CORU, Judges, National Standards – things like this are necessary, as is oversight of social work (just ask a Roma family), I can’t complain too much about that, the contradictions comes when the perception of our great power meets the reality of constant constraints on it and our own feelings of powerlessness.
We get into social work to help people, but end up hurting them. We do hurt people, but not deliberately, not in a calculated way, but once harm has been done it often leads to simply more hurt even when making it better. Let me give you an example – You are working with drug user whose life is chaos and ruled by addiction, who is not a fit parent to a small child no matter what supports are put in place and has done nothing to improve the situation or to address their drug use. To take that child into care is necessary to protect them from harm and neglect but to do so will be deeply destructive to the mother, who despite her addiction loves the child and is losing part of herself as you walk out with the child. The break in whatever attachment was there no matter how dysfunctional will also hurt the child. The child cannot stay with his mother, but to take him cause pain and misery to him and his mother, which can come out against the social work as threats, as violence as anger. Despite what is written about social workers we are not blind to this suffering, but we know that we are working to a clear goal of protecting the most vulnerable person in the middle of it all. No social worker I met has celebrated getting a care order – yes there is a sense of relief, of having done a good job and survived cross examination, but we know that the order that protects a child will in some way hurt a parent, even if the parent was hurting the child in the first place.
I think I could go on with examples – how we talk about being needs led but are resource led, how we talk about separation of powers but every day the courts make demands for services that breach that, how we as social workers get into child protection thinking about community development and end up as social control, how many of us get into social work saying we never want to work in child protection but end up there because there are no other jobs - but to do so would probably have me in a very bad state of mind. I wanted to stop now and tp use this last paragraph to draw it all together, to make some profound point but I don’t think there is one beyond what I have already said – that social work like life is subjective, and social work is not black and white but black, white and a thousand shades grey.
I have been working on a new post where I do some reflection on the nature of social work, which is all very grand but also very introspective. While I continued to struggle with time and with my own mental meanderings and dead ends, I was snapped back to the often harsh reality of child protection by some of the reports about the Roma Case.
When reading media pieces and listening to politicians I get the feeling that they don’t fully understand the way the social work services are set up or work. Nor do they display any real insight into social work , nor in fact does it seem they have even spoken to a social worker at all.
But who needs to talk to a social worker or a client when all you want to do is score cheap political points.
Before the last election www.letthelightin.ie was set up by Fine Gael to “Let the light in” on child protection. They used the website to publish leaked reports about social work services, about death of children in care and internal HSE reviews. It was just the right sort of place to post the Gardai and HSE reports into these case. As any of you who clicked the link above have found out, the website has closed and is just a hosting company ad. Mr. Shatter was all for openness on the opposition benches, but now that its his turn we get silence. Once again it was all about politics, not child protection.
These recent reports, along with a timetable to address issues highlighted in them, should be made public as soon as possible, and child protection social work should not be a political football.
A little time has passed since the disgrace that was the treatment of two Roma families but I couldn’t let the most public Child Protection scandal of recent times go totally without comment. I don’t intend this post to be an exhaustive review of the case and its ins and outs, I am simply going to focus on issues that I feel haven’t been raised in the coverage already or that I feel should be highlighted.
I think that some credit is due to the Athlone Social Work Team for not getting sucked into the panic. In terms of time this case was after the Greece story, and after the Tallaght child had been taken. The Gardai used their powers under Section 12 of the Child Care Act to take the child into care. When Section 12 is used the child must be given to the HSE and they must at the earliest chance either go to court or return the child. The next day the social workers met the family and returned the child. Clearly the social workers felt there was no concerns and that the child should never have been taken. This raises questions about the decision making of the Gardai, but I like to think the HSE did the right thing in this case, but then as an insider I would say that wouldn’t I.
In the case of Tallaght, we have three players in the mess – the gardai, the social workers and the judge. I feel a lot has been said about the racist assumptions of the initial callers to the Gardai and the Gardai themselves, I don’t think I need to add anything to that. I hope that Minister Shatter makes the reports he has requested public so that we can all see what the Gardai where think and how they justified the Section 12, although it may end up hidden by in camera rulings (which could be a whole post in itself) .
Then there is the social workers and their response. What I want to know is why they bought into the hysteria of the Gardai. As shown by the Athlone case other social workers focused on the risk to the child and clearly saw none so returned the child. What was different in Tallaght? This suggests a few issue to me, however until any case review is made public (should that be an if…?) this is only speculation. Firstly it begs questions about the standardization of assessment that the HSE is chasing, its clearly missing in this case and would make me question is it even possible (or indeed totally desirable). Secondly how much pressure did the social work department come under from Gardai? If this action resulted from a degree of pressure or bullying from Gardai to act it is worrying as it suggests that social workers can be blown one way or another by outside forces and undermines the idea that it is a rational activity with its own coherence and its own standards. It also shows how little respect Gardai have for social workers opinions and assessments and decisions – something I have felt first hand. The challenges of interagency working has filled numerous text books and journal articles, so I will leave any discussion of that to another post.
The least examined part of this mess has been the Judge. Social workers don’t in fact take children in to care. They apply to the court and the court decides, the court issues the order, the court is the ultimate power in these cases. The judge would have heard evidence from the Gardai about why they took the Section 12, the judge would have heard evidence from the social workers about their assessment of risk to the child and how they grounded there concerns on solid evidence. Much comment has been on how flimsy the allegations were, how groundless the section 12 was, how little evidence of risk or harm the social workers had, but at the end of the day the judge in question felt it was enough to grant an emergency care order (Section 13 of the Child Care Act). To date I haven’t heard the judges role being discussed at all. Was his or her thinking influenced by the hysteria the case had built up? Was his or her thinking influenced by institutional racism? We can never know really, because these judges rarely give written judgements, and even if they did they are bound by the in camera rule.
As I said, judges are the final arbiters in care orders, without them social workers are powerless (and many of us feel powerless in front of a judge). There are several issues with judges and child protection highlighted by this case. As I say above the in camera rule prevents scrutiny. The in camera rule is there for good reasons, and a knee jerk reaction would be silly, I am not suggesting anything here beyond the need for a wide ranging discussion and debate about reforming the in camera rule. Equally there is the issue of oversight of judges, we see this in criminal cases a lot – such as it the lenient sentences of some criminal judges. Again, I don’t have any suggestions here as I feel that any change here needs to be balanced against the independence of the courts, which needs in other areas to be expanded and defended. The other issue is the consistency of judges. As a counterpoint to the judgement in this case I offer you this judgement reported by the Child Care Law Reporting Project (http://www.childlawproject.ie/). The case involved an African family with five children, DNA evidence gathered for family reunification showed that one of the five was not the fathers daughter as was being claimed and on these ground the HSE sought an emergency care order. The judge in that case stated that alongside the DNA concerns there was no evidence before the court that there is a serious risk to the health and welfare and refused the order. Details of the case here – http://www.childlawproject.ie/publications/emergency-care-order-refused-for-african-child/
Another issues that links with this case and needs wider discussion is how we deal with trafficking. The case of the child who approached Gardai outside the GPO and the recent report on the number of slaves in Ireland, along with the wild assumptions and hysteria in these cases don’t really fill me with confidence.
Its been a year since I wrote anything.
My last post was in relation to the children’s rights referendum about this time last year. At that time I said that I supported the referendum but that it was only a start; that it needed to be matched with resources and with services. Here we are a year later and well like my blog stuck in the same place. The referendum remains subject to a high court challenge and is buried somewhere on the court list not getting heard and not getting enacted. At the same time the new Children and Family Agency which was to be up and running by now still hasn’t become a reality. Service are losing funding, private services are harder and harder to get approval for. Social Work teams remain understaffed and under resourced. Much spoken of re-structuring remains an idea and not a fact.
With social work in Ireland stuck in the same place as last year I feel less bad about my blog being stuck in the same place.
For what ever reason I am having a burst of creativity and have a head full of ideas, perhaps it’s the anger at this lack of change, perhaps its wanting to offer an insiders view of the recent mess of the Roma families recent torture at the hands of the state, but I hope to get a few posts up over the coming weeks if I get the time to write and hopefully can continue to post regularly after that.
If we are serious about children’s rights we must focus on what they need and provide that in a transparent and effective manner, as the proposed amendment says “best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration”.
Some people have argued in the past and will no doubt argue again that a children’s rights referendum will set children against parents and break up families, that meeting children’s needs will come at the expense of the family unit. The truth is that couldn’t be more wrong. Enabling children’s rights, all of them including the right to a family, means protecting children by protecting families.
Let me give you examples from my day to day work.
Protecting the family is the best way to protect the child and their rights. To support families we will regularly use local services, such as the local Family Resource Centre. This can provide a variety of excellent supports to promote family well being and by doing so protect child. Recent reports have shown the increasing demand the services of local Family Resource Centre’s at a time when their funding is decreasing. If children have a right to safety, a right to family relationships, then services like this need to be protected and promoted.
For me this issue is illustrated the best by housing need I see in my clients lives. So many of the families I work with in social work have housing difficulties – overcrowding, substandard accommodation, and lack of meaningful tenancy supports. For families from the travelling community housing provision is even worse. The child’s best interests and their right to shelter and housing can only be made real through the whole families receiving adequate housing supports – to protect children’s rights we protect their family.
Everyday decisions are made not based on what a child needs, but what we can provide. The recent Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group stressed the importance of promptly identifying and providing the necessary services to meet the needs of the child. Yet frequently it is not a question of what is the most appropriate service but which of the only services available is least inappropriate.
Best practice in social work underlines that a child should only be taken into care as a last resort and that children’s needs are best met in their family of origin. The amendment itself stress that the state will only take on the role of parents “in exceptional circumstances” and in a “proportionate” way. As social workers we seek to first protect children by supporting families, only when this fails will children come into care. I believe that a children’s rights referendum will make my job easier because it will make supporting families easier and not because it will mean I can break up families easier.
To Support children’s rights means supporting families, supporting the amendment to the constitution means supporting children and families together.
I for one will be voting a giant Yes on November 10th.
So, Saturday November 10th has been set as a the date for the children’s rights referendum.
Now is the time to get out and canvass, at home, at work, in our neighbourhoods.
Also, don’t forget to vote!
For the wording of the referendum see the governments website HERE
The website of the Campaign for Children can be found HERE
And for a different opinion from me and the Campaign for Children check out the website of The Alliance of Parents Aginst the State HERE
With this blog I wanted to give an insight into the world of Social Work, an insight into the process of Social Work – how we do what we do, why we do what we do. Central to the process of modern social work is the paper trail, our case notes and other forms, to the extent it sometimes feels like all we do.
A few quick examples of the paper trail, but by no means all:
- Case notes – everything we do should be written down, everything. Every phone call, every conversation with other staff relevant to a case, everything. If it’s not in the cases notes it didn’t happen – an idea I will come back too
- Referral forms – every time we need a service for our clients it means a stack of forms to fill out, this is very frustrating when it is a HSE service, or indeed the childcare workers on our own team as it feels more about control than providing a service. Looking for private services outside the HSE mean a funding request, private procurement application with three quotes and the agencies own referral form – the result being that when an service is needed as soon as possible, as soon as possible turns into a six weeks.
- Standardized Business Forms. – The HSE in a well intentioned attempt to deal with the lack of consistency and clear standards across the country have introduced standardized process, and a dozen forms to back them up. While the aim is good (and discussed below) the reality means more paperwork with deadlines and stats (intake form in 24 hours, initial assessment in 20 days, and how many done in that time scale measured and monitored)
- Court reports – never use “could” “would” or “should” unless you want to get an earful from the judge. Never copy and paste from the previous report (even if nothing has changed) unless you want an earful from the judge. Get them in 3 working days in advance, unless you want an earful from the judge (spotting a pattern here?). And certainly have them ready before every other professional so that they can copy and paste from your report!
- Statistical returns – The numbers and the data have begun a big thing for the HSE but in all the wrong ways. Either way, we now have a load of forms to fill in showing how much of our targets we are hitting.
The simple fact is that every week there seems to be more and more paperwork; but like many things in Social Work isn’t a black and white issue.
Why so much paper work? If it’s not on paper it didn’t happen. You could have done an in depth productive and effective piece of work with a client, but if you don’t write it down it never happened. So the paper work provides on one side increased oversight and increased transparency. What you did and why becomes real, is there for all to see. It becomes easier to track decisions of Social Workers, to follow the history of a case, to understand what workers, what didn’t and what needs to be done. Given a long history of scandals and inquiries this can only be a good thing. However, this breeds a defensive reaction, a fear that everything must be written down, not to record the nuances of a case, but to protect the worker. Every little conversation with a Team Leader becomes an email or a joint case note. Every time a child or parent sneezes, it becomes a case note so that no one can say the Social Worker didn’t do their job. The recent reports into deaths of children in care highlighted the importance of this, they were solely based on reviews of the files, and any work not recorded was not seen. A Social Worker could have been criticized for not doing something that was in fact done. This defensive practice will only be made worse when registration is in full swing, as every Social Worker is open to personal liability in their cases. Getting the balance right between these two sides can be hard, and depends on so much beyond the control of the Social Worker. A well supported Social Worker on a high morale team will probably be less defensive and as a result more engaged with the work, and the reality is good cases notes make the work easier and make court reports and indeed giving evidence easier.
Coupled to much of the new and increasing paper work is stats and targets. This is an issue I looked at in a previous post (Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics…Social Work by Numbers) and since that time it feels like things have got worse. Stats are not being used to provide an insight into the work and understanding why or why not things happen, they are targets to hit regardless of quality and effectiveness. The pressure and the political game come from the top and roll all the way down the bureaucratic chain. Social Workers and Social Work teams have to struggle to keep the client, i.e. the child, at the centre of things instead of being about numbers on a graph. This is where effective leadership in managers shows, in Team Leaders, and more so in Principal Social Workers, as they try and maintain the right balance.
So, where does all of this leave the coal face Social Worker? More importantly where does this leave Social Work?
How the individual Social Worker handles this depends a lot on them and their personality and how organized and efficient they are in themselves. However, even the best will feel that pressure, that weight of responsibility that comes with the job and the undone case note. This is counter balanced by the pressure of the undone home visit, the visit you couldn’t do because you were so busy with the paperwork. Sometimes it feels like time management and efficiency at paperwork are more important than interpersonal skills! It can be stressful, it can be frustrating but I think most Social Workers understand the importance of good paperwork; good case notes and accept it as part of the job.
So what about Social Work as a practice? If we accept on the one side time with clients and building relationships and accept on the other hand the importance of proper paper work than an optimal balance must be found. The case notes and the direct work aren’t mutually exclusive with a proper caseload that allows time for both, but the reality is that most teams are so under resourced both in terms of workers and in terms of admin support that caseloads become too big to manage both competing elements of the work. This is dangerous for clients and for children as inevitably one of the two important parts will suffer. This is also dangerous for Social Work as new or potential Social Workers decide they want to work with people not paper and look elsewhere.
Oh, and I haven’t even touched on the most annoying part of the paperwork, our decaying and outdated IT systems, which as the Standardized Business Processes are rolled out will come under increasing pressure and will move closer to outright collapse.