Transcript: Talking Social Work: Claire Ferrier

Talking Social Work was an event held on 13 September 2018 to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 – to celebrate, reflect on the journey so far and look to the future.

Podcast Episode: Talking Social Work: Claire Ferrier

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.

CF - Claire Ferrier

Talking Social Work was an event held on the 13th September 2018 to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Social Work Scotland Act 1968, to celebrate, reflect on the journey so far and look to the future. There were a number of guest speakers. Claire Ferrier newly qualified social worker graduated from the University of Dundee with an MSc in Social Work and has just started her first post as a registered social worker with Perth and Kinross Council working within an adult care team. In October 2017 Claire won the Jo Campling Memorial essay prize from the journal of Ethics and Social Welfare. The award was for Claire’s practice study on risk in social work which was subsequently published in the journal.

CF So hi, I’m Claire Ferrier, I’m a newly qualified social worker and as I’ve just said a former student of Dundee University. And also, I’m very pleased to be part of this event and I hope it’s the first of many collaborative events. I’ve been talking about that for a long time hoping that the Universities and the Local Authority would come together more often. So, I’ve been asked to speak about a couple of themes that I explored in the essay which were subsequently published in the journal of Ethics and Social Welfare. The brief was to critically analyse a decision around risk and my first thoughts were grand explicitly risky situations about maybe physical harm or suicide but something tangible. However, throughout my studies I have been interested in the concept of the use of self and how the implications and the benefits of this. How is this perceived, feared or valued and a situation arose which gave me the opportunity to speak about this. So today I want to speak about the risk of not demonstrating care, the risk of not demonstrating trust and a bit about the culture of social work and relationships with service users. This is actually my partner 15 years ago, but I didn’t want to use the real one, he’s actually here tonight. So, my case study is about Bruce a young person I worked with on a through care aftercare placement in the first year of my MSc studies. Things were not going well for him, a lot of his earlier life experiences and his current situation were catching up on him and he had really poor mental health and was just feeling pretty marginalised. Young people who have been through the care system have all sorts of hurdles to overcome, they are overly represented in young offenders’ institutions, prisons, they have higher rates of mental health and more likely to experience poverty among a range of other poorer outcomes than that of their peers. The views of young people who have been supported by social work are often not flattering, feeling that they have been the object of processes and mandates contacts, disrespected or misunderstood. However, when young people have got good things to say about social workers it’s when they’ve connected with them, felt important to them and been shown care, trust and recognition. Relationships with one or two significant people can be fundamental to their ability to establish meaningful relationships in adulthood and live a meaningful life. Back to Bruce. So, Bruce was in the office with me for the 2nd time and he was talking about how things were going for him and I was trying to understand what his needs were. It was half past five, cold, dark, rainy Friday and Bruce asked me at the threshold of the office door if I would give him a run up the road and it just so happened the Manager was there and she looked and, with a kind of enquiring nod and I said yes, I felt I had her support, she was a really good manager, she had a good sense of the nurture that young people and her staff needed. So, in feedback in a direct observation Bruce told my link worker that I had restored his trust in social work and he, having felt really let down previously. He was engaging with support and making big changes. Now I’m not claiming that the run up the road itself affected such a feeling but it did lead me to question what the consequences would have been if I had said no. Would he feel the same way about me as a representative of social work if I had seen him off in the rain after such an emotionally charged interaction. Neither caring or trusting him enough to get into my car. So, giving someone a lift up the road after working hours can be viewed in many ways, maybe just part of the job, a no brainer that a social worker would engage in some after care following someone feeling vulnerable after a session or it could be viewed as a boundary violation which breaches the policies and codes of appropriate relationships. In fact, what constitutes as a boundary crossing is everyday practice and actually tacitly accepted as such. It is how we build relationships and it is often the relationship which is the catalyst for change. However practical help is a diminishing part of being a social worker especially in the context of cuts, tighter eligibility criteria and greater risk aversion. The use of self can be considered as a boundary crossing when personal information is shared or receiving small gifts or giving a lift in the car and Alexander and Charles include, which I think’s really important, what they call a dual relationship, the satisfaction and sense of positive identity that being a social worker gives us. Maybe the profession needs to acknowledge boundary crossing more explicitly, so support workers to manage this aspect of practice so that the use of self and boundary crossing is defensible and incorporated unambiguously into policy and practice and it’s not just lone ranger well intentioned social workers trying to retain a moral stance whilst potentially rendering themselves vulnerable to discipline or criticism. The often claimed risk averse culture of social work can be attributed to neoliberal ideology which has persisted since the 80s. The language and logic of the market has become common sense so much so that local authorities or social work are referred to as business quite unproblematically. Snip and Ingram note that new liberalism has manifested itself in public services as managerialism, heavily reliant on efficiency, measurable outcomes and procedural compliance. Relationships appear woolly and subjective in comparison, not easily defined and not easily measured. Practice says McLaughlin has become more risk averse, heavily reliant on codes and less on professional moral judgement. Aileen Munro in her review of child protection processes says that social work has a preoccupation with timeliness, recording, standardised assessments, productivity measures and risk aversion and this detracts from quality decision making informed by a relational approach. Cody speaks about the same point with looked after children. Aside from valuing and encouraging a special relationship with young people for example attending birthdays, maintaining relationships outside of work, he criticises short term risk assessing and behavioural change interventions at the expense of long-term systemic change which relationships and not processes enable. He goes on to say that risk aversion should never supersede the needs of a child or young person. Bowman in his article Am I my brother’s keeper, suggests that the hardening of attitudes towards those in need is due to economic changes. Pure market logic would find no rationale for nurturing those likely to come into contact with social work, the elderly, the sick, the offenders, those who Imogen Tyler conceives of as failed citizens. Instead what we see is increase surveillance and risk reduction measures. The proposition is however that these increasingly punitive and uncaring measures are to manage the particular populations rather than care for them and stricter policies and procedures whether intentionally or not provide the justification and framework for harder attitudes to form often under the guise of promoting independence. Personal responsibility is off course the hallmark of neoliberalism. We must have ways of addressing the relational needs of service users whilst adhering to the technical managerial frameworks of modern day social work. Cody gives an example of this from his practice. A young person had no family to live with to support his transition from secure accommodation back to integrate into his community so Cody determined to meet this young person’s needs and thinking long term about what his needs were had the young person come to live with him periodically. This was fully transparent and part of the young person’s supervision order. Slightly less ambitious was my example but the ride home was recorded as part of the overall session with the manager and a text was sent home to say that I was on my way safely. With transparency and an understanding of need it is possible to address the technical and relational aspects of practice. After spending about four hours talking to Bruce about his life, his actions and his feelings I was building my assessment and he was open about the things which sounded objectively risky and through conversation he was detailing his protective factors for example, he was very troubled by the actions and attitudes of his peers and although he had done some things which were concerning I learned that this was through fear and he was ladened with regret and guilt. I wonder how we can really understand the risks which surround someone without a rich understanding of the person and the context of their life which is enabled through meaningful conversation. Hyslop sights Featherstone and says processes deny the complexity of social suffering, they fail to engage meaningfully with the lived experiences of service users. For Bruce life was living in fear of violence, a hyper masculine internalised idea of weakness and a sense of suspicion and low levels of trust amongst his family and friends. Without this nuanced understanding of the individual and the environment we cannot truly understand the person and we may be at risk of making unfair assumptions, not meeting needs or at worse writing people off. It may be in these moments of boundary crossing that the emancipatory ambitions of social work can be reclaimed. If acts of trust, care and respect result in a relationship which is the vehicle for change and securing better outcomes, for, I like that market language that I had to put in there, for young people then there must be a case for having policies and procedures which support that. Given the cuts to public services the relationship may be the only resource that we have to draw on and also by thinking about the long term ambitions of social work or the principles and values of social work, social change, social justice and equality, I feel it is imperative to consider how each of the decisions that we make or the policies which we design and are implemented or the practice cultures which we all influence square with those ambitions. The ethics of care provides a conceptual framework for relationships and boundary crossing, I think it has much to offer practice and Tronto an authority on the subject says that demonstrations of care, whether from individuals or institutions in gender reciprocity, they have a cumulative and transmissible effect which enhances citizenship and democracy. If young people are shown care and trust they are more likely to perceive the world as caring and trusting and thus acts of care begin to build bridges from the margins to citizenship. So, I wanted to obtain Bruce’s consent before I spoke here today and I managed to get in touch with him through his now social worker. I said you probably won’t remember the thing that I want to talk about and I explained it was about the night that I took him home in the car and he say yeah I remember that and I said I was writing about how important it is to let people and he cut me off mid-sentence and he said what that you care about them. I think that’s quite emotional sorry, and so I said yeah. So, he told me about how well he was doing and he gave me consent to talk about my relationship with him here today. So, the purpose of this short contribution was to stimulate some discussions or reflections of the less considered aspects of risk. The risk of not caring, the risk of not trusting, not taking the time to build relationships, missing critical opportunities for change, and also to consider the risk to social work as a moral profession if we rely too heavily on often de-humanised procedures prioritising perceived short-term risk over actual need and the potential for systemic change. Thank you.

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