The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “professionalism”

Social worker suspended again despite domestic violence plea

Social worker suspended again despite domestic violence plea.

There is something particularly sad about this case, a social worker suspended from practice resulting from problems that arose when she herself was a victim of domestic violence.  No doubt there are some gaps in the story, there always is, but on the basis of what has been reported here in Community Care it appears that this social worker has been rather harshly treated.

In a nutshell, “the social worker’s misconduct involved being intoxicated, verbally abusive and obstructive to police who were called out to her home”.  She lied to the police by taking responsibility for an incident her partner committed because of her fear of reprisals and had been “subjected to a long period of violence by her partner”.

The HCPC concluded that the social worker concerned “did not have insight into how her behaviour in her private life could damage the reputation of the social work profession” and had not submitted evidence of “remedying her conduct”.

This report from Community Care raises a lot of questions.  What is not clear in this report is what is meant by ‘remedying her conduct’.

Does it refer to recognising that being verbally abusive and obstructive to the police (who are fellow professionals) was not appropriate?  I can only hope that the social worker concerned would agree that it wasn’t appropriate.

Does it mean ending the relationship?  What’s not clear from the report is whether the relationship is still ongoing and what support she (and possibly her partner) has received regarding this relationship, if any.  She should have some understanding of the impact of domestic violence on victims (including the children of victims), not least through her training and work experience and hopefully would want to protect herself from continuing to be a victim in this situation.  However, as we all know, all the training and knowledge in the world doesn’t make it any easier for the victim to escape from a violent relationship.  Considering the high level of stress caused by being in a DV relationship and considering that social work is a stressful occupation I would have thought being on long term sick might have been an alternative, and more caring and supportive option, than suspension (there is no indication whether or not that was considered).

Or does it mean demonstrating how her relationship and the consequences of her relationship is damaging the reputation of the social work profession?  This is a challenging one, on which much of the HCPC decision turns.  Yet I cannot help but wonder how much it really does damage the profession.  There are certainly some who would appreciate knowing that social workers are human and can suffer the consequences of difficult situations, while others might find it a reason to look down on them.  It certainly shouldn’t be current behaviour but for it to have been experienced in the past should be seen as valid experience rather than something that damages the image of the profession.  I wonder if the panel considered how she would handle a situation of a service user asking her about her own ‘run in’ with the police?  It could be used as a discussion point on what is not appropriate and why.

Or does it mean that social workers should not become intoxicated (woe to social workers, police, teachers, nurses, doctors and most other professionals in that case!).

Elsewhere it has been commented that social workers’ lives are no more ‘squeaky clean’ than most people’s.  But sometimes it feels as if the message is that they should be.  And, social worker or not, short of more information, this report looks rather like a case of victim blaming: a victim of domestic violence she has been blamed for the consequences.

 

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.

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)

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