The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Watching your back

As social workers we regularly visit families alone – most teams don’t have enough staff for regular joint working – and that makes us vulnerable.  Often we think of that vulnerability as the direct risk of violence but that’s not the only risk.

Many years ago I had a male colleague whose female client suddenly and unexpedly exposed her breasts to him in order to show him some bruises.  He was clearly shaken.  In the office we covered our concerns with humour on that occasion but we all recognised this had been a high risk situation for him – long before there was the GSCC/HCPC to answer to.

Parents wanting to stop investigations or proceedings may be uncooperative or claim they cannot work with a particular social workers, knowing that each time there is a change in allocated worker there is a delay as the new person gets to know them and their history, with the possibility that the new social worker might be more easily manipulated (at least at first).

However very occasionally clients/service users take more extreme action in attempting to delay or prevent social workers from doing their jobs, by making allegations amounting to malpractice against the social worker.   Of course in the long term it’s only successful as a delaying tactic as making false allegations will only have a negative effect on the courts’ view.  However, at times like this the social worker can find themselves experiencing what many of our clients feel as they undergo an investigation.  And that can be a terrifying process as one social worker experienced when she was falsley accused, as reported via Community Care.

Knowing we have maintained our professionalism in practice, keeping our integrity and values intact, is our first defence of our own mental and emotional health when faced with malicious allegations.  But we get so used to working with distressed people who, under investigation, respond with strong emotions, often anger, that too often we push to one side threatening experiences, when we should be diligently recording even veiled threats.  In today’s open sharing of information, when we (ideally) get parents to sign and confirm the notes we put on their children’s files we have to consider how we record our observations and how the parent(s) will view what we have said.   However, putting our observations of threats in file notes, review or court reports, serves three key purposes.

Firstly, it’s good practice as sharing our observations with the client (at a later date perhaps when everyone has calmed down a bit) can provide opportunities to open up a conversation about how their words and actions are perceived by others and gives the client the opportunity to reflect on that; and it gives the worker the opportunity to check out different meanings of language used.  In particular the words used to describe anger can be very misleading: try asking a group of people to come up with 10 words to describe different levels of anger and then put them in order of extremity – they will usually come up with some very different choices for the most and least extreme words to describe anger.  Doing that exercise might help the client could be very informative and give the client the opportunity to correct our own impressions and interpretations.  It also gives them the opportunity to have their view recorded on file.

I recall being asked to visit an unallocated client where the concerns were quite low key but the mum had threatened ‘to set the dog on’ the next social worker who visited.  At the time I was still practicing as an unqualified worker and a student and was instructed to take with me another unqualified worker on the basis of the threat.  Needless to say the woman asked why we had to visit in pairs.  So I explained about the threat.  By this time I had met the dog, was sitting at the kitchen table leaning to one side with my wrist being gently held in the mouth by a small friendly dog with an erection.  She laughed and said she didn’t mean it and I could see the dog was harmless.  I explained that we have to take threats seriously.  Ultimately I concluded there was no reason to continue joint visits and in future visited on my own.  Fortunately I like dogs, I feel sorry for social workers who are afraid of them!

In another example of the changing use of language, I recall working with a young teenage new mum who described her baby as ‘sexy’.  Alarm bells were going off all over the place as all sorts of people envisioned her lining her baby up for men to abuse.  But the girl was 15/16 and using the language of her generation.  ‘Sexy’ was for her the ultimate in expressing her love for her child – you could see it in her body language and hear it in her tone of voice.  She was using the word in a similar way as sexy might be used to describe a new smart/good looking phone.  The older generations sitting around the child protection conference were not convinced!

But I digress.

The second reason for diligent recording is that it provides potentially important information for future social workers involved with the family.  If threats are used to detract from underlying issues, meticulously recording them can help build the picture of how the family functions and prevent further delays and distractions.

Finally, sadly, it is part of the armour we have in protecting our own backs.  If a malicious allegation is made we should be able to use our recording to (a) support our own memories of events and (b) provide evidence to investigators.

Rider: Of course, if we are genuinely concerned for our safety, physical or professional, this should be possible to keep ‘confidential’ via supervision, but then we should also be raising those concerns with senior staff and management anyway.

(The above refers mainly to working within children’s services but the same applies just as much in working in adults’ services)

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