Social work – what went wrong?

Bill Utting

The Eighties are commonly seen as a decade of disaster for social work. They began, in the aftermath of strikes in a number of local authorities, with a committee of inquiry into the role and tasks of social workers. There followed a litany of the names of dead children which burned themselves into the public’s memory and the professional conscience: Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile, Tyra Henry. Criticism of the practice of individuals was succeeded by condemnation of whole departments, in Cleveland and Rochdale, for their management of allegations of widespread sexual abuse. Social workers were also accused of ideological rigidity in their approach to ‘same race’ fostering and to intercountry adoption. The decade drew to a dismal end with the exposure in Staffordshire of methods of control in children’s homes that were themselves abusive, and the imposition of a life sentence on a child-care manager for persistent sexual abuse of children in the care of Leicestershire County Council. Critical comment may properly be made in these cases – and in others – about the role and functioning of social workers, their education and training, their competence and the values they express in their work. But wider, graver and sometimes sinister factors were also in operation.

Social workers were acting in these cases as employees of local government, discharging the local authority’s legal responsibilities for protecting children at risk and for acting as parent to children in its care. Social work in voluntary organisations is rarely the object of public criticism, and social work methods are extensively used in such popular activities as counselling: what is there in its association with local government that makes it so vulnerable to criticism? The role of agent of the state is itself significant. Social workers are drawn as a result into areas of family life and human conduct about which contemporary values are divided and public responses unpredictable. The statutory duties which they perform include strong elements of control and of unsolicited intervention in other people’s lives. These attributes were widely unpopular in a decade when the rights of the individual and of the family were increasingly championed, formal authority of all kinds was challenged, antiprofessionalism became endemic and any association with welfare was evidence of guilt to the meaner spirits in the media. Social work’s association with a local government tarnished by accusations of extremism, profligacy and incompetence further dimmed its reputation. Social workers were blamed for the allegedly perverse policies adopted by some authorities, and the rapid politicisation of local government handicapped the practice of essentially professional work.

I don’t assert that the experience of social work in local government is wholly negative. Far from it. A base in government offers social work an important role in protecting vulnerable people and in providing or securing valuable services for them. It also offers direct access to the considerable resources of a local authority. Adequately resourced, and with sensible political leadership and effective management, social work in local government can be rewarding both in professional terms and in achievement. The fortunately rare combination of eccentric politicians, ineffective managers and incompetent professional supervisors, however, produces a context for social work in which ‘it was not done well, but you were surprised to find it done at all.’

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