Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Social work on the brink

This first appeared in the Morning Star on 15/3/16: My name is John and I’m a social worker. There I’ve said it. After all it is World Social Work Day (15 March).

It used to be that when you were asked about your job, you would say ‘I work for the council’. It’s perhaps a reaction to the false media portrayal of council staff as a pile of lazy pen-pushers that more colleagues are now proudly confessing their social work identity.

That’s the problem when you are trying to defend local services. People don’t always know the range of essential services councils provide. When they actually need one of those services, they find resources are cut to the bone.

They then blame the councils, not the governments who make the cuts. That suits the governments.

We detect some awakening in Scotland as the biggest cuts in a generation hit, but councils still take most of the flak.

UNISON Scotland’s Social Work Issues Group is tackling that with a special leaflet for World Social Work Day. The group of lay social services workers arose from recognition that, while pay and conditions are important, the biggest concern for members is the service they provide.

They want a voice that will speak up for them on employment and professional issues, but also for the people they serve. And that is exactly what the UNISON statement does. It tells it like it is.

“The social worker explaining to a service user why the assessment they did four weeks ago has not yet resulted in a care package. The home care worker who doesn’t have time to ask the elderly woman she has known for years how her granddaughter got on at school as she has only 30 minutes to do what she used to do in an hour.

“The manager, who is frightened to allocate another case to the over-worked, stressed out, heading for a breakdown, recently qualified social worker whose existing caseload is already too great to give the manager confidence that her practice will always be safe.

“Politicians compete for votes arguing over who best will protect the NHS and make education a priority. However both of these universal services suffer when social work is weak.

“Cuts in social workers will mean less support to families where children’s school attendance and educational attainment is a concern. Increasing charges for older people’s day care centres and closing centres for people with learning disabilities increases the likelihood of hospital admissions.

“Reductions in care in the community services place greater pressure on young carers. Failure to properly resource home care services leads to delays in people getting out of hospital and to risks being taken when discharges take place without adequate support being available leading to re-admission to hospital.”

That is the reality of central government council cuts. UNISON’s statement calls on all political parties to value, protect and invest in these services.

In over 30 years of children and families social work, I have never met the stereotype of a social worker that the soaps and media portray. The people I meet every day are something quite different.

Many of them are ridiculously young for the responsibilities they have. Yet they are immensely mature, compassionate and professional as they wrestle with the enormity of the decisions they have to take. Decisions that most of us would run a mile from.

Yes, they have moments of tears, anger, frustration, and occasionally despair. They inhabit a world that expects them to take emotional distress – and increasingly threats and abuse - in their stride.

We forget that is not the world of people outside the job. In our new open plan office, two teams of respected colleagues in other disciplines asked to be moved away from the child protection duty team. They were so distressed at hearing what some children experience.

A colleague uses the term ‘cumulative trauma’ to describe the effects of years of working with children and families whose lives are destroyed by drugs, alcohol, mental ill health, sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

What keeps people in the job is they know that our services, when allowed to work properly, can make such positive changes to those lives. Addressing the often underlying brutalisation of poverty needs a wider political response.

Social work training rightly promotes an understanding of the discrimination inherent in gender, race, religion, ethnicity and culture. But above all we also need an understanding of poverty. We need to recognise that all too often the common disadvantage is class.

In my experience, social workers are coming through the system much less politicised. Yet we see the dehumanising effects of punitive social policy, cuts, and demonisation day in day out. We are uniquely placed to collectively fight for something better, and getting involved in our union is the best way to do that.

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