Why does social work have the word 'social' in it?

Whether it was because parents are worn out from caring for their children at home 24/7 or because children were desperate to see their friends again face-to-face, or both, we had some of the highest primary school attendance rates in Essex following the return to school on 8 March.

It really made me start to think about how not only our work, but our social lives have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns.

When I last blogged, I reflected on the paucity of the use of technology in social work and now we are all experts! We work in a creative and adaptable profession so have all got used to online or hybrid meetings very quickly. We developed a collection of open and solution focused questions to help guide conversations positively with children and families. We’ve welcomed parents, consultant paediatricians and GPs to virtual child protection conferences, and children and young people in care have joined their statutory reviews for the first time because it is in a medium they are used to and gives them a degree of separation from what can be a daunting focus on them by adults.

Whilst there is little doubt that we will continue to practise some of our newly developed skills in virtual meetings into the future, I want to reflect on the meaning of social in social work. What does it mean for children and families, and what does it mean for our colleagues?

A few years ago, I attended a lecture in Oxford given by the late and great Olive Stevenson. Slamming a copy of her book on the desk, she exclaimed, “You have to smell neglect!“ (it’s also about observing the love and connection too). I also recalled what Harry Ferguson had to say when he came to Essex a few months ago to talk about ‘mobile social work’ and about the importance of touch.

Social workers need to use all their senses when trying to find out what life is like for a child and video calls/ virtual visits just don’t let you do this to the same extent. When visiting a family home in person, the social worker can see and smell the whole room not just what they are shown. Most importantly, in face-to-face social encounters they can develop the chemistry and the empathy at the heart of relational social work. For me, this is crucial to building an alliance for change – for the child.

So, whilst I’m all for the technology and am becoming more comfortable with it for professional meetings, it alone is a very poor substitute for authentic interactions with children and families – in person.

I am also not entirely convinced about equal access to family justice when a parent, alone at home, phones in to a court hearing, a child protection conference, or a PLO meeting for that matter. Our most disadvantaged families have poor quality Wifi and poor quality kit which is why we do all we can to support them to overcome these disadvantages, and support hybrid approaches in the interim to help families to get their views across.

Following our exodus from the office, some LAs have started to have conversations about further reducing costs by decreasing the size of the ‘office footprint’. Whilst there are benefits in terms of work-life balance by working from home, there are unintended consequences. Even experienced social workers need a safe place to return to after another traumatic encounter with the neglect and abuse of children. It cannot be right to expect student social workers, newly qualified or less experienced social workers, to have conversations about the distressing family circumstances they encounter, in the space that they live. The blurring of work and home in this way is likely to amplify secondary trauma simply because there is no escape – no sanctuary.

Being around colleagues, having face-to-face access to your practice supervisor and being able to share your feelings, is a protective factor for practitioners. Working in teams is what we do. We do it for mutual support and we also do it because it helps us to sound things out with trusted colleagues and develop our practice. We plan our work and think through scenarios with our colleagues, which is even more important with the complexity in casework caused by the pandemic. We don’t lose our train of thought by thinking about dinner or our children’s schoolwork or another online delivery arrival. Those ad hoc conversations with colleagues in the office help us to address nagging doubts and to pause and reflect. Our colleagues help us to process what we have seen and heard, they are there for us and help us with our focus - interaction between people is key.

Whilst we want to retain some of the flexibility that working through virtual interactions brings, I believe we need to retain the team footprint and work in the office. It is part of the fabric that facilitates the unique social work eco system we took for granted before Covid-19, and why in Essex we have had staffing presence in our office spaces throughout this past year.

So, for me, the social in social work is about the inherent nature of human beings as social creatures and it is this humanity that is at the heart of our work with families as well as being there for our colleagues.

If you want to read further, here is some research I have found helpful in thinking it through:

Ferguson, H., 2011. Child Protection Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goodman, S. & Trowler, I., 2012. Social Work Reclaimed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Helm, D., 2013. Sense-making in a social work office: an ethnographic study of safeguarding judgements. Child & Family Social Work, 21(1), pp. 26-35.

Jeyasingham, D., 2016. Open spaces, supple bodies? Considering the impact of agile working on Social work office practices. Child & Family Social Work, 21(2), pp. 209-217.

Stanley, N. et al., 2016. Rethinking place and the social work office in the delivery of children’s social work services. Health and Social Care in the Community, 24(1), pp. 86-94

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