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What Is social work?

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006

Sandy Fraser portrays social work as a rewarding - but challenging - career

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The activity of helping people - what might be called social work - is not something new. Helping individuals and families is something that has gone on in various ways across much of human history. However, the nature of the help, the setting it is given in, the reasons for help being required and who actually gives the help has changed enormously over time. Except in a small minority of circumstances, social work can no longer be considered as help that is voluntarily provided in an 'ad hoc' way. Religious or ideologically motivated organisations have given way to a discrete academic and professional discipline which is underpinned by legislation affecting the needs and protection of children and adults. It is a professional activity which is mainly found in developed market economies.

Social workers are employed in a variety of settings, including hospices and day centres, but in this country the term is usually connected with services provided by local authorities. Someone To Watch Over Me shows employees of Bristol City Council trying to promote the welfare or support the needs of children, young people and families. This involves assessing need and risk, then arranging services to meet need and/or to safeguard children from harm. This is the central and critical role of child care social workers.

Unless directly involved as user or provider of the service, it's likely most people's experience of the work comes from the pages of the press in the form of child abuse scandals. Social workers have also been portrayed as the purveyors of 'political correctness' about race, age, gender and other issues: very much the foolish but occasionally powerful 'busybody' of the modern day.

However, in reality, social work, whether with children or adults is a personal social service to people whose welfare needs to be promoted, supported and/or protected. It can be distinguished from other ways in which support and protection can be provided by its personal one-to-one aspect. For example, while support and protection can be provided by welfare benefits, criminal investigation or health care, in social work the focus of work is not on an illness, what laws a person has broken, or their lack of funds. Instead, the focus is on how these kinds of issues affect the person and their immediate family and social life. So social work requires both sociological and psychological knowledge about individual and family life, and it requires knowledge of the systems that intervene and interact with each other to support individuals and families. This includes the legal obligations of organisations towards individuals, but also the legal obligations parents owe to their children.

That is only the start; equally important is how social workers communicate with the people they work with; to help them identify ways to support themselves or their children. Often this can be done openly and honestly, but occasionally - for many reasons - such attempts to help can be made more difficult due to deceptive behaviour or avoidance of the issues.

Our society values children and families. Social work has been one of the state's main ways of offering support to the family. Yet, social work, by its very nature, can be seen as invading or undermining the privacy or independence of the individual and the family - sometimes for what may seem spurious reasons. This contradiction makes the context in which social workers have to operate a difficult one - something shown frequently by the cases in Someone To Watch Over Me.

Whether you have seen all six programmes in the series or only one you will be aware that child care social work is a tough job. It involves engaging with a series of moral dilemmas about what course of action would be best for the child. Often there are no clear-cut or ‘right’ answers with neat and positive solutions. Yet it is a job that someone needs to do if we value children and their families. Maybe it is a job that you would consider doing. If so then you might be interested to find out about learning with The Open University and how to start a career in social work.

 

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