Podcast Episode: Moving community social work upstream
Category: Social work (general)
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
Michelle: Hello and welcome to the Iriss.fm podcast. I’m Michelle, and in this episode we focus on community social work. It was a pleasure to get along to the Community Social Work conference on the 8 November 2022; an opportunity not only to meet people face to face, but also to hear about the new model of community social work in Fife. At the event we spoke to Colin Turbett, social work author and consultant alongside Kathy Henwood, the Chief social work officer of Fife Education and Children’s Services. They provided an introduction to community social work and the set up of the model in Fife.
Lovely to speak to you Colin and Kathy today at the Community Social Work Conference and a face-to-face conference which is amazing. It’s lovely to be in person with people. Can I just start by asking you, so what does community social work offer that current social work practice doesn’t?
Kathy: I think for me one of the things that over the last 10/15 years we’ve migrated as a social work service into corporate officers, corporate buildings to centralised places. And we’ve disconnected from the communities that we serve and should be working alongside and walking alongside. I think there’s been a real focus on risk assessment, risk management, bureaucracy. And there was some work done a couple of years ago that was recognising social workers were spending 80% of the time on the bureaucracy and professional administration. Only 20% of the time directly working with children and young people or older people. That needed to change to enable us to be effective in the true social work role rather than be managers of risk, managers of assessments and are quality defined by the paperwork.
We wanted quality to be defined by the people. And what community social work in Fife has enabled us to do is, throw all the old ways of working, or the current ways of working, out the window. Start from scratch and say, we’re not going to be driven by bureaucracy; we’re going to be driven by the needs of people. And we’re going to walk with people and sit with people in the communities to really understand life through their eyes and then be connectors with them to wider service, supports, each other to be able to build up community capacity and family capacity.
Michelle: Fantastic. Kathy, you’re Head of Services at Fife; where did this kind of concept, where did this start? Was this something that came into your head? Is it you were like, ‘we have to do this differently’? Or where did that come from?
Kathy: I think I’m old enough to have worked in generic social work, so that always made absolute sense to me; working with a family, one worker to a family. Working with a whole family rather than the children of that family or the adults of that family. And so that really made sense and that was the kind of my blueprint in terms of professional practice. I think I’ve worked through a kind of shift in the gears around where social work’s positioned; our identity being less visible in terms of integrated working. But I think the national care service, the real pressure is around wanting to be place based and visible in communities, that public reform.
And also, the pressure on budgets, I think Colin said it beautifully in his presentation; it’s not can we afford to do it, it’s we can’t afford not to do it. Our ambition has exceeded itself in terms of the people that have presented from the community today and these are people whose voices wouldn’t have been heard, their lives wouldn’t have been touched by any services. And just being able to walk alongside them allows us to enable scaffold and bring out their strengths in a way that compliments the community. So, it’s not professionals doing to, it’s building up communities’ strength and ambition and hope to be able to make things different.
Michelle: Uh huh. And that really came through in some of the stories we were hearing, you know, earlier from the team. Colin, you talked a little bit earlier about the characteristics of community social work. Could you just briefly summarise some of those characteristics?
Colin: Yeah. I think it’s a model first of all, it’s important to differentiate community social work from simple community orientation. Now community orientation is a really good thing and that’s what we want all social workers to do wherever they work, is to be aware of the context within which they’re working and the networks within the communities that they’re working. And to use those strengths in the statutory work that they’re doing. Now, I would hope that all good social workers would embody that into their practice but the model we’re talking about here is different. It’s about the blank page that we’ve heard about in this conference, giving people that in order to go in, not on the referral basis. But to make connections with communities, to make connections with the people that live in them; with the issues that are real for them. And then to build the service around that alongside other community partners and we’ve heard some of that this morning.
We had a community safety officer this morning talking about the problems he’d had talking to social work in the past and sort of a complicated referral system because of the very siloed system that Fife operate. And all social work agencies do, the statutory in Scotland. And this is breaking it down and enabling people to get support at that earliest of stages. That’s what community social work’s all about, it’s about early intervention, it’s relationship based; not task based, not focused on a particular assessment and ticking a box. But just about listening to people and talking to them, where they’re at. And then if it’s necessary to work with them in a group which is the model in the hubs, then that’s a good thing.
But through the hubs, the team here are also getting to people who have their own issues that they want some support with and haven’t found it easy to get to because if we have a siloed model of social work. Where everybody is involved in an increasing number of specialisms in a very fragmented way then that sort of general support is always somebody else’s business; it’s not mine. You know my business is doing a child protection assessment or freeing up a hospital bed for a doctor; it’s not my business to go out and give general support to the individual’s family.
Michelle: Okay. So, do you think this is something that all social workers should be doing? Or is there more say child protection specialist social work that looks a little bit different and has to?
Kathy: I think that where we’re sat at the moment, we’ve got to have the intensive support. So, we’ve got to have the statutory services and that does take a … it demands a lot of individual workers. There’s got to be a skill set but they shouldn’t be the only social workers operating across the community. So, we’ll always have that high level need where that skill set is important. But actually, the enablers of change and how to change the profile of families and communities can sit with community social workers who initially, I think for Fife, we’ve had a bit of a conversation around this, we’re saying shouldn’t be statutory social workers.
They shouldn’t be holding statutory work; they should be sitting with communities. But as it develops, I think that is an opportunity to move forward into that kind of additional space. What we don’t want in social work, in community social work is for people to come in through a referral process because it’s not about I’m referring you because you’ve got a need. Or you’re not doing well enough. It’s more about building that community and building that family’s strengths so to do that, you’ve got to be visible within the community and accessible.
Colin: Yeah. We’re not trying to negate public protection duties, they’re absolutely vitally important. And in a sense, it’s because of a failure to address them properly that we’re in the mess that we’re in at the moment because we were criticised for not taking this seriously back in the 1980’s. And we’ve bent the stick far too far in that direction and we’ve lost the connection with communities. And now to the extent that very, very few people refer themselves for social work help now, they’re referred by third parties, whether it’s the police, or they’re reported to the children’s hearing or whether it’s a doctor because he wants to free up a hospital bed. The referrals always come from somebody else, what we need to take to take it back to people feeling comfortable about seeking support when they need it and not feeling that that support will be intrusive and overwhelming and threatening.
Michelle: And we’re seeing, this morning, from hearing about what’s happening in Fife, that there is evidence building that these approaches work. So, is there other evidence out there as well? Or is this really a developing area?
Colin: Well… this is a new initiative, I think, as far as I know and I’ve (… unclear) this in Scotland so this is quite unique at the moment. We don’t want it to be unique, we want to spread this and that’s one of the things we want to come out of today’s conference. But it’s certainly not unique across the UK and we’ve got examples here today of people representing initiatives in Northern Ireland where they’re a bit ahead of the game than we are. They’ve embodied the notion of community and community development into their social work training.
They have, we heard this morning, about a post graduate course which has been highly successful and is beginning to be able to demonstrate that it’s changing practice. So, we’re behind Northern Ireland in some respects but then they don’t have anything like Fife and they’re in awe. They’ve told us that over the course of today and last night that they are really jealous of what Kathy and the team have been able to achieve here in that short space of time.
Michelle: It’s quite interesting, isn’t it? So, sort of progressing from the education perspective but not so much from the practice, but it’s happening here without the education system in place. What does that say, do you think?
Kathy: I think there are elements of social work and social care that we professionalise. And there are sometimes that we take a bit of, we do that at pace, to over-professionalise certain areas but what we miss is the fundamentals of values, about rights based, about working with the legislation, about understanding that kind of ecological context that people live their lives in. And I think there’s been a couple of things that have come together where post-grad courses have been around child protection, about risk management, about commissioning and budgets. And it’s that managerialistic approach, I suppose, to what you bring as a person, to that workspace when you’re working with individuals and communities.
And so, I can understand that there’s been a push for a post-grad in community development or the development, community development side of social work. I think the practice is much more difficult and we’ve kind of gone in feet first. And just by being a small team in the right space at the right time and totally disconnecting from social work as it operates in Fife, was the key, I think, to be able to really drive this forward at base.
Colin: And I don’t think you could have planned this. I think the stars aligned in Fife. We had the right people in the right place at the right time. We had a post-covid wish to do things a bit differently as we came out of that. And we had people like Karen here, and the members of the team who were all really, really up for this because they were frustrated with the jobs they were being asked to do.
Michelle: Uh huh. Because they talk about kind of like culture change in organisations or teams and things and there is something, I think there is that old kind of selling the vision of what you want to achieve. Getting everyone’s buy in and then sort of getting it done and everyone playing their part. Is that reflected here? Do you think that sticks?
Kathy: I think it does. I think we certainly have the vision. It probably wasn’t as widespread as we would have wanted it to. We were a kind of a small voice in a big space. But actually, the energy that those workers and that community generated was the thing that drove the vision forward and people have picked up on that and the energy of this conference, before it started, you could feel it; it was tangible. People were ringing up and saying, make sure I’ve got a space and I’ve heard you’re doing this. And I thought, I haven’t felt that, I know we’ve had covid and lockdown, but I haven’t felt that in a long time.
Kathy: And so there was an energy and an enthusiasm. The vision was there, the appetite for it was there, the opportunity was there but actually those people in the community and that team have made it because they have brought it to life in a way that’s meaningful for people and they can start thinking that this could be change for us.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah. And having to think differently about practice as well. So, going out into the community more so than waiting for referrals to come in as you were talking about.
Kathy: Yeah. That takes a skill.
Kathy: Being able to sit in an area where you know domestic violence is rife, where you know that there’s drugs and alcohol and mental ill health; to sit there and hold your own, and be a safe person for people to come to, really does take a skill.
Kathy: I think also, not recording, that’s a scary place to be when all our scrutiny bodies talk about your records that will show the quality of your work. And we’re saying, no; the quality of our work will be measured by the impact we have on the community and people. And that’s a real big measure for us.
Michelle: And can I just ask finally; messages for leaders of policy makers in Scotland, if there were any messages you wanted to impart to them around this; what would they be?
Colin: I think it’s if you want to make a difference down the stream and reduce those vast number, increasing numbers of people who are presenting in high risk situations where inter-statutory interventions are needed, then you need to invest early on in the kind of service that’s being developed in Fife. Because ultimately that will make difference down the stream. So, we need a commitment to that and we need investment.
Kathy: Yeah, and I would also say, be brave and courageous and have trust in your community. Because they’re the ones who will direct you and navigate you through it at the end of the day. And also, don’t just do more of the same; this is very different. So, it’s not an add on to social work as we know it. It’s a very different space. And that’s allowed us to achieve more in a little space of time.
Michelle: Fantastic, thank you both so much for that.
Kathy: Thank you, cheers.
Michelle: Thanks to Colin and Kathy. I also spoke to Anne Fitzpatrick, the team manager at Fife, Leanne Christie; social work assistant, and Janet, a woman who was supported by the community hubs. They tell us about community social work in practice.
Okay, so lovely to speak to you all about the Fife community social work Initiative. Can you tell me how this initiative came about in Fife?
Anne : Yeah, initially the idea came from a Test of Change that was agreed in Kirkaldy and that was a soft integration between housing, CLD, and social work. And our head of service, Kathy Henwood, was very aware of the pressures on statutory teams and that it would be almost impossible for them to donate time to the Test of Change and do that effectively. So, Kathy decided that she would second some people out of statutory teams and develop a model that would work alongside the Test of Change and that was going to be the community social work model.
So, our beginnings were through the Test of Change but from that we’ve started to evolve into what we could do separately from that Test of Change as well. And how social work can work in a space alongside partners but equally the people in the community and what they’re telling us that they need. I think if you were to strip … go right back and even back before the Test of Change, I think the Test of Change was probably initiated through how services worked during covid. Where we had to go out and meet the needs of people in the community who are perhaps isolating, particularly during the lockdowns. Social work still had to carry out our statutory duties but in a different way and other services were delivering their services in a different way. So, we knew, I guess we could see the pandemic almost as an opportunity to see, can we work back in communities in the way that we did perhaps in the 70’s and the 80’s before we sort of became siloised and specialised into different teams.
Michelle: And that approach would be more sort of creative and imaginative and I know Vicky when she spoke about it there this morning, she was talking about making the analogy …
Anne: The dance.
Michelle: … Strictly Come Dancing which I thought was really interesting. You know, here’s something like trying something new, maybe stumbling along the way but learning as you go.
Anne: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: Can you say a little bit more about the model and how it really is different from the current social work practice?
Anne: Yeah, I think very, very early days. I’m sure Leanne will agree, well I hope she would agree, Karen just took us into a big room and I think we all were hopeful that we were being seconded over and there was a model already in place. But actually, Karen said, and it takes me back to my analogy with my dad, you know cos Karen said, ‘well I don’t know what we’re doing; that’s up to us’. We’ll need to think about what model we’re wanting to do but we’ll be informed by the people that we’re going to work alongside in the community will shape how our model’s going to look like.
But I think, as I said in my presentation, we had to think about what domain to change because you can’t change everything all at the one time. So, you know we had to sort of stagger that and think about what are the key elements just now that as an experienced social worker/social work assistant. What have we found while working in statutory teams that have held us back? So, we considered what needs to change, what are the domains that we need to change if we’re to be successful and work alongside people. And clearly that was how we were working with people currently. You know that sort of waiting on a notification of concern to come in, going to knock on people’s door to say, you know your health visitor is worried about what’s happening or, the police have put in a … you know.
So, the model of practice there, and quite rightly probably, is where families are oppositional to social work knocking on their door. So, how we worked with people was probably quite vital and we had to think about how are we doing it now and what do we need to change if we were to go out into the community? Because we can’t work with people in that way, you know we can’t be all powerful and say to people, you’re not living your lives the way that we think you should be. You know, we needed to get underneath all that and say to folk, ‘what’s going on? Tell us a bit about your life; is there anything we could be doing to support you?'
So, people were really important processes, I guess. Social work is very process driven you know your assessment frameworks are very much structured for you in terms of you know … I remember maybe about a year and a half ago Fife looked, well Children and Family Service looked at the assessment framework that we’re using. And I remember it getting pinged out from one of the service managers saying, this is the new suite of assessments that we’re going to be using. You know, I almost cringed because I thought, why do you need a suite of assessments when you’re just working with people? You know?
So, whilst that suite of assessments was strength focused and the assessment tool asks us to think about what are the strengths within this family and what are the strengths in terms of how the family are functioning, it was still a suite of assessments and it was still taking you away from actually speaking to people. You were going out and assessing and then writing down what you thought was going on and what support you thought families would need and you were putting into a child’s plan what you thought would benefit this family, you know? And sometimes, just through the pressures of work and the high caseloads, because I was a team manager, workers handing over their child’s plan on the morning of a meeting because they didn’t have time to do it previously. So, you knew that hadn’t been done in collaboration with families.
So, I think in terms of processes, we had to strip that back to allow workers to go out and actually speak to people and think about what information people want us to keep and what we shouldn’t be keeping. I think I spoke in my presentation around social work by consent and that’s what we’re doing. You know, we’re not chapping doors, we’re not saying to people we need to come in because we need to see what home conditions are like, for example. You know, people are coming to us and saying, can you give me a wee bit of help with this because I’m struggling just now. So, processes had to be stripped back and our platforms had to change in terms of the legislative frameworks that we all had and were siloised according to different, whatever area of social work you were working in; we’ve all got our different legislation. So, community social work has to think about the whole spectrum of legislation because we’re working from cradle to grave.
So, our platforms had to change and it had to be a collaborative platform that we worked from. And the culture had to change, you know that risk averse culture? And we know why we’re risk averse because of stories of when things go wrong. And so social work has become risk averse and again that’s why you get all your processes coming in. So, it’s a sort of cause and effect for me. So, the culture had to change and we had to be given permission to go out and so a wee bit different, strip it back; don’t worry about a suite of assessments, just go and speak to people and work with folk in the way that they’re wanting you to work. So, for me that was sort of where the model sort of started from.
Michelle: And for yourself Leanne, from your point of view? What in your opinion was critical to making this happen?
Leanne: Speaking to the people and asking them, what do you want in your community? And what do you want community social work to bring to you in your communities and your families? At the beginning we went out and we met a lot of other organisations that knew the community really well and then we based ourselves in places where people come and spoke to them. And then when we set up the school hubs which we thought was a really good idea because being in a school is where parents feel safe to go there. So, we were in their safe space and they came to us and we asked them, what do you want; how can we help you? And through that we built really good relationships with the people. We built really trusting, meaningful relationships and to the point where now that they feel if there is anything that they need help with they could come. And they don’t meet that, you know that statutory social work service, so where else would they have went? And I think that’s what’s been really valuable is, people have come in and spoken to us but yet if we weren’t there, what would have happened and where would they have went? Probably to statutory services in a few months’ time or a years’ time or whenever.
Michelle: Sure. So, it’s quite preventative then in its nature.
Leanne: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Do you know some of the work that we do with people is really short term. Do you know it could just be a few conversations, a little bit of advice and guidance and actually empowering them to do things themselves too; upskilling them. I think a lot of people that we work with, they’ve got real strength and sometimes they don’t realise it and they just need that bit of encouragement, actually you can do this and we can help.
Michelle: Yeah. Janet you’re here with us, so you accessed the community hub?
Janet: Yeah, in Dysart, yeah.
Michelle: Yeah. So, how was that experience for you then?
Janet: It was really scary at first because I didn’t know what to expect and I was just like, oh no social work; what if it’s like, what if they’re really judgemental or what if like it just doesn’t go well. But actually, when I got there and I spoke to the ladies, it was amazing. And I wish I went sooner. There’s like zero judgement, they’re there to help you with like everything and anything you need.
Like I said out there when I was talking, like I managed to get that volunteer position with Barnardo’s befriending. And I wouldn’t have got that if it wasn’t for the hub. And even after when I was starting to do my training, I was saying to Leanne, I feel like a fraud because like I feel like I’ve needed help and I’ve needed support and Leanne was like, no; you can do this and you should go for it. And she helped support me through that and like made me realise like I can do this and I will be good at it.
Leanne: And that whole trigger there for community capacity building, you know, Janet going out and befriending and what she’ll offer to other people through her life experience and I think is just absolutely amazing and communities can best support communities. You know, you don’t need professionals coming in and telling you this is how it should work because if you ask people, because remember we did the ideas board right at the start?
Leanne: And the group would tell you what they felt would be really beneficial to do and we’ve tried to deliver on that. But folk know what needs to change in their community or in their own lives. But it’s just sometimes you just don’t know where to go and being wary of social work; I get it, I worked in Children and Families and the thought of, if I go there and say I’m really struggling with this are they going to say, I’m going to lose my children. I get that, yeah, I get how scary that must be.
Janet: And I was worried, like were they actually going to listen to me and what I need or were they just going to decide what I needed. But it wasn’t like that at all.
Michelle: So, if other local authorities, organisations were listening to this today and some of these stories, we talked a little bit about culture change and the way the team works; is there anything else that would need to be in place for this sort of type of community social work to really happen and happen well?
Anne: I don’t think so, I think councils are, they’re cash stricken. You know, like everybody’s got a budget that they’ve to work towards. We haven’t spent a lot of money apart from time. You know, our wages, that’s about it you know, it’s just that rather than being in an area team we’re out into the community. So, it’s not about going out and buying support for folk; it’s not about that at all. So, I don’t … I think if another local authority was looking at doing something similar, I would say to them, just get out and talk to people and ask them, ‘what’s life like for you just now?’ ‘Is there anything we could be doing to support you?’ ‘What can you do to support yourself and your family and your members of your community?'
I think it’s about communication basically and social work, we‘ve been up there in corporate buildings for so long and the only time we leave the office is to go and do a home visit because somebody else has made a referral. And I don’t think we really understand communities unless we’re out there and speaking to people and folk telling us what life’s like where they live, you know? So, I would be saying to local authorities, you don’t have to spend a lot of money; you just have to invest in people.
Michelle: Okay. I know you are all hungry so I’ll let you go and have some lunch.
Anne: Oh thanks.
Michelle: But I really appreciate that. Thank you.
Anne: Thank you.
Leanne: Thank you.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License