Transcript: Rural social work and dual relationships

Monica Nicolin and Gillian Ritch, social workers based in Stornoway and Orkney respectively, speak about dual relationships in rural social work

Podcast Episode: Rural social work and dual relationships

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.

KM - Kerry Musselbrook
MN - Monica Nicolin
GR - Gillian Ritch

KM Welcome everyone to this, the second session in our online rural social work series. I’m Kerry Musselbrook from Iriss and I’m going to be your chair for the session. Rural social work has many complexities, not found in urban areas and this session will be identifying how practice in a rural context differs. Our presenters, Monica Nicolin and Gillian Ritch have jointly prepared a session for you. Monica, who’s going to be speaking to you first is currently a children and family social worker with the Western Isles Council, moving there in 2012. Now, the small team Monica belongs to undertakes all aspects of working with children, young people and their families. Monica began her social work career however in Romania in 2004 so, she’s travelled far working with children and families there living with HIV and Aids and she keeps up her oversees links and is a board member of a German Trust supporting children and families affected by HIV and Aids and young people in Eastern Europe. And our second presenter, Gillian Ritch, is a born and bred Orcadian, who lives with her family on there farm there. Gillian has worked in several settings in Orkney over the years, including home care services and children and adult residential services. So, without any further ado, I’m going to pass you over to Monica who’s going to kick off today’s session.

MN Good afternoon everyone, the title of my presentation today is: Living and Working at the Edge and the presentation is seen through the lens of a practitioner rather than the position of an expert. Before starting my presentation, I would like to thank Iriss and John Sturgeon and Partners for making this series of events possible and I would also like to thank my colleagues who contributed with comments and ideas to this presentation. I’d like you to take a moment to consider your current circumstances as to where you live and where you work and how far you have to travel to see maybe your farthest away client and how far you have to travel to get your shopping done, maybe from a bigger supermarket or to get your medical needs seen and I would also like you to consider how your life would be if you have to use public transport and how easy or difficult this would be. So, transport is one of the significant challenges with people in rural areas encounter, in addition we have issues with fuel poverty and increased costs of living and lack of affordable and available housing, especially for young people and young families. We have a high rate of unemployment due to lack of opportunities; we have long distances to travel, we have poor digital connectivity, lack of positive socialising opportunities for our young people which can lead to boredom and offending behaviour. We have limited resources and services and struggle with the population and aging population and with the incremental weather and access to health services. Amongst the challenges and difficulties, we encounter as professionals during our normal work practice so, prior to the pandemic, we have geographical challenges which impact on our time and on the local authority’s financial situation. We are at risk of professional isolation due to limited opportunities for personal and professional development and lone working and we struggle maintaining a high degree of self-motivation. We have safety issues related to travel, lone working and patchy network signal and the weather and when I talk about patchy network signal and safety sometimes, we visit families and we don’t know what we are going to find when we get there, we might need immediate response from our manager or we might need to call a colleague or call the police and there is no phone signal and therefore we cannot make this call. We have poor digital connectivity and we experience power cuts and this again impacts on our work. We have limited local resources for our clients be it young people, children, adults, elderly. We have a lack of specialised services and in our practice the emphasis is often put on case work and statutory work to the detriment of a (… unclear) social work approach. We struggle with disability and anonymity in the community both clients and practitioners and confidentiality and this ties in with dual relationships and therefore I will not develop in this subject because Gillian has an interesting presentation after this. We often use informal processes to maybe get things done quicker but this whilst it gets the job done, they work against a more defensible practice because sometimes maybe decisions are not recorded properly. We have small teams and very little resilient and we have a constraint management structure which allows very little managerial availability. We have day duty and out of hours on top of our daily work tasks and we have little job opportunities or secondments because our local authorities are so small and we are therefore at significant risk of burnout. Now, during the pandemic on top of our normal challenges we have experienced some additional challenges and these were around online meeting including client access to technology, some clients don’t have laptops or tablets and had to use their mobile phones, this means maybe they don’t have enough space on their phones and have to erase personal and very valuable information, to them. We have issues again with poor digital connectivity and this can lead to frustrations and meetings taking longer. We have to travel longer distances due to using our home as base and this results in to professionals working longer hours and falling behind with other tasks. This also impacts on our work life balance and we have difficulties often switching off more, we have the temptation of doing one more thing. We are working in isolation and we lack peer support and management availability and we have lost that sheer local knowledge and wisdom. Our day duty and out of hours demands have increased and we also have additional safety issues such as less co-working because of the need to protect workers from getting Covid and there is also an issue as no one knows where we are and whether we’ve returned from our visits or not where before we used to have a system in place and everyone knew where everyone was and when they were supposed to come back and whilst doing this presentation I realised that this is an issue that we have to address as a team and I will put it on our agenda for the next team meeting. Because we live in a remote area and we are surrounded by water, we can only come on or off the island by plane or by ferry, these are some of our hazards especially when we are in a rush to get to a meeting or see a family. What makes us want to leave and work in a rural or a rural and remote area? Rural communities are small, inclusive and friendly with strong social ties and are a source of resilience, there is a low level of crime and safer communities and slower pace of life but some would argue that, we have dramatic and beautiful landscape and opportunities for outdoors however we don’t always have the time to enjoy this. Sometimes the weather can be beautiful and we have no traffic jam. Professionally we work from a base, or we used to prior to the pandemic and we are hoping that we will be able to return to some sort of normality in the near future and certainly we would welcome a more blended approach to work. We have smaller teams and supportive colleagues and sometimes our teams become our second family. Our relationships are based on trust and continuity and we do a lot of close multiagency working and networking and we have local knowledge and experience and wisdom and we are work in community orientated. During the global pandemic we in rural areas and rural and remote had fewer cases of Covid and therefore there was less pressure and less cost on the local authority to identify and implement a contingency plan for families. We were fortunate to be placed in lower tiers of restrictions and therefore we were able to visit our families regularly, of course bearing in mind the guidelines for Covid. We have had the opportunity to implement more relationship-based practice and this led to improved relationships between professionals and families but also, we had situations where the fact that we couldn’t see families in person and we couldn’t discuss assessment in person and give maybe hard copies to families, this led to a rift between professionals and families. Digital working has offered us an opportunity to network with services on the mainland and enable more frequent groupwork and family work especially where families are separated and one parent lives farther away and it also gave us opportunities for small sessions of training such as webinars and it led to a greater sense of belonging to our professional community. It is very important for us as practitioners in rural and rural and remote areas to stay connected in order to prevent social isolation and as professionals we can join BASW or SASW, volunteer on various groups and committees, attend webinars and trainings, usually webinars are short and some are free, BASW for example are offering a number of seminars and webinars and Iriss have started this series of seminars as well and it is important for us to make and maintain professional contact and I want just to say something here about Gillian and I. So, I first met Gillian, our next presenter, at the Rural Social Conference last year and we have maintained our professional and personal relationship and we have been in a position to exchange experiences and this is a way, for me especially, it made me feel connected to someone who experience, a similar situation to some extent but also have different experiences as well because, just because I live on an island and Gillian lives on a different island, it doesn’t mean that everything that we experience is similar. Every time when we attend seminars or training or conferences, we are full of ideas and excited about what we have learned but it is important that we carry this through and that we build on this, and that an attendance to an event doesn’t just remain a memory and that we do something about it and I think for us as practitioners in rural communities, it is important that we remain connected. So, it is important that we help our profession grow and our network expand and that we contribute to this and it’s important that Iriss and BASW and partner agencies undertake more in their research on rural social work because there is very little research on rural social work in Scotland and in the UK. Thank you. I will now hand over to Gillian, who will have her presentation on dual relationships.

GR As Monica said, and thank you Monica: I’m glad you went first. I am born and bred in Orkney and have lived and worked here all my life so I have spent my teenage years in Orkney and growing up and having different jobs, long before I became a social worker. So, I have included lots of fantastic pictures of Orkney but this island, the same as any rural place, it’s full of contradictions but to focus on dual relationships at present and Monica was saying about the lack of research into rural social work, and I would agree with that. This is some of the terminology around dual relationships or professional boundaries. I don’t like the words professional boundaries because I think it puts the emphasis on putting up barriers between us and the people we work with whether they are people who we support or people who work alongside us to support other people. So, I do prefer dual relationships because rural social work is about relationships. So, you can see from this that there’s kind of 5 layers that would be considered professional boundaries. I think we can all agree the first one wouldn’t have a place but all of the rest, anticipated circumstances, is our anticipated circumstances, we constantly have social events, and mutual friends and acquaintances, that is part of rural social work, it is not something we can necessarily manage and putting up a professional boundary isn’t always a useful thing to do because you live and work in this community. Now Monica will have a different experience, as she said, from an island than I do but if you grow up in the island where you work, you have a harder time managing the layers of connections because you don’t just have your connections, you have the connections of your family, your parents, your children, the school that your children go to, all of these connections and this goes throughout your lifespan. So, you have your connections through your lifespan and you have the people you work with, you have their connections throughout the lifespan. We’re expected to engage in different ways with different people because we all tend to have maybe more than one job up here. Some people will drive the school bus and be the janitor and be the taxi driver, so there’s difficult ways of managing the layers. So, how do we learn about rural social work? I would agree that during Covid, we’ve had potentially more chance to have training on a wider scale because we’ve been able to link in through technology as we’re doing now. In an island and in rural areas the travel distance can mean that we just cannot go to events, we cannot get training so, Covid in a way has been a positive for some of this but there is very little in the way of guidance and policies around dual relationships and how we manage that. The reason dual relationships in rural areas are a bit different is because we tend to hold cases for much longer. We hold and support people for much longer because we don’t have secondary points of referral. We don’t have groups, we don’t have like alcohol support groups, we don’t have domestic violence groups, we have very little in the way of parenting classes so, we tend to hold on to the people we support for much longer. We also can hold, at times, their parents and their children within our teams, not necessarily within one team. So, specialties are difficult because we don’t have … we need to outreach to specialties. These are some of the quotes from my research that I did some time ago now and it talks about the benefits of having those layers of connection and the willingness that people have to support their community. The willingness to invent things that weren’t there before, there’s very little of: this is not our remit, this is not our job, because people have to interact and they have to support each other because we can’t put everybody out of Orkney to get the support, they need so we have to learn to meet that need but that means again we hold people for much longer and we hold their support for much longer. So, what do we share? Your identity and anonymity is known to everybody. When I first looked into rural dual relationships and rural social work it was because somebody at uni with me had said that there was a Facebook page that gave the names and addresses of social workers in London and I was quite interested in that because everybody in Orkney knows where I live, where my children go to school, what car I drive, where my husband works and will have known, potentially, quite a lot about me throughout my life so, there isn’t that sense of being invisible, in rural communities, you are visible People come to islands and rural areas to disappear but they don’t necessarily realise that you are a spotlight in rural areas. That then puts guidance which is created for urban areas into a different focus and I mean, the Scottish Social Services Council say, I will not behave inside and outside work in a way that would bring my calling into question, however when you live and work in the same place, that can be very difficult because an enhanced level of scrutiny is difficult to manage and it’s not necessarily because you’re doing anything you shouldn’t be doing but you are the social worker when you are out, you are the social worker when you are out for dinner, you are the social worker when you’re out at weddings, and your children and your partners are connected to you so, the level of scrutiny that I would be under wouldn’t necessarily … that would be the level of scrutiny my children can be under. When we go, particularly in adult services, when we go into somebody’s houses, the first thing they want to know is, who are you? Where do you belong? Who you’re connected to? What’s your mum’s name? What’s your dad’s name? And I have heard other social workers in urban areas say, we don’t share this information, we do not, we do not give that much of ourselves whereas in rural areas, if you want to work with people, they need to have a connection to you. And again, one of, this quote here of “Oh god, it’s you. I don’t have to explain anything.” That came from a worker who was an out of hours and our services here, I think much like Monica’s, we don’t have separate teams: the social worker is the out of hours social worker so when somebody calls you in need and they recognise your voice, there’s a sense of relief because, “oh it’s you, I don’t have to go into my background. I don’t have to explain everything.” But there’s also the other side of it where you are held under scrutiny for your shopping, you are held under scrutiny for what you drink when you go out. Two sides to every coin, the benefit. Family life is something that I found extremely difficult because I didn’t expect my family to be affected by my job to the extent that they are. I trained for this, this is my job but my children didn’t, my husband didn’t and they find it difficult when people come up to me in the street and start speaking. They have learned to keep walking and not ask, who’s that? Because obviously I can’t say that and social events can be difficult because, that when social workers are saying, I don’t do a lot of things because I worry about who will be there. How does that impact on wellbeing, on your ability separate personal from professional which is one of the things we are expected to do in professional boundaries or professional barriers. That’s very difficult to do when you are working alongside the people who you support. I was brought to Lord Clyde’s report which is nearly 30 years old, I think, maybe next year and I think that sums up how difficult things can be. He is sating in this report that social workers need to be present and have a sense of belonging to the area, they can’t be remote visitors but within that sentence, he then says, social workers should not be expected to reside in a particular area. Indeed, to be too constant a presence can be counterproductive, so he’s telling us two things at once: you will be present and you will be accountable and you will belong but you will not be too present or too connected and that is an extremely difficult thing to do. Monica and I think Colin in the last one spoke about professional wisdom and historical knowledge; we hold a huge amount of information and shared knowledge particularly where social work involvement may have went back to grandparents. It would be extremely rare for somebody to not have some knowledge of somebody coming in to our services. With that shared knowledge comes the flip side of confirmation bias because you don’t just manage your own confirmation bias, you manage your teams, potentially your managers because they will have knowledge and they will have experience from their relationship with the person you’re supporting but that is not your relationship. It’s hard to come to things afresh with clean eyes when there is so much information out there and so much knowledge shared by your team to actually take on somebody and support them without that historic knowledge being present. It also makes constructive challenge difficult because as the dual relationships develop and you become very friendly with other members of your team of vice versa and you have that wider connection to nurses, to doctors, to teachers, to policemen and you all live together, a small pebble can make a very large ripple in a very small area. People are careful with each other which is a good thing but constructive challenge needs to be evident as well. My experience and the experiences of the social workers I spoke to for my research, is one area there is lots of other people’s experience but I will say the one thing that separates island from rural, we can’t commute, we can’t go to the next authority and work there, we can’t travel back and forward, so our sense of commitment is extreme because this is the only place we can work if we want to live where we live. I think I’ll hand back to Kerry now.

KM Thank you both for your really interesting, insightful presentations. I’ve got some interesting comments that I’d like to share with you. It’s taking up your point Gillian around holding cases longer. Holding cases longer seems like a good thing and it avoids short term-isming in case work and I suppose it connects to getting to know what happens to people you work with so, you get the benefit of the end results and that has its own reward.

GR I would agree with that, there’s very rare that we don’t find out how things went, did what we do make a difference, did it help? We find that out whereas I think in larger teams, you don’t find that out and supporting the same person for a long time can be a real benefit but sometimes you need that fresh perspective and that relationship can stagnate sometimes, you really need a bit of support and that’s where supervision comes in and that looking at things from a different perspective.

KM Yeah, and that was something that was also picked up that what happens to the very visible rural social worker when they’re having problems of their own, if they’re struggling and how do they go about seeking help? So, the point was made by someone in the chat around the real importance of good supervision.

GR And the other thing I would say is very, very good emotional support for social workers but that in itself can create a problem because where do you go for emotional support? You go to the professionals you work with day in and day out so you become, potentially, the patient of the person who you sat beside in meetings. How do you manage that relationship? When you are signed off, there is nowhere that you can go where you are not met by other professionals and clients that know you and wonder why you are not at work. It can be really difficult for people to manage that and to have support from an independent service would be very useful I think rather than the support from the teams you work with, who phone you daily about the people you support, it’s very difficult to separate that team.

MN Can I just say, my husband is a musician and sometimes I used to go to gigs in the parks and I would have clients coming to me and offering a drink which I would refuse, obviously, but also the fact that I would see them drinking or that they would say things to me that were out with working hours and they will either expect me to remember what they said and we would be in a formal meeting and they would say to me, I told you that or I would have to kind of make my own judgement whether I would do something I would see happening in the community whilst they didn’t have the car of the children, you know against them in an assessment and that is very difficult to manage.

GR One of the things we’re always told is, you never accept gifts from the people you work with. You just don’t do that. I can’t count the times that I have had been at an elderly person’s house and they’ve went, “Thank you very much, take this with you.” And it will be a bag with a turnip. I cannot say, I can’t accept that because that would ruin the relationship so there are things that could be seen very, very much as a black and white but in rural areas it can’t be seen that way. You know, you cannot turn down … if you go to a house and you’re offered tea and cake and all of these things, it’s that thin, thin line that you need to be aware of: people’s feelings and that relationship.

MN I feel in a way that Covid, the pandemic, brought professionals and clients together and I remember when the pandemic started and there was that crisis of toilet paper and I had quite a difficult relationship with a client and with a family and at some point there was no toilet paper available and my client managed to get a hold of a big box of toilet paper and when I visited, they offered to give me two of the toilet paper rolls, I didn’t take them but, you know. And I think in a way the pandemic brought us closer together.

KM Power to say no. There’s also a really interesting point, I think, from a student who’s saying that a student social worker moving into a rural area on placement it can be interesting but also very scary. So, it’s about how we help prepare our students.

GR I would totally agree, I think recruiting and retaining social workers, rural social work is never seen as a separate and it’s not separate but it’s never seen as a skill in itself of how we manage all of these things. I mean we recently had a student come up to our team who managed really well but she did have Orkney connections going further back but it can be quite intimidating to come into such a close-knit area and Monica will have felt that. Where everybody knows everybody and they’ve known everybody for donkeys’ years as they would say so, coming in can be good I would say because people don’t know you, they don’t hold anything you’ve done in the past against you because they don’t have that knowledge but it can also feel quite isolating, I think. Monica, you?

MN Yes, for me for example I had families where they wanted to know everything about my background and about my siblings and their level of education and how clever my family was or not and what my parents did and I had also families that were relieved to know that I wasn’t part of the island community and basically that someone was able to deal with their situation from a fresh perspective, not someone, I think someone mentioned there that knowledge we use has to be factual and not based on gossip because we know that our small communities can be cultures of gossip. So, yes, it can work both ways. Can I just say, we have two social workers that started with us, I think one of them started in July and she’s newly qualified and the other one started around September/October time and this must be a very difficult time for them because they have not had an opportunity to meet us in person. With the girl that started in July, I only met her in person, I think, last week. So, it’s a long time. They cannot benefit from the shared local knowledge and support.

GR I think you were saying about rural social work education. I think now, I mean particularly that Iriss has put a spotlight on it which is brilliant and we can’t thank you enough for that but some of the social work education should have some basis because Scotland, there’s a fairly good chance at some point you’re going to be working in a rural area. Not necessarily to the extent that Monica and I do on the islands which is rural extreme but still knowing how to manage that, if you meet somebody you support in the street, it’s having that conversation prior to meeting them: saying, “If I meet you in the street, do you want me to say hi or would you rather I didn’t acknowledge that I know you?” But that’s very difficult because somebody you know growing up at school can suddenly become somebody you support or their mother can be somebody you support so guidance on social media doesn’t take into account that you don’t know in ten years if that person’s going to become your client that’s why getting the service user’s perspective of dual relationships is so difficult because how can I do research when potentially I may become their social worker or I will have knowledge of their situation? So, to do that kind of research needs to be done from somebody who is not connected at all to the area but then they may lose some of the nuances that we hold as rural workers.

KM Monica, you really picked up on the lack of research around rural virality and rural social work and those experiences and I would wholeheartedly agree with you. We’ve got some other comments I suppose as well about the importance of staying connected. People talking about how we feed this into our work with the SSSC or SASW and BASW and again, you made a lot of good points there about the importance of staying connected so feeding up as well as, is quite important.

GR There is a bit of research but most of it is … when I was looking anyway, was coming from Australian and Canada, very little based in Scotland. There’s a notable few, Colin obviously. We need to learn our own expertise here. In policy and procedure, I mean, if you search through some of the policy documents from the Scottish Government, rural social work doesn’t really get a look in, it is very much central belt based on how social work is done in an urban area, there is very little guidance that comes and hopefully Iriss will be able to feed that up.

KM I’m going to start wrapping things up with a few closing comments so that people can get away to their next meetings and sessions. I just want to say thank you again to our two presenters, Monica and Gillian, you’ve been fabulous. I’ve really enjoyed the chat and all the contributions, it has just been rich and I’m not sure if I’ve got to everyone so, apologies if I didn’t pick up some of your observations or questions. If you couldn’t make the very first webinar on: What is Unique About Rural Social Work from Colin Turbett and Jane Pye, you can also catch that as an episode, so thank you very much everyone and we hope to see you again. Thank you.

Transcript Copyright:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License