Social work learning practice
Social work learning practice

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Social work learning practice

5 Good and bad social work

In this clip you will hear examples of good and bad social work, as identified by a number of service users and practitioners.

Activity 5

0 hours 45 minutes

Before you listen to the clip, think of two occasions when you have been a service user and have had to ask for help. This may have been an experience with the Health Service, an educational institution, or public transport. Think of one occasion when your request was dealt with in a helpful way, and another when you found the response to be unhelpful.

Write down what was helpful in the first instance and unhelpful on the second occasion.

  • How much did it matter that you did, or didn't, get what you wanted?

  • How important was the way in which you were treated?

  • Think about what lessons you can draw from your own experiences that you can apply to your role as a social worker.

As you listen to the clip, make notes on those aspects of social work the speakers found to be good, and those they found to be bad.

Compare the notes you have made from listening to the clip, to those you made on your own experiences as a service user.

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Transcript: Good and bad social work

Well, I think myself that social workers are doing a good job. But not many people know about it, do they? The thing is, some people … they're scared to go in to ask for help, aren't they? And I think it should be more open, that people do understand this, so that they can go to people … to turn round and people will help them.
Social workers get a bad press. You only really hear about them when something's gone wrong. And some people seem to think that they're only there to remove the child from you But, I've had to have Luke put into foster care a couple of times, because of my illness, and they've both been very helpful and supportive, and maintain the links between me and my son. I had a social worker in Stockport, where I used to live, and she wasn't very good really. She seemed to think I was making a lot of fuss about nothing because, when my son was younger, he looked practically normal really. And she thought I was just, trying to get the most out of the system I could get, rather than I was in true need. Because it wasn't obvious, by just looking at us, that we did need help, I think she tried to read the situation without listening first. But, down in North Wales, I found that they're much more helpful and willing to help you out.
I've been taught, when I was a little girl, to respect the elderly, and I always have. If they wish to be called Mrs Williams, I call her Mrs Williams. I know some of the staff don't do that, and I don't like it myself. I'd like to think that everybody showed them respect at all times. Myself, I hate to see people treating them like children. They're not children. They've been through life. They know what it's all about, and that's my pet hate. I hate people looking down at them, treating them like kids. I don't like that at all, and I try to respect them every time.
It's more of a challenge for me, because these people, I suppose, could be grandparents, and what have you. And it's very difficult sometimes to make decisions for people who are so much older than you. And people, who are, in many cases, in majority of cases, are totally aware of where they are in life … where they are geographically, and what they're doing here, and what their choices are. And then somebody who is much younger than them, making a decision for them … sometimes you come up against it, “Why, you know, he's younger than me. Why is he making the decisions for me?” But it's a case of … we have got a good relationship here with people. We try to treat everybody as the individual they are. And that, in turn, causes us problems, because we have to have lots of different approaches for different people, and we have to be extremely flexible.
I took two little girls that I immediately knew to be sexually abused. And, if anybody asked me why, all I can say is I work by my instincts. And, very much, I listen to my instincts, and they don’t let me down. And also, very quickly, these little girls started disclosing. But they weren’t only sexually abused, both little girls. They were also sexually abusing each other. And I was asked why had this not come to light with other experienced carers? Well, through my work with Parents for Children, I have had opportunities that other carers haven’t had. So I am over and above, I think, more experienced than a lot. And it was the incompetence round that, of actually managing two little girls that were actually sexually abusing each other. The support wasn’t there and, in the end, I felt that I had to let the girls go. And I did resign from that local authority, with a lot of grief and a lot of pain. But, looking back on it now, it was the right thing to do, because it was up to me to keep my family safe, and it wasn’t right that two children were sexually abusing each other in my home.
Stephen Rashid
And, can you, by contrast, think of an example where you felt that the social workers understood you, and took account of your experience?
Yes, I was placed a little boy that had a two and a half year life expectancy. I was very unsure about taking this little boy, because he was a baby, and babies aren’t my favourite thing. But I decided we would go and make this little guy comfortable for two and a half years. He had a social worker, and she left very quickly. And another, a male social worker, said it was the only thing he ever volunteered for, took us on. And he worked with us absolutely through the child’s placement, into his adoption. This was an open adoption which, at the time, was not the done thing. But I felt that I wanted to work with these parents. And that was supported right through, until Timothy died, and beyond.
Stephen Rashid
Right, so that was an example of a social worker working very much in partnership with you?
In partnership with me, and working in a forward thinking way. Obviously, we expect this of social workers now. But, at that time, it wasn’t a way that social workers worked.
I’ve worked with people before who have become too involved, too over-identified. And you can’t tell the wood for the trees then, because you don’t know who’s solving whose problems. And the first thing most people have to do with their training in social work is they have to be able to identify what belongs to them … because, whatever your client group is, they’re going to bring it up. You’re lost if you're not able to be honest enough to see what belongs to you … because, ultimately, somebody else is going to have to pay for that. And that’s going to be someone who may not have the skills to defend against it. And a lot of the people we work with are far more vulnerable than we are.
In terms of communication, one thing that really stands in my mind, apart from the character of the social worker, is body language. And I find that body language is a powerful medium, but you’re not aware of it, especially if you’re in the position of power, so to speak, and you’re influencing other people. And I find that, when I go into situations, I’m very aware of where I sit and how I communicate, just physically as well, just to give the impression that I’m open, and to make the service users feel much more relaxed with myself. So I find that, even on that level, I’m very, more aware of where I am and what I’m doing. And then it goes to communication, general communication, how you speak to clients. That experience has made me see the whole sphere of social work … the physical presence, the actual way you communicate, and the way you relate.
Stephen Rashid
And can I draw from that your own experience, as a consumer of social work, was that the body language was unhelpful, that the communication was unclear, and that you reacted against that?
It wasn’t so much unclear, it was authoritarian. That’s what I remember. It wasn’t so much, “Oh, what would you need as potential service users?” It’s, “what you will have”. And that’s what stands most in my mind. It’s about giving room to a service user, to choose what they want. Step back a while. You don’t know all the answers. Give room, give scope, and that’s the thing that stays in my mind.
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The ‘good social worker’

  • makes you feel important

  • gains your confidence

  • is straight with you

  • means what they say

  • doesn't sit in judgement on you

  • is a good listener

  • earns your trust.

The ‘bad’ social worker does the opposite.

This might read like a counsel of perfection, which you might feel no practitioner could live up to in any of the helping professions. It does serve as an important reminder that service users, like everybody else, want to be treated as human beings. Their problems and difficulties should not obscure the fact that they are entitled to courtesy, honesty, tact and consideration. These qualities have been subsumed in the traditional social work literature under the notion of ‘respect for persons’.


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