An article published in Community Care on Wednesday by a professor of Social Work at the University of Birmingham suggests that media and public scrutiny of the profession is causing social workers to feel shame which leads them to behave unethically.

Matthew Gibson says:

“Government departments provide press releases, inspectorates provide ‘inadequate’ gradings, and the media amplify the message of incompetence locally and nationally.

Inevitably senior leadership teams seek to avoid being publicly shamed and change their organisations so that employees produce the evidence they need for a positive evaluation.”

The article comes out in defence of the social work sector, but not through intelligent reasoning of the need for this vital work, instead it chooses to focus on blaming the press for the current shortcomings inside the system and the deep shame research suggests social workers feel about their roles.

Mr Gibson’s central argument is that a lack of faith in the social work sector and shame are the root causes of its problems, that the public and the press have written the sector off and as a result it cannot function properly, because every child protection professional is now afraid to do the right thing.

We just can’t see the logic in that.

It also presupposes that every social worker is trained to an acceptable standard and always knows what the right thing to do is, despite constant reminders that the sector just isn’t keeping up with legislation or new research.

Whilst it would be fair to say that negative press about the failings inside the system has placed child welfare professionals under pressure to perform better and does lead to local authorities and other government bodies manipulating figures in order to justify its existence (see the scandal over the Troubled Families programme for an excellent example of this), at its heart the social work sector’s dilemma is rooted in training and recruitment standards. It is one of our biggest bug bears. Social work should be valued and respected, but training is still too basic and the accepted standard for work practice is simply ‘Good Enough’ (which is nowhere near good enough), rather than ‘Best Practice’.

Mr Gibson’s take is overly simplistic:

“It is not the social workers, organisations, or profession that is not good enough, but the system of rules, expectations, and requirements imposed upon the social workers, organisations, and the profession that are not good enough for practice.”

Whilst it is true that many of the difficulties inside the system stem from pointless form filling, time wasting exercises, not enough attention to detail where it matters (like family visits and practical support) and too strong an emphasis on ‘outcomes’ which bear no relation to effective solutions for families, that’s not all we’re seeing.

Standard based expectations are there for a reason, and if social workers wish to be considered professionals, then negative media coverage of genuine failings should never be an excuse to compromise those expectations. It should also never be a reason to behave unethically towards the families they are meant to be supporting, an alarming practice noted by BASW Vice Chair Maggie Mellon.

We are often asked for advice on the best ways to share information about negligent or unethical social workers. Often, people will ask about the legalities of Facebook and other online Groups ‘naming and shaming’ individuals who have already made the families feel shame, (resulting in the families’ need to strike back). There is a lot of anger about the way child protection professionals treat families which has to be properly addressed, rather than shut down if the system is to understand what it needs to do in order to improve its services.

Essentially, Mr Gibson is saying that social workers are not able to do a good job because the system ‘just won’t let them’, which is partly right. But his research within the social work sector which claims that shame is the culprit for falling standards and incompetence, completely ignores the fact that such feelings come about as a result of perceived fault or negligence. His view that public service workers are expected to “never make a mistake” is also wrong. No one minds if mistakes are made, as long as those who make them admit to them, and then rectify the situation.

All too often, mistakes are highlighted but never put right, something we see time and again with families’ cases. The end result is that those errors go on to colour findings, judgments and even life altering decisions about children. The family court process is to blame for this, but social workers have a crucial role to play in putting things right to ensure appropriate outcomes for parents and children.

Mr Gibson has failed to understand that much of the upset the system faces is down to professional arrogance,  inefficiency and carelessness. All service users want is an open, honest system that works proactively to make a difference. Until then, Mr Gibson will have to accept that the sector will remain under scrutiny, and as he puts it, “‘accountable’ to taxpayers and the government by demonstrating efficiency, effectiveness, and value for money”.

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