An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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An introduction to social work

Ethics and professionalism: being accountable

One of the differences between just ‘doing the job’ and professional practice is knowing and thinking about what informs what we are doing. In other words, what explanation can we give for doing the job this way rather than that? Being able to explain ourselves to others is an essential skill in professional social work practice because it is central to being ‘accountable’, or in other words being able to justify and take responsibility for what we do. The concept of accountability makes explanations such as ‘we’ve always done it like this’ or ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ not good enough.

Being professional

One of the reasons for discussing accountability and the codes of practice required by care councils and regulatory bodies is to think about their implications in the context in which social workers actually operate, including their statutory (legal) responsibilities, the values of their employing organisation, service users, society at large, and their own values. What happens in the event of a conflict?

There will be many occasions, particularly in practice situations, where social workers have to exercise judgement and be accountable for their decisions. This is another important element in the values of ‘professionalism’. It implies that there are many situations in which laws, procedures, rules and guidelines reach their limits, and social workers need to exercise both discretion and professional judgement. Spicker (2008) summed up the dilemma:

Professionals reserve the areas in which they can act autonomously – the ‘clinical freedom’ of doctors, the social work relationship, or the conduct by teachers in their classes. There are tensions to be resolved; the need for flexibility and responsiveness has to be balanced against the agencies’ concerns to develop consistent practices and professional claims are mediated through a process of constant negotiation.

(Spicker, 2008, p. 161)

In other words, someone must interpret and be accountable for rules and their limits, otherwise you end up with a list of rules, another list of rules about how to apply the rules, followed by another list, and so on. Lipsky (1980) suggested many social care workers could be viewed as ‘street level bureaucrats’. In this position they used their discretion to fulfil the procedural and bureaucratic demands of their organisation in ways that were consistent with their own values and motivations to help people. Since this time there has been continued tension about how to meet managerialist demand for rationing and consistency while also allowing social workers to act with professional autonomy and within their own value base (Mcdonald et al., 2008; Ellis, 2011; Evans, 2011).

Activity 10 Personal and professional values in a practice context

Timing: Allow 30 minutes to complete

Watch this video and make notes in response to the questions. These video materials are parts of real-life social work situations which follow the work of a child protection team in Bristol, and which the OU was involved in filming with the BBC for a programme called Protecting our Children.

Download this video clip.Video player: author="Hrp44" timestamp="20210506T151359+0100"
Skip transcript: Video 1 Personal and professional values

Transcript: Video 1 Personal and professional values

Narrator
A new case of severe neglect has been referred to Ellen.
Ellen
And is that the master bedroom and--
Colleague
Yeah.
Ellen
Yeah.
Colleague
Yeah, kitchen.
Narrator
She is concerned a seven-year-old child is living in these conditions.
Ellen
Yeah, because that is obviously human faeces in the bath.
Colleague
Yeah.
Ellen
Because they've spent a lot of money on these blocks here.
Crystal
Pardon?
Ellen
They've spent a lot of money on these blocks.
Narrator
Ellen has already met the child at school, and now takes a housing officer to see the mother.
Ellen
It was about direct work with families. That was what really drew me to a career in social work. Sadly, that's not really what we're able to do these days, just due to sheer demand on our time.
Crystal
Oh, hi there. We're the council. We've got an appointment for you today. All right, we need you to come in. I'll come down and speak to you. One minute.
Ellen
As social workers, we've got a huge barrier to get over when we very first meet families. But our aim is to keep families together.
Crystal
Where are we going, then?

[CLATTERING]

Where are we going first? When was the last time you were in here? Where's your lounge? Come on, then, let's go.

Ellen
I'm Ellen. I'm the one that wrote you the letter. I had a referral from the housing department. Obviously, they were concerned about the living conditions of the flat, and so then the referral was made to me. So--

[SOBBING]

Ellen
No, it's OK. Listen.
Narrator
The mother agrees to continue filming as long as she isn't identified..
Ellen
So we're here to help you.

[SOBBING]

Woman
You're going to take my daughter.
Ellen
No, no, no, no. Obviously, you need some help and some support, and that's what we're here to do. The housing department told me that the toilet's not working and that it's blocked, so you need to use the bath. So that can be repaired. We can get that sorted today.
Woman
I just want somewhere where I can stay with her, and like--
Crystal
Which will be here. This is your home.
Woman
No, no, I don't want this place!
Ellen
Is there problems? Is there problems here? Are you--
Woman
It's everything, everything!
Crystal
I mean, at the moment it's not in a good state, is it, and we need to sort it out.
Ellen
And Crystal and I can help you get moved, if that's what you want?
Crystal
It's not a problem.
Woman
Yeah, you want my daughter.
Ellen
No, no, no. We want to help you so that you've got a nice home.
Crystal
Somewhere to stay.

[SOBBING]

[SOBBING]

Ellen
Can you show us around, then?
Crystal
I think this is on the list to do. I mean, there's nothing that I can see that I can do straight away to help you with this, because I think in terms of-- it's just a good clean, isn't it? It's not working, is it?
Woman
If you open that, it's all blocked.
Crystal
Yeah, so I'll call repairs on that. The water comes out the plughole. OK.
Ellen
So the bath is blocked, is it?
Woman
Someone said they were going to phone domestic someone.
Crystal
Domestic drains?
Woman
They never come out.
Crystal
OK.
Woman
I had to do it, and it was just painful. Then I wanted to move, and I never could. I couldn't move.
Crystal
And this is, what, your room here?
Woman
Yeah, but it's got a lot of packed clothes and stuff like that so I can move
Ellen
So how long have you not been staying here?
Woman
Over a year.
Ellen
So you have sort of been sofa-hopping for a year then, really. Do you drink at all?
Woman
I did used to, and now I don't. That's why I got in trouble with the police.
Ellen
Is that when you were found drunk in the park, I think, wasn't it, quite a while ago?
Woman
How do you know that?
Ellen
Because obviously we were notified, but I think we didn't have to follow that up because your mum agreed to go and pick your child up from school, and kept her overnight.
Woman
And that's when it all went wrong.
Ellen
So are you all right with me coming around on Monday? And we'll make a start on it together.
Woman
Mmm.
Ellen
Because I think it's got to a point where you're sort of just drowning in it, aren't you, a little bit, and it's all got too much. So things can only move forward now

[COUGHING]

Ellen
That is is the role of a social worker, to engage with families. It's actually about being able to demonstrate to families that actually we want to work with them. We don't want to dictate. But all the time it's about risk-assessing the household. Is this child at risk? If so, who from? What from? And are we able to put in a safety plan to reduce those risks, or do we need to remove the child?
Narrator
Ellen gives the mother two weeks to clean up while the daughter stays with her aunt. The long-term future of the child remains in doubt. Knowing children need a settled and secure home in which to thrive, Ellen returns to see if the mother has started the clean-up.
Ellen
It's no good, me just going in and taking over, because that's not what it's about. Because if she doesn't take ownership for it now, the likelihood is we will have a repeat of this in another 12, 18 months' time.

[LOUD KNOCKING]

[LOUD KNOCKING]

Ellen
I think there's no sign of her at the moment, which is really disappointing. However, what looks really positive is that when I've just looked through the letterbox now, there's lots of black bags by the door. And actually, I can hear some noise. Hey, I thought you weren't in.
Woman
Yeah, I've got to go out and get some more things.
Ellen
Have you? How you getting on? May I have a look?
Woman
I'm just straightening it out there.
Ellen
Let's have a look. Thanks. OK, but do you think realistically that this is going to be ready by Friday?
Woman
I'm going to do it. I mean, what else am I going to do, apart from sitting here?
Ellen
So what's the plan of action for the rest of today?
Woman
Just clear both rooms, clean them, and then go on to that one, and then chuck everything out of the cupboard in that one.
Ellen
I think that she does have enough understanding to be able to acknowledge that actually if she doesn't make the changes, then her daughter is not going to be returned to her care immediately.
Plumber
chucked this in.

[WATER DRAINING]

[TOILET FLUSHING]

Woman
I was just stuck here. I had big rent arrears then. I stopped talking to my dad for just over a year, maybe a year and a half. I mean, it was just isolation, really. I was isolating myself from everybody and just drank. Friday to Sunday, it would be just a massive binge. I'd do like 18 litres of cider. I'd vomit. I went yellow. Imagine that. What's that, like six litres a day?
When I found out I'd got sacked, then I must have come straight back here, grabbed a bottle of Bullet, a Jack Daniel's, and Southern Comfort. I just drank the Southern Comfort and the Jack Daniel's and passed out in a park. And I think that's when social services was called once. That's how Ellen knew before I told her. But I was always sober when I see her. Got to get things sorted. She wants some purple carpet.
Ellen
I think probably the key to all of this is going to be going back quite a long time. And all these emotional problems have been escalating, and now they've got to crisis point.
Narrator
Ellen is aware the cleanup is just the beginning. The mother must now work towards providing a real home before her daughter can move back in.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ellen
The referral to us sparked a whole triage of professionals, really.
Social Worker
We're brought in to support and to actually empower you, and put you back on the right track.
Woman
OK.
Social Worker
The other thing would be around developing a home for the both of you.
Ellen
Now we're looking at the longer-term stuff, and how she can maintain where she is now without our intervention. Hello!
Woman
Hi.
Ellen
How are you?
Woman
Ok.
Ellen
If you've got some money and your gas is paid off, you can keep it a bit warmer in here, can't you? Right, so if you can roughly write down for me all coming in and going out.
Woman
Yeah.
Ellen
A child needs a home. It's about her having a base. And it's about them as a family unit having a base.
Woman
Thank you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

End transcript: Video 1 Personal and professional values
Video 1 Personal and professional values
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  • What are your personal responses to the parent who is in this situation?
  • How are your own ideas and values about parenting relevant?
  • What are the professional or social work values that the worker demonstrates?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Discussion

This video illustrates some of the human complexities that social workers are confronted with every day. You may have had a range of emotional responses. Even though the mother in this clip was clearly unhappy and distressed by their situation, you may have found it hard to empathise, or the neglect of the child might have made you feel angry. It is important to notice and talk about your feelings and reactions, rather than ignore them. This is also a good time to think about how, as a social worker, you can maintain a professional response and respect for the humanity and dignity of service users.

In this scenario you saw the social workers demonstrating social work values in showing Biesteck’s ‘respect for the person’ and accountability to the law, their organisational context and other colleagues and organisations.

Social work is full of dilemmas and the morally active practitioner uses reflection and supervision as well as codes and protocols to think things through and arrive at the necessary decisions for action. Reflective practitioners will continue to question practice and seek improvements. In the next section, you will consider just what is meant by ‘reflective practice’ in social work.

Key points

  • Empathy is a skill which enables us to understand the lives of people with very different experiences from ourselves and it is therefore a valuable tool for social workers.
  • Social work is inextricably bound up with moral values.
  • Although social work is based on personalised moral values (such as respect for people), it also exists in a social and occupational context. Professional ethics and being professionally accountable are also intrinsic to professional social work.
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