The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “dogs”

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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Asking Questions?

Whatever we like to think, we all live in the confines of our own experience, finding it hard to imagine how others might live.  For those who live in countries that consider themselves to be the most advanced and richest nations, it can be hard to even recognise that the rest of the world is actually in the majority.  And their priorities may be different for good reasons.  Certainly, we all need to love and be loved, eat and have somewhere to sleep, but we don’t all approach these needs in the same way.  Or the other things that occupy our minds and time, which can vary enormously.

Taking time out to travel around the world overland has brought me into contact with ways of life that I would not have seen by simply going on holiday.

In Mexico we have seen life lived in ways we have not seen outside of our history books.  Oxen pulling the plough in small fields, followed by an old man hand sowing seeds from a bucket.  These are Biblical illustrations, not modern farming methods.  Yet, quite logical when you see the size of the fields, small spaces that are cultivated in the natural rocky mountains, even, in some cases, the almost impossible forty five degree angle mountain slopes on which some fields have been created.  These are not the spaces for large tractors and other farm machinery.  The old methods are sometimes still the best.

In Mexico we have also seen and heard small lorries carrying pigs, three tiers high.  In England this was outlawed many years ago, the legal achievement of animal rights activists.  Should those activists be working to save the suffering of pigs in Mexico?  In a country where animals are looked after because they are a valuable resource, not out of sentimentality.  In a country where donkeys are still kept and used to transport wood from the forests for the fires at home.  And, where donkeys are not available, on the backs of men, women and children.  In a country where dogs are kept not out of sentimentality but because they provide an early warning system in the event of intruders and help with the herding of other animals.  It is undoubtedly true that not all animals are well cared for but in countries that pride themselves on caring for animals there are plenty of people who are still prosecuted for the suffering they cause dogs and cats, for cruelty to wildlife, often for no reason other than the fun of it.  I suspect the majority of Mexicans eking out an existence in the mountains would consider the concerns of the animal rights activists to be rather bizarre.

In Mongolia there is little agricultural farming, the land is far too unproductive to bother.  Animals again have an important role to play in the daily life of the Mongolian.  His family will probably have a horse or two for transport, alongside a small motorbike.  Several nomadic families may share the use of oxen and cart, or even a small tractor, to move home every two months.  The family will also probably have a couple of cows, sheep, goats, or yak or camels, depending on where in Mongolia they live.  If their livestock is undernourished it is because the weather has been cruel this year and the land has not produced enough of the sparse vegetation their animals feed on.  In this case, the Mongolian nomad and his family may well face the real risk of starvation themselves.

In other respects the animals’ lives are much better.  There is comparatively little factory farming.  Cows in Kazakhstan and Mongolia are left to wander around during the day, finding grazing where they can, returning home through the village on their own as dusk falls.  Pigs, turkeys and chickens living in fishing villages along the coast of Mexico have the run of the beach, or at least the run of the beach outside the home where they live, for the dogs of other homes do their job and chase them off if they wander too far from their own territory.

The obsessions and worries of the so called ‘advanced’ nations are often of little or no concern here.  Children and teenagers are left alone caring for animals, each other, livestock, and elderly relatives.  They are trusted and trustable.  If chores need to be done they do them, and occupy themselves in play in between times.  Responsibility is given at a young age, but only to the degree that responsibility can be handled.  Life, human and animal, is too precious to entrust it to the not yet trustable.

Two young men work together in Mongolia.  They harvest the marshland for grasses for winter feed for their animals.  They work as part of a group of maybe twenty men, the oldest of whom is probably in his fifties.  One young man is sixteen, sometimes shy and a little childlike in unfamiliar company and the older men cover for him at those times.  But he is also strong and well-built and able to work as well as men much older and more experienced than he is.  In the fields he is listened to as an equal by his colleagues when he has something to say.  The other boy is a little younger, maybe fifteen.  He is shy and childlike in all his dealings.  His thinking is not as quick and he says little.  Physically he does what he can but he is slim and with little muscle on his frame.  His uncle, one of the group of men, watches over him and protects him.  No-one seems to mind the difference.  Both have a role to play in this society.  Both are equally accepted.

In the majority world childhood is a transition from infancy to adulthood where responsibility and duty are learned through being a part of a community.  Chores may be a chore to some but for most they are just the way of life.  To what extent are we doing our children a favour if we protect them from the hardship of chores and responsibility?  How will they learn to be trustable contributing adults if not by experience?  Or do we leave this learning until adulthood has been attained?  If we think childhood is lost in the majority world to what should be adult responsibilities, I wonder what the parents of those children think of the alternative of childhood being lost to early sexualisation in the ‘advanced’ nations.

Material poverty is real in these countries, but they still have family and community.    But there are changes.  In the bigger towns and cities, where the influences from the west are greatest, the beginnings of a move away from dependence on community and family can be seen: children are more likely to group together in Internet cafés, the young and the old don’t mix together so much.

Global warming and recycling have become mainstream concerns in the advanced nations, where councils and governments have introduced legislation to force people to recycle their paper and plastics in their weekly waste collections.  This works well in countries with highly developed waste collection systems.

However in countries such as Mongolia and Mexico waste collections are non-existent in many areas.  At a micro level this is not such a problem as it might be in England.  People buy fewer goods that come with lots of packaging, vegetables are bought from local markets and shops, not wrapped in several layers of plastic.  The same goes for meat.  There is not the dependence on tinned or packet foods, or pre-prepared and packaged ready meals outside of the main cities.    What little rubbish is produced is easily burned, and in both countries people in the rural areas do just this.  The Mongolian burns his rubbish behind his ger before he packs up to move to a new site every two months.  Where there are villages or small towns there is often a collective site on the outskirts of the settlement.  On such a small scale there is little thought or concern for the risk this might cause to the ozone layer.  Better surely to burn the rubbish than leave it for the rats to make nests in right outside their kitchens.

In Kazakhstan there is a growing problem with waste plastic bottles.  The water is largely poor quality and not good for drinking and it is possible to buy lemonade, colas, and other sweet drinks as well as water in various sizes of plastic bottles.  But in such a vast country there is little in the way of organised waste collection and these empty bottles are increasingly littering the countryside.  A similar situation could exist in Mongolia, except in this even more sparsely populated country the continued nomadic culture sees these bottles added to the periodic fires in which waste is burnt.

In Mexico there continues an otherwise outdated system of using returnable and recycled glass containers.  Coca-Cola in particular has many small delivery vehicles moving around the country, taking advantage of the good road infrastructures that do not exist in Mongolia.

In England and America there are no more returnable glass bottles. It is all plastic bottles and cans.  There Coca-Cola have fallen in with the market needs of the big supermarkets.  Huge outlets requiring massive deliveries to central warehouses.  Customers who travel to centralised locations or shopping centres.  The big supermarkets do not operate in a system that is conducive to collecting returnable bottles for individual manufacturers.

In England there is a plethora of campaigns to support, whether it be related to global warming, destruction of the rainforests, food waste, recycling, child or animal welfare, the obesity and health crisis in the west, medical research such as for the treatment of cancer, reduction of poverty or provision of resources such as clean water and sanitation for those who do not have such things.  We each choose our own causes to support based on our interests and experiences.  And it’s right that we do so.  Yet for the most part we only see what’s under our noses, what ‘our’ media pick up on, which in turn is largely the campaigns of those who shout loudest or have the most famous patrons.  It’s good that social media is now able to bring international support to bear on issues that affect the world, and Facebook has done just this, yet so often this gives us yet more causes, campaigns and concerns to worry over and spread our support to.

It seems that every issue of concern, every campaign, has a value.  But there are so many.  How to choose the ones that are worthy?  Perhaps one way to help make that decision is to step back and view the issues as a whole.  Perhaps as the leaves on the branches on a tree.  The leaves are the causes and the campaigns.  The branches are the problems that are to be resolved.  The trunk and the roots are the human greed, selfishness and lusting after power, that are behind so many of the problems the world faces today.  These are the causes of the problems mankind face.  The reasons there are wars, poverty, starvation, inequality, global warming, and concerns about diminishing resources.

We plough the fields and scatter – in modern day Mexio

transporting live pigs in Mexico

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