Left wing loony, interfering, judgemental, cardigan wearing child snatchers. This is how all too often social workers are depicted. Slammed in the press when they ‘remove’ children from families for placing a vulnerable child in care yet made out to be a scapegoat when a vulnerable child is let down by the system.
Unfortunately, the long-standing misconceptions of social workers remain today. Social workers strive to be kind, non-judgemental, balanced, supportive professionals who want to support families, to make a difference. Most people struggle at some point in their lives and social workers pick up the pieces and put them back together again. The notion that social workers snatch children is not only incorrect but also dangerous. It costs a local authority a lot of money to place a child in care and social workers would much prefer to see any funding be diverted to early help situations to prevent problems escalating to crisis point.
When care proceedings are necessary, it is a judge, and not a social worker, who makes the decision around whether a child should be removed from the family home for their own safety. Yes, it is part of the social worker’s role to provide the Court with background information about the family, the services that have been offered to the family to assist them in making changes, and an analysis of why the child’s safety and wellbeing requires separation from their birth parents; and the social workers collect the child from their home and move them physically to foster care, but it is not their decision, they are merely following a Court order and care plan approved by the judge. Sadly though, the social worker bears the brunt of this decision and the blame is often aimed at them.
In no other profession does an employee’s appearance become scrutinised and mocked in the same way as in social work. Once again they are lambasted for their choice of clothing and it is wrongly presumed that social workers are cardigan clad, sandal wearing, left-wing individuals who meddle in people’s lives. Furthermore, when social workers are younger, they receive criticism for not having the ‘life experience’ apparently required to do the job they are doing despite the stringent training in key legislation and practice placements.
These myths must be shattered and the realities of social work portrayed in a fair and balanced way.
The primary aim of social work is to support families who are experiencing difficulties to stay together where it is safe to do so. The mere fact that is costs £131,000– £135,000 for an average residential placement for a child to place them in care for a year means it is not an attractive option for cash-strapped local authorities who have reported scarce resources for years. Also, it fundamentally contradicts the right to family life under The Human Rights Act 1998, which is why the decision is not taken lightly to issue proceedings and ultimately the decision made for children to be placed outside of the care of their birth parents. Social workers will intervene with families where there is a safeguarding risk to children and where there are concerns that children are being neglected or abused. But removing a child from a family would be a last resort. Social workers do have a statutory obligation to safeguard children and where there is evidence of persistent neglect or abuse and where a parents cannot meet the child’s needs then there is a risk that they will be taken into care. But it is unlikely to be without attempts from the local authority to keep that family together unless there were extreme concerns for the child/children.
Social workers get the blame for removing children from their families and while it is their statutory duty to safeguard children and issue proceedings if considered necessary, they do not make such a decision on their own; there will be meetings with team managers, service managers, and Local Authority solicitors, to ensure that the threshold has been met to issue care proceedings and make an application to the Court. A care order is made by a court and allows a council to take a child into care. Under the Children Act 1989 a council can apply for a care order if it believes a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm, however a judge makes this order and does so after weighing up all options and hearing from all parties involved in the proceedings. A social worker may give evidence in the court case, but it is not their decision as to whether a child is removed from the family, they only make a recommendation to the court based on their professional opinion and assessment of the child’s needs based on their involvement with the child and family. The parents are entitled to legal representation throughout the care proceedings, through the provision of Legal Aid, and their legal representative will put forward their views and position to the judge. The child is also represented, through an independent Children’s Guardian and solicitor, who advocate for the child’s best interests and hold the Local Authority to account to ensure that the actions and decisions being made are in the best interests of the child.
Head of Practice at WillisPalmer Lucy Hopkins explains: “Following a court case, the judge goes home, the solicitor goes home, the children’s guardian goes home, yet the social worker – who may have given evidence in court, expressing their concerns about the family – has to go to the family’s home where it may well be a hostile situation, alone, to collect the child and take them to their foster placement.”
“Noone wants the situation to get to that point, but unfortunately in some cases, judges rule that the children are removed from their families for their own safety,” she added.Lucy Hopkins
The only other people who have the powers to remove children are the police under a Police Protection Order.
Social workers have been accused of receiving commission for every child they take into care which is wholeheartedly inaccurate and goes against the grain of social work in every way. To the contrary, social workers work very hard to support families and direct them to sources of support to enable them to remain together where possible and where it is safe to do so. When children are taken into care, social workers are not rewarded financially for this.
The main reason social workers go into the profession is to make a difference. In the same way that someone who had an excellent teacher who saw something in them and inspired them wants to go into teaching and do the same, people who have had a good social worker want to do the same. Similarly, individuals who have had a bad experience want to change things for the better. But why would anyone be criticised for wanting to make the system, children’s lives, better? Furthermore, social workers do not meddle. They have to be professionally curious because if not they would accept everything at face value and risk putting children in danger. No abusive parent is going to put their hands up and say ‘yes I abuse my children’. Abusive and neglectful parents are, by nature, manipulative and therefore social workers have to possess a professional curiosity to challenge anything that doesn’t seem right. If not, that child is in danger. If the parents have nothing to worry about and nothing to hide, they will not mind answering a few difficult questions.
Many families experiences hardship at times and sometimes it cannot be helped. A mother experiencing post-natal psychosis will need mental health support but it doesn’t mean her child should be taken away. It means she needs help and support to enable her to be the best mother she can be – and to get well. Someone who suffers a bereavement may experience difficulties emotionally, physically, financially. Social workers are not going to turn up at the door and demand to take the children away. They will talk to families about what they need to do to make and sustain changes, to improve the lives of their children.
The removal of a child from a family is a last resort measure when intervention has not been successful or where a parent will not engage with help and when the child is placed at risk of severe harm.
Social workers in England need to be trained in the Social Work degree or equivalent ie DipSW and registered with Social Work England. Social workers invest in their training after qualifying and there is a requirement as part of their registration with Social Work England that they must carry out and document Continuing Professional Development. Independent Social Workers tend to have a great amount of experience and expertise, in fact, WillisPalmer’s ISWs have an average post-qualification experience of 17 years and our Consultant Social Workers have an average of 36 years. People walking in off the street cannot become a social worker. There is a stringent training procedure in legislation, guidance, practice and theory and the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment offers support for newly qualified social workers.
The regulator outlines that social workers must maintain their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) by:
- Incorporating feedback from a range of sources, including from people with lived experience of my social work practice.
- Using supervision and feedback to critically reflect on, and identify my learning needs, including how I use research and evidence to inform my practice.
- Keeping my practice up to date and record how I use research, theories and frameworks to inform my practice and my professional judgement.
- Demonstrating good subject knowledge on key aspects of social work practice and develop knowledge of current issues in society and social policies impacting on social work.
- Contributing to an open and creative learning culture in the workplace to discuss, reflect on and share best practice.
- Reflecting on my learning activities and evidence what impact continuing professional development has on the quality of my practice.
- Recording my learning and reflection on a regular basis and in accordance with Social Work England’s guidance on continuing professional development.
- Reflecting on my own values and challenge the impact they have on my practice.
Social work is a public sector profession with ongoing career progression opportunities in the same way that teachers, nurses etc have a career progression. The reason the profession is not known about in the same way as universal services such as nurses, teachers, doctors, health visitors, midwives or the police is because fewer people come into contact with social workers than teachers and so the misconception evolves. Also, when social workers become involved with a family, that family is not likely to discuss openly with others the reason why there is intervention or the outcomes and therefore, social work remains less visible.
Many families cannot be seen until the children get back from school which is usually after 4pm and therefore the visit should be carried out then. Social workers often report working more than their contracted hours and some departments operate ‘Time Off In Lieu’ policies as a reflection of this whereby social workers can take the time they have spent working at another time.
However, it is the emotionally charged nature of social work and the complexity of many cases which means social workers are often thinking about their cases in the evenings and having difficulties in ‘switching off’. Outside of work hours they often think about the children and adults with whom they are involved and who they know are experiencing challenges in their lives that are not confined to the hours that the social worker is at work.
‘I’ve got post natal depression but I’m not asking for help as social workers will find out and take my kids off me’.
This notion is quite the opposite of what would happen in reality. If social workers are aware that a new mum is struggling, they would make every effort to put in place a support network, help, medication if needed and a safe place. Social workers have strong links with mental health services and could refer a case where a mum needs urgent help. It is in noone’s interest to remove a newborn baby from their birth mother, unless previously agreed by the parents ie for adoption or the baby’s safety required immediate removal. Therefore, every effort would be taken to ensure that parent is supported and helped to recover to become the best parent they can be.
WillisPalmer is a social work owned and operated organisation, yet many of our services are geared towards keeping families together such as our Multi-disciplinary Family Assessment , Systemic Family Assessment for public law and private law cases and Multi-disciplinary Family Restoration Service.
Social workers in adult services are frequently accused of denying access to services for elderly or vulnerable clients and seen as ‘gate-keepers’ to support services. The reality is that local authorities face funding shortages in children’s and adult services and therefore have to set their thresholds for intervention high in both services to ensure that those who most need the service are receiving help. Social workers in both children’s and adult services would much rather that local authorities had more funds for services and particularly to invest in early help services. Intervening with a family or adult with low level needs can often prevent issues from escalating and becoming a ‘crisis’ – which effectively is more costly and has a more detrimental impact on the person in crisis. Social workers are equally as frustrated about the lack of funds and the implications of this on clients as the general public are.
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