4.2 Conflict and partnership
Whatever the professional setting of their practice, social workers are likely to be working with service users from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. As noted above, it is part of their responsibility as practitioners to respect and value social diversity and to work with service users in a way that recognises and builds on their strengths. This can be difficult to do in the context of the legislation. At this point, however, we want you to start to think about how practitioners can work effectively and sensitively with service users in situations where they may be faced with conflict or possibly frightening behaviour where violence is implicitly or explicitly threatened.
The next activity provides you with an opportunity to consider some of these practice issues in the field of child protection.
Activity 5 Conflict and partnership
Read the following case study and make notes in answer to the questions that follow.
Ms Harden, the head teacher of a local primary school, has telephoned the social services department to express her concerns about two of the children at her school. The children are aged five and seven. She is aware that the children's mother has been subjected to violence from her partner. Over the last two weeks the children have appeared to be lethargic and withdrawn at school, and when the seven-year-old was changing for games today, his teacher noticed bruising across the back of both of his legs. Ms Harden tried to contact the mother this morning but was only able to reach her partner, who was abusive and aggressive during the brief telephone conversation. The manager of the department asks the social worker to visit the family's house and make some preliminary inquiries.
What do you think will be the main practice issues to consider in this situation?
What social work values do you think will underpin planning in this case?
You may have thought about the kinds of response the social worker might receive when he or she visits the children's home: the response might be very hostile and unwelcoming and there is clear potential for conflict. The primary concern will be the welfare of the children. The social worker will need to see and talk to the children and their mother, and to ensure that the children are safe. The social worker would probably check to see whether the social services department already knows the family because, if so, there could be helpful information on the files. It would be important, for example, to find out whether the mother's partner is actually the children's father.
The social worker may also want to try to ascertain whether the mother's safety and well-being is at risk and consider what advice to offer. You have already seen that working in partnership is a core value when working with service users, but is it possible to act in partnership where there is conflict? The social worker may need to take measures to protect the children that would mean removing them from the parents' house. How could partnership be achieved in this context? Good practice would be about working with the adults in a way that was open and honest and which kept them informed about their rights. Being clear about the social work role and powers and duties is essential, as is the need to communicate in a jargon-free and non-legalistic way.
One researcher, Stuart Vernon, believes that there may be a tension or even conflict between social work values and the law, there are areas of social work law where there is no such conflict. So what are legal values? We explore this next.
The law is one way in which established but discriminatory practices can be and are challenged. At the same time, however, the law can be seen as supportive of the prevailing social order, shaped by dominant forces that perpetuate inequality and injustice. Nevertheless, there are some key values embedded in legislation that are supportive of social work values. For example, the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 incorporates the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, with the result that the principles enshrined in the articles of the ECHR are directly applicable within the UK. These principles include respect for family privacy (Article 8) and an insistence on procedural fairness in the resolution of disputes (Article 6). Further, Article 14 aims at ensuring that the rights contained within the ECHR are secured without discrimination on any ground. The impact of the HRA 1998 on social care and social work has already been considerable.
Thus it is important to recognise that the law expresses some values that accord with social work values and can help you to work in a positive way to support and empower service users. However, it is also important for social work practitioners to be aware of the ways in which the law can fail people. For example, there is little legislation to protect adults who are vulnerable through age. Community care legislation may provide that certain people are entitled to an assessment of their needs, but this is largely at the discretion of the local authority and it can be difficult for service users to challenge such decision making.
Although agency policies and procedures also set parameters within which discretion is exercised, it is often the individual social worker who makes the initial decision. This choice will be influenced by a range of factors, including the knowledge and understanding of the social worker, his or her experience of similar situations, the viability of available options – including the law and ongoing policy – and the social worker's own values.