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Social Work and Social Change

June 6, 2011

Andrew Ellery asked on his twitter feed (@Andrew_Ellery) “How have you achieved any form of social change? What change occurred?” I started to think about my job and social change and 144 characters didn’t seem enough, and so this blog post was born.

Social work defines itself in rather pompous way as a profession that “promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being” (International Federation of Social Workers 2000). This description couldn’t be further from the reality of the job. When I started in college this definition was what dominated, in textbooks and other academic works, but as soon as one hit the ground on placement it quickly evaporated and this only got worse on becoming a full-time social worker. So, to answer the question in the simplest terms, I have achieved no form of social change at all.

On basic analysis, the biggest reason for children coming into care has consistently been neglect. In some years for which the data is available there have been more new admissions for neglect than all other forms of abuse combined. While perhaps not as shocking as sexual abuse or physical abuse, neglect is far more insidious and ultimately far more damaging. So what causes neglect? The main reasons for neglect referrals are drug use and alcohol abuse, parents who have been lost to addiction and children left to fend for themselves. Addiction is massively correlated with poverty and social exclusion. There is a clear line relationship between neglect and poverty, and this can be seen in real life and not just in the paper exercise above. Anecdotally it is well now in social work services in Dublin that the social work offices covering the poorer area’s of the city have not only a higher number of cases, but a great proportion of these cases are neglect referrals. Poverty leads to neglect.

In responding to neglect cases the focus is on the parent’s capacity and their efforts to confront their addiction. Some good work can be done on these issues, and I fully believe that Family Support Workers are some of the most valuable staff in the HSE. However the fundamental root cause, the poverty, the exclusion is never questioned and never addressed. Pulling a child out of neglect can make that child’s life better (or at least less bad – but more on that later) but that’s where the HSE’s remit ends and the issue of social change gets forgotten. The effect of this is that nothing changes, and in many of my cases I will have the childs file, his mothers file from when she was in care due to neglect, and sometimes even the grandmothers file from when she was in care due to neglect.

In many social work departments in the country, there is such a flood of cases demanding a response, and so little resources to respond with, that this is all that can be done. It’s crisis driven fire fighting. The increasing demands of paperwork have just made this worse as well.

So if you social change is what you want to achieve, don’t go near child protection social work in Ireland.

To be fair, despite the excellent work they do, we don’t expect the paramedics in the ambulance to be able to do a heart transplant or to treat cancer, so perhaps it is a bit much to expect essentially emergency child protection services to cure the social cancer of poverty. However, we wouldn’t claim to have an adequate health service if all we had was an ambulance services but no hospitals or G.P.’s. But when we look at the services that should be dealing with it becomes equally grim. With the closure of Combat Poverty Agency, the undermining of community development groups, the failure to fully resource Primary Care teams, I cant see things changing anytime soon. Which leaves the over the top self definition of social workers looking utterly mad.

And it’s not just services that leave me depressed, social workers have changed too! The idea of radical social work is mostly dead and buried, but that is a longer story and will be a post for another time.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011 17:19

    I look forward to following your blog! I tend to think about the changes I think I help to affect on a micro rather than macro level. If I can change or assist one person through a period of crisis then it justifies the effort I put into my work. As for broader social change, I feel I am constantly a part of it. I can’t detach myself from the society that I am in and work in. As long as I am striving sometimes against the systems I work in, to be best of my ability, I think I am creating changes.
    I see my role as an advocate, sometimes within the system itself and that I think, is the way that social work is going to an extent in the UK. I will be very interested to hear the differences and similarities with social work in the Republic of Ireland.

  2. David permalink
    June 7, 2011 09:08

    A very interesting read. I am a lecturer in social work in Scotland and my decision to leave the coal face was underpinned by the issues that you describe here. I also think that the issue of “risk” is significant. For some time I think we have been confused by the two notions of “work load” and “risk load” Effective practice is often measured by one’s capacity to manage “risk”, particularly in Child Protection or working with offenders. However the measurement of this remains rooted in ideas of “work load”. These are two different, albeit intertwining areas of work. A more effective seperation of these areas is required to appreciatte the complexities of the task and to recognise the internal and external demands workers are faced with. I cant help but think that the reason the notion of “risk load” is avoided is the calculation of it is too complex and the reality of it too much to bear.

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