The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Turning Tides – maybe

Following the Conneticut massacre, and amidst the debates on gun law and gun controls in the US, a quote recently appeared on Facebook:

Reagan quoteAt first glance it might seem that Reagan has a good point, but is it that simple?  Certainly over the years there has been a move towards ‘rights’ rather than ‘responsibilities’ and a decline in the individual being held accountable for their actions, as excuses are made, “he had a bad childhood”, “she was drunk”.

Coming from a different angle, members of the Australian Social Workers’ Association produced a cartoon several years ago.  A small group of professionals: social workers, teachers, police, and medical professionals, were depicted with the caption, “We are responsible for the death of that child.”  The second image was of a large group of people representing society as a whole with the caption, “We are responsible for the death of that child.”  The final picture was of a stereotypical “bad man”, with the caption, “It was my hands that beat the life out of that child.  But I am not responsible for her death.”  If anyone still has a copy of that cartoon (with the accurate quotes), I would love to have a copy to post here.

That cartoon was a reflection on how social workers experienced society’s reaction via the media following a serious incident, usually leading to the death of a vulnerable person.  It wasn’t an unrealistic depiction.  In the UK, when a child dies, enquiries are held, files are analysed, professionals are interviewed and individuals, in this case the professionals, are held accountable for their role and actions.  Often though, it is only the front line social workers who are subjected to castigation in the press.  Maybe it’s because health professionals and the police are seen as the “good guys” they are permitted a little failing occasionally.  Nobody wants a social worker calling at their door.  When the mother of one of the 10 year old boys who shockingly murdered Jamie Bulger in Liverpool back in 1993 said, “I told the (education) welfare (my son) wasn’t in school”, her words were reported but little comment was added as to her role in her son’s generally poor school attendance.  Society, as presented through the media, is selective about the individuals who are called accountable for their actions.

The tide may be turning a little.  Following the death of Baby P in England in London, England, in 2007, the enquiries were still held, the role of the professionals still investigated, but with a tone of shock there was recognition in the media that the parents of Baby P committed the actual neglect and abuse against their son and did their utmost to lie to and conceal the truth from the professionals who were engaged in trying to ensure their son’s safety and welfare.

The individual should be accountable for his actions[1].  But what of the role of society?  In the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.”  Individuals are members of society, together they make up society.  Society makes the laws that enable society to function as a whole.  Perpetrators of crimes are members of society.  Relatives, friends and neighbours of perpetrators of crime are members of society.  Among them will be some who recognise laws are being broken, criminal acts are being committed, that the human rights of other individuals are being violated.  Society as a whole has a role to play in the prevention of transgressions against society, not least because unless they do the “professionals” may not know there is a problem until it is too late.

Shortly after the Connecticut shootings, my heart went out to the woman who wrote her blog entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother”[2].  Not literally, but metaphorically.  Her own child has serious behaviour problems.  At times he is a sweet natured child.  At other times he becomes a monster.  She knows, as his mother, that her soon to be adolescent son will be a risk to society when he is an adult.  He could be the next Adam Lanza.  She has sought the help of professionals and has received and accepted the help given.  But under existing US legislation no-one, including her, can prevent her son from refusing to take his medication (which regularly happens) or one day going out and legally buying guns that are readily available in supermarkets, shopping malls and downtown stores, and using those guns to maim and destroy.

Professionals, whether front line workers, managers, employers, are society’s representatives, doing the work of society, to protect the vulnerable members of society on behalf of society.  They are also members of society themselves.  They have the responsibility to do their jobs to the best of their ability within the guidelines of their profession and the laws of their country.  They have the responsibility to make proper use of supervision to discuss cases and work related issues, to recognise and understand their strengths and weaknesses, and to identify new or refresher training to help them in their work.  Their employers have the responsibility to ensure that supervision and training are properly provided and that workers are not exposed to unrealistic work expectations and caseloads.  They are society at work.

Society as a whole may not be guilty when individuals choose to break individual laws.  But modern society is a fluid entity, impacted on by outside forces beyond its control, a changing thing that as a whole has a duty to protect its own welfare, for the sake of future society.  When it becomes obvious that society’s norms and laws are not protecting society in some way, and society chooses not to respond, leaving more laws to be broken, more crimes to be committed, more individuals to be harmed, more lives to be lost, then society is guilty of not protecting itself or its members.

This is the challenge facing the US today.  Each time innocent children get killed in a school shooting, society has to ask itself if that shooting could have been prevented and how.  Restrictions on gun ownership; more security in schools; more guns in schools to prevent shootings in schools (as proposed by the NRA); better recognition of mental health problems and better mental health care, particularly for the poor and uninsured: just some of the options up for discussion.

If society as a whole does not succeed in coming to some kind of resolution that works when problems such as this arise, then society as a whole may be considered guilty by default of not taking action to prevent the law being broken, and harm being done, in the future.


[1] There may be exceptions, such as victims of certain crimes.  For example, someone who is exposed to the drug scopolamine loses all power of individual thought and can be easily persuaded to carry out crimes on behalf of another person.  Like the date rape drug Rohypnol it may be given to the victim without their knowledge.

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