The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

The Assessor Relationship

Social worker Miss Jones was suspended by the GSCC in September 2011, the decision was upheld in August 2012 and again by the HCPC in August 2013.  Although Miss Jones is on record as having said her actions were silly and cited some changes in her personal life the HCPC panel found that she had shown insufficient insight into the seriousness of her behaviours.

There can be no doubt that her practice was inappropriate and that boundaries were breached, but there are some aspects that merit discussion.

As social workers we are always developing some form of relationship with the people we are working with.  The concept of the Casework Relationship is still relevant.  We walk a fine line between befriending someone in order to work with them and help them and maintaining professional boundaries and distance.  I hope nobody really believes it is OK to have a sexual relationship, share drugs, socialise or seek advice, counsel, services or loans from service users, although sadly there are some who cross these boundaries.

Of course, it is easy to get into a conversation in which a professional states the name of a band or type of music they like, or they may have a sticker on their car that indicates they are in to a particular sports activity.  For some workers it comes under the concept of ‘use of self’ in the relationship.  And with many social workers using social media such as Facebook these days our private lives have become less private.  Some service users might offer much wanted tickets to a concert or sports event, or tell you about a friend who does building work ‘on the cheap’.  Why shouldn’t they?  You’ve developed the relationship until you are viewed as a friend.  It takes tact and careful handling to refuse without damaging the relationship.

But Miss Jones was not working with a vulnerable service user (although in some of the reporting the term service user is used).  She was carrying out a Form F assessment with a prospective foster carer.  The Form F is a particularly complex assessment with a specific purpose.  It’s unlike any other assessment.  It is, in effect, a job application and a part of the assessor’s role is to ensure that the application meets the needs of both the employing agency’s Fostering Panel in the first instance and then provides the information required by placing social workers looking for a foster placement for a specific child, while ensuring that the applicant is suitable and prepared for the job ahead of them.

There are some subtle differences that apply to the relationship between an assessor and a fostering applicant:

  • The applicant is not generally deemed vulnerable, otherwise their application would not have progressed as far as the Form F Assessment, although there is a power differential that creates a degree of vulnerability that the assessor should work to overcome.
  • The Form F assessment is very intensive.  The assessor is asking the applicant to share very personal information, often of greater psychological depth than in assessments with service users.
  • The assessor role will include informal provision of information and training, additional to the training provided by the agency that may be employing the applicant.
  • The assessor should be ‘modelling’ professional behaviour.
  • If successful in their application the applicant will become a fellow professional, a member of the ‘team around the child’.

It is this last point that can cause some conflict.  Not unlike a relationship between a student and a practice placement tutor, the assessor will want to develop a professional identity in the applicant.  They know that once the applicant has been accepted their relationship will need to move on from assessor-applicant to professional colleagues, and they will want to prepare the applicant for that, while retaining the option that the assessment might reveal information that would cause the termination of the assessment.

So, what went wrong for Miss Jones?

  • Miss Jones met the applicant and carried out parts of the assessment in a pub on more than one occasion (presumably, but not specified, not in the private accommodation part of the pub)
  • Whilst in the pub and on duty Miss Jones consumed alcohol
  • Miss Jones accepted (borrowed) money (around £70) from the applicant, which was later repaid
  • Miss Jones interviewed one of the applicant’s referees in a pub (comment as above)
  • Miss Jones asked the same referee to help her obtain theatre tickets
  • Miss Jones asked the same referee for help in preparing papers for a court case (ie, sharing personal information)

Clearly professional boundaries were not maintained on several occasions.  But, as well as raising considerations of the particular nuances of the Form F assessment, Miss Jones’ experience did resurrect a memory and raise a question for me.

I have ‘observed’ an applicant and their family in a public place (not a pub) as part of an assessment.  I have also, once, been in a position where I met a referee in a public place, not intentionally.  The referee in question had asked me to meet them during their lunch break at their place of work, a busy London hospital.  With this being the only option on offer for the interview I agreed on the basis that they would find a room or somewhere private we could meet.  When we met I was asked to carry out the interview in the staff area of the hospital’s restaurant as there were no private rooms available.  With some reluctance I agreed only once we had located a table sufficiently far from any other occupied tables and as I mentally adjusted how I would conduct the interview (taking care to use language that avoided using the applicant’s name or personal details).  Would I do it again?  No.  Chalk it up to experience.

Could borrowing money from the applicant ever be considered acceptable?  If this were a vulnerable service user I would say never.  But what if you realise you’ve lost your purse or wallet, or even left it at home, it’s evening and you need to buy fuel to get home?  There’s no-one at home who is able to come and meet you with some money.  Many a times I’ve been carrying out an assessment a two hour drive away, at a time when my husband has been working in another part of the country.  It didn’t but it could easily have happened.  Is there any freedom to make a professional judgement in this situation?

As I said above, there are some subtle differences that apply to the Form F assessment.  There are shifting patterns as the assessment progresses, as the applicant shares more of their personal life to someone who would otherwise be a complete stranger, moving towards helping the applicant prepare for a professional role, often knowing that your own relationship will be terminated at the end of the assessment (especially common in independent fostering agencies who often use independent social workers for their assessments rather than their own staff who may go on to become the applicants supervising social worker).  For me, remembering that we are modelling professional behaviour is probably the best way of maintaining those professional boundaries.

The Community Care report of the committee findings in Miss Jones’ case can be found here, while the full report from the HSPC can be found here.

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