The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “professional”

Fitness to Practice?

A female social worker struck off for faking conversations with a vulnerable child during an assessment had been qualified for 17 years.  Included in the hcpc report is the statement that she seemed not to realise the potential consequences of her actions for the child and his family.

A male social worker struck off for having an inappropriate sexual relationship with, and supplying drugs to, a service user, to whom he had been allocated as the social worker, had been qualified for 36 years with no known previous concerns regarding practice.  A lack of remorse and insight into the impact of his actions was a significant factor in his being struck off the register.

An experienced social worker who had undertaken diversity training made a shockingly racist comment to a Zimbabwean colleague.  With no known previous concerns regarding practice she claimed the comment was meant to be lighthearted, when in fact other staff also found it offensive.  The social worker who made the offensive comment “has shown no meaningful insight or remorse, nor has she indicated that she appreciates the seriousness of her conduct” according to the hcpc.

A male residential social worker responded with excessive physical actions against a child, shocking his colleagues and despite de-escalation training.  His claim of self-defence was not accepted and he too was considered to have refused to acknowledge the seriousness of his action.

A male social worker had sexually harassed female staff in at least two different workplaces.  He had not shown any remorse or apologies for his actions.

Each case is concerning in its own right.  However, what is worrying about these cases as a whole, is that out of five at least three involved experienced social workers, and all showed no apparent awareness of, or willingness to acknowledge, the inappropriateness of their actions.  In at least two cases the worker had an apparently unblemished record; in only one case was it noted that there had been previous similar behaviour.



A safe working environment?

Community Care regularly provides links to further information on the outcomes of hcpc fitness to practice decisions, which can make for interesting reading.  As well as making one wonder at the absence of professional common sense in some people.

Of course, a news reporting, or even a report from the hcpc only gives the information that is publicly available.  Perhaps its the social worker in me, but unable to speak to the individuals themselves I always hold back a small portion of reserve in any judgements I make.

One social worker who garnered a little of my sympathy was struck off for faking a conversation with a vulnerable child in an assessment report.  Of course, there is no excuse for doing this and it absolutely should not happen.  The social worker pleaded on the grounds of stress and sickness, but as the panel stated, these are no excuse for poor practice, and that “A social worker has an obligation to report any personal difficulties that might affect their ability to do their job competently and safely.”

The trouble is it’s too easy to say that a social worker has an obligation to report personal difficulties.  In this case the social worker was working as a locum in Harrow.  She presumably didn’t have a permanent contract with the local authority and sick pay and provisions can vary for casual/locum work.  Who should she have reported her ‘personal difficulties’ to, what effect would that have had on her ability to work, would she have lost her agency placement in Harrow and would her agency have continued to place her in other roles in future?

Front line social work, particularly in children’s services, can be one of the most stressful jobs going.  With high caseloads, government targets, deadlines and rigid timescales, it’s inevitable that some people with resort to taking unacceptable shortcuts.  Front line social work is a job in which there’s no emotional space for coping with non-work difficulties: a partner who leaves or an acrimonious divorce, a child or parent who is sick, the death of a friend, moving house, financial worries.  But perhaps most damaging is a tendency among social work departments towards a culture of ‘coping’.  It’s not done to admit that you, a carer, in a caring profession, with a professional and responsible image, are struggling, especially with stress.  It’s just not done.  Having worked in front line child protection I know that there is a distinct lack of sympathy: everyone is too busy trying to manage their own coping skills most of the time.  Where the pressure is greatest management can often be unapproachable, similarly under stress and not able to admit to the extent of it, and certainly not wanting to hear that someone needs a relaxing of their caseload or might be going off sick.

We all need to be prepared to speak up when we are in difficulty and we need to be prepared to work alongside our colleagues to support them when they face difficulties in and out of work.  Government and the profession’s leaders need to recognise the pressures that are exacerbated by shortage of staff, the administration of deadlines and targets and the managerialist culture prevalent in social work for much of the last 20 years.

The social work environment is not always a safe environment to work in.  While the hcpc is there purely to control registration and take disciplinary actions it would be better if they could consider and campaign for a safer working environment and atmosphere, taking on a more supportive role with the profession, such as that offered by BASW.

In this case there appear to be two primary factors that clinched the decision to strike this social worker off the register: the deliberateness of her deceit and her lack of recognition of the potential serious consequences of her actions for the child and his family, something that is particularly concerning considering she had been qualified for 17 years.


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)

Will social work sites be burned up by the UK firewall?

Is the UK government’s proposal of an opt-out ‘parental firewall’ a matter for social work?  After all it is being promoted as ‘parental’: helping parents protect their children from exposure to pornography, the promotion of suicide and anorexia, to name just a few of the ills and evils faced by modern society.

Does it matter that, in a drive to protect children, this move would have huge implications for free speech in restricting public access to the internet?

Sure, there is to be an opt-out button, but what effect will that have?

On Social Work

As one UK blogger has succinctly put it, “Coverage of important issues like pornography, child abuse, LGBT, eating disorders, depression, suicide, domestic violence, drug use and sexual health advice will be forced out of mainstream coverage, and made virtually inaccessible to anyone whose family has enabled web censorship in their home.”  No more access to BASW online, or SCIE reports for social workers then!  I can hardly imagine local authorities and private employers lifting access on work based internet access so no more work based online research for social workers, especially on sensitive subjects such as ritualistic abuse (‘esoteric’ sites are also likely to be subject to barring) – more work to be done at home!

Women, and men, suffering from domestic violence, patients with mental health or addictions problems, children who are being abused and want to find help, may all find themselves with reduced options for seeking information and help.  It’s not enough to say that these victims should contact their doctor, social worker, the police, teacher or any other of a number of people and organisations who can offer support and help.  As social workers we know those are options, but we also know that people take a long time to find the courage to make those contacts.  In the meantime they seek information from wherever they can find it, including the internet.  Even, in one case, a 7 year old child apparently contacting a Facebook moderator because she was being abused by her uncle and was too scared to ask elsewhere for help.  On occasion I have successfully encouraged vulnerable clients to use media such as television and the internet to reinforce messages I have been trying to promote – perhaps no more.

On vulnerable children

What about the children? Children who are already protected by their parents will continued to be protected.  The very ones the government seeks to protect, and especially the most vulnerable among them, the abused and neglected, will continue to be at risk.  As social workers we know that the homes where the most vulnerable children live are the same homes where the opt-out button is most likely to be applied.  The same homes where pornography, dirty needles, drugs and neglect are already physical daily hazards to be navigated.

I’m not alone in my concerns.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation have pointed out that “…if you wish to defend your nation’s children from abuse, when such abuse is frequently from within the family then locking children away from external but “adult” advice and giving the key to those who control the rest of their lives, is the worst possible strategy. That’s why youth advice charities and abuse survivors have come out against these filters.

On Education

How will the firewall affect further and higher education?  How will universities and colleges respond to the opt-out button?

I don’t particularly want to view pornography but who will draw the line, who will define what is or is not acceptable.  Several years ago there was a humorous news reporting of Daily Star journalists being unable to access their own newspaper’s website because it violated the company’s firewall access policy*.  What if a teacher of senior school pupils or college students wants to set an exercise comparing the quality of news reporting in different publications, does that mean The Sun (famous in the UK for its Page 3 pictures) will not be accessible for comparison online even though paper copies can be bought in every High Street and beyond in the country?  Would that exercise be possible when there is the chance that not all students would have access to the necessary information at home, and almost certainly not able to access it in the library or possibly even in school or college or university?  Would the teacher be castigated for including The Sun in the first place, when probably half their students  can see the same newspaper at home?

On society

Common among bloggers and commentators (way to many for me to cite here) is the view that the opt-out button will have a sub-conscious self-censoring effect on us all.  We will have to make a decision to declare what we want access to.  We will think twice before we opt to be able to access (but not necessarily actually view) anything that might be related to violence, terrorism or pornography.  We might want to be able to access some aspects, low key elements, of these areas for our work, particularly if we are involved in social work, policing, education or even journalism, but we would have to think twice before we clicked that button, lest government agents learn of our choices and label us subversive.

Following on from the recent revelations in the US about the extent to which governments can obtain access to our personal information, e-correspondence and activities, also common among bloggers and commentators is the view that the extent of the firewall proposals, as revealed by the Open Rights Group, is a backdoor method of UK government increasing their control of the British public.

The Spectator online considers the risk that these attempts to tackle online pornography from a British perspective will only push pornography further ‘underground’ where the most dangerous porn can already be accessed, making it less traceable and more dangerous.  Contrary to the government position this will endanger rather than protect the abused and vulnerable.

The government proposals show a naivete in understanding the perversity of human nature and how quickly those who want to will subvert any restrictions, as this Yahoo! News report suggests the possibility of blocking all non-porn sites!

There is no doubt still much to be revealed about the government’s plans but these proposals, due to take effect later this year, are pernicious and dangerous and do little to protect the vulnerable but rather take away some of their resources.  As social workers we should concern ourselves with the effect not only on our own lives but on those we strive to serve, the vulnerable.

* This was at least 4-5 years ago and I have not been able to find confirmation of this report online.  If anyone remembers this and can confirm the story, or provide a link, that would be much appreciated.

Just a few of the many blogs and commentaries on this subject not already cited above – in no particular order

BBC News Report of David Cameron’s speech
Boing BoingNational Review Online
Right Thinking
Huffington Post
The Economist
(on how China censors the Internet)
Open Rights Group

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