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Reflections on the Contradictions in Social Work

November 20, 2013

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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aoife dearg permalink
    November 21, 2013 00:21

    I always enjoy reading your posts, as a child protection social worker I can relate to much of what you say but there are moments of optimism, joy and a sense that social work made a difference. Perhaps it would be good to shine a light on these incidents…….

  2. Romney permalink
    July 25, 2014 17:48

    I just discovered your blog and love it. I have been working in child protection for many years and your words are exactly what I have been saying for a long time. Keep up the good work.

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