Sunday, September 7, 2014

Child Protection and the Role of Social Workers

It was with a great sense of sadness that during this week a worker for Families SA was arrested for taking images of children and disseminating them. It is sad at a number of levels - for the children who are in the care of the state to have them violated in this way is abhorrent. Every citizen should be horrified that these children were not protected by the very department whose role and duty it is to protect them. It is sad for their family who have had their children removed because they were deemed ill equipped to care for them  and then discover that their children were abused by the very “people”, used loosely here,  who criticised them for being “bad parents”. 

I am not angry at the department for employing this person because if you don’t have a record, are clean in every possible way then you are likely to get through the system. This is not the departments fault, unfortunately it is the way it is.

What does annoy me is Weatherall’s knee jerk reaction to the idea  that men are not able to be employed in these roles because for some reason men cannot be trusted. Personally this is insulting to those men who wish to work with children but are tainted by the behaviour of a few. We need to be careful that we don’t tarnish all men because of a few men, very few.

However, it is important at times like this to look for different ways of working that are more likely to keep children safe. Since the story broke about this worker, not a social worker by the way, it has brought into tighter focus the role of Child Protection Workers. A Royal Commission in South Australian has been called to investigate Families SA and amongst many things, the way workers practice. Even though I see this as a positive idea I am concerned that they will fail to focus on the real problem.

We need to evaluate Social Work practice in accord with the AASW’s Code of Ethics and the Practice Standards. I doubt if the Commission will  hold these two documents up for comparison with Social Work practice as it is practiced within Child Protection. I have my doubts that someone with a true understanding of these standards and the difference it would make to Child Protection if they were upheld will point out the benefits that would be offered. 

The key element of Social Work is defined in the Code of Ethics. The citation below clearly explains what every Social Worker should strive to attain.

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing.
Utilising theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

Our role is to find ways which liberate and empower people so that patterns of abuse and ways of thinking can change. I love the statement that “social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments”. It seems to me that it is important that we understand what those “points” are and to develop interventions which meet the needs of the client. Often Social Workers don’t bother to explore the myriad intersections which sit in a persons life. It is the role of every Social Worker to be interested enough in every client to dissect the intersections and begin working with the thoughts and beliefs which are informed by the systems which have governed a persons experiences and often informed them of how they  interact with their environment.

I was astonished when I was working with a client who had her children removed and discovered that the removal of her children was the fourth generation that were removed from their parents. I wondered who was aware of this and whether they considered this a generational issue and what conversations they were having with the client? What would it mean to understand the barriers and beliefs which keep this family locked into poor parenting and abusive behaviour? I wonder what it would mean to map the history of abuse and what action could have been taken over the decades that could have changed this history? This seems like an important place intervene.

When we intervene in a persons life we need to be mindful of the person’s “rights”. In child protection every parent has the right to “change”. Every parent has the “right” to be a parent and to have access to their children. Every child has the right to have a substantial connection with parents and other kinship relationships.

We need to be reminded as to who is our client. According to the Code of Ethics and the Practice Standards our clients are:-

… individuals, families and other kinship arrangements, groups,
communities, organisations and societies, especially those who are neglected,
vulnerable, disadvantaged, alienated or have exceptional needs.

Often, too often, I will hear Social Workers say that they are acting “in the best interest of the client”. The competing idea here is that all stakeholders are our client. There is no exception. It seems to me that when a worker tells me that they are basically saying they don’t care for the parents and others because the child is more important. Certainly the child is important and if at risk clearly needs to be removed. However this idea that the child is more important exonerates the worker from working with the parent and other stakeholders. Often, particularly where the child is young the time spent working on the child’s needs are limited. The fact that the parents need additional support and services suddenly makes Child Protection a little more difficult. Most Social Workers don’t have the skills, knowledge and training to understand the intricacies that are required to work with vulnerable adults. 

I also dislike people telling me that child protection is complicated. If you are working to care for the child and the child alone then it isn’t that complicated. Sure peoples lives are complicated, almost everyone’s life is complicated at some level. I have many middle class clients and even though many don’t have the range of issues that other clients may have I can tell you that many of their lives are very complicated. What is it that makes the work of a Child Protection worker so complicated? Perhaps it is the decision making and the fear that they may get it wrong, leave a child in a home and have it abused or remove a child when it was not necessary? I understand that, but I also understand that the more skilled a worker is and the better the supervision the better the outcome for all concerned. I also know that the stress of this work and the likelihood of “burnout” will be minimal.

Why then don’t we get it “right”? People don’t understand the basic tenants of the very profession to which they identify. It is time that people stopped considering Child Protection as some unique mode of practice and begin to understand that Social Work ethics and principles is the beginning point. From here we have to develop certain skills which enable us to be better practitioners.

I hope that we will begin to take a different view of  practice as a result of the current focus on child protection.

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