2.1 The nature of the social work task
Social work is a responsible and demanding job. Practitioners work in social settings characterised by enormous diversity, and they perform a range of roles, requiring different skills. Public expectations, agency requirements and resources and the needs of service users all create pressures for social workers. The public receives only a snapshot of a social worker's responsibilities and, against a background of media concentration on the sensational, the thousands of successful outcomes and years of hard work in child care and with vulnerable adults are never considered (Hardy and Hannibal, 1997). In intervening in people's lives, social workers face practice dilemmas arising from the relationship between social work values and the law (for example, working to promote the rights and self-determination of service users and having to balance this with the need to protect them and to protect the rights of others).
The relationship between social work and the law is part of an ongoing debate. There are those who adopt a legalistic model and argue that the law, reflected through court orders, is central to social work practice (for example, Blom-Cooper, 1985). Others have argued that over-reliance on the law fails to address the problems people face and may even exacerbate them (Stevenson, 1988; King and Trowell, 1992; Braye and Preston-Shoot, 1997). This seems to present a dilemma for practice. The growing importance of the law in social work practice and decision making is reflected in the training requirements for professionals working in the field of social work (Department of Health, 2002). Yet it is essential that alongside this there is a value base with an emphasis on principles, such as partnership, equality and empowerment, which must inform good practice.
Over the past two decades there have been a number of events that raised serious questions regarding social work practice. There has been fierce debate in relation to child protection issues, the changes within the criminal justice system (for example the introduction, by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, of anti-social behaviour orders) and the effectiveness of community care. There have been well-documented tragedies and errors of judgement (Blom-Cooper, 1985), apparent over-zealousness such as in the Cleveland affair (Butler-Sloss, 1988) and the misuse of power in residential care in the ‘pindown’ affair (Levy and Kahan, 1991).
For many professionals in the field of social work, the publicity surrounding these and other events has led to a feeling of crisis. Social work as a profession has frequently been under attack since the mid-1980s, and this has undermined the public's awareness of social work's successes. For example, one of the observations about the Children Act 1989 was that it was based on current best practice within social work at the time, though such practice was not sufficiently widespread. The Act represented a new start for children and families and other professionals working with children by radically changing the legal framework regulating the care and upbringing of children (Hardy and Hannibal, 1997). No legislation or legal framework can remain static, however, and as a result of reviews and enquiries such as the Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report (Department of Health and Home Office, 2003), the Children Act 1989 has been significantly updated, and the way in which it is interpreted, resourced and implemented has been strengthened.