2 Social work in Scotland
2.1 First impressions
Newspaper headlines often project an image of social work under stress. Over the past two decades a number of events have raised serious questions about social work practice: there has been fierce debate in relation to child protection issues, over changes within the criminal justice system (for example the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders) and the effectiveness of community care. There have also been well-documented tragedies and errors of judgement, including recent inquiries into the deaths of children (e.g. Hammond, 2001; O'Brien et al., 2003) and the failure to protect vulnerable adults in the Scottish Borders region (SWSI, 2004). This combination of being at the centre of issues of public concern and the focus of sensationalised reporting has damaged the reputation of the profession. For many within the field of social work it has led to a feeling of crisis.
Social work is a responsible and demanding job. Public expectations, agency requirements and resources, and the needs of service users all create pressures for employees, which are exacerbated by bad publicity and the under-recognition of successful social work. This first activity asks you to think about your own perceptions of social work and to explore the influence of negative images on social work practice.
Activity 1: Attitudes to social work
Write down any words, phrases or images which come to mind when you hear the term ‘social worker’. Then separate them out into positive and negative attributes and ask yourself what may have influenced your observations. Finally, what impact do you think each perception might have on social work practice? Try to record all of the things which you associate with social workers, or alternatively you could ask a friend or family member for their response (taking into account that they might just tell you what they think you want to hear).
It can be difficult to be completely honest about our impressions when asked to commit them to writing. This may be the case, for example, if you are a social work student and are concerned that someone might ask about your ideas.
A similar exercise was undertaken by the research organisation MORI Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Executive (Davidson and King, 2005). They found that, when polled, the general public were more likely to be positive than negative about social workers, particularly where they had had previous contact with services, and that these views were affected by the diverse settings in which social work operates.
Among the most commonly used adjectives to describe the profession were ‘helpful’, ‘vital’, ‘interfering’, and ‘overworked’ … there was reference to staff shortages, excessive bureaucracy and restrictive rules and procedures. While the media clearly plays an important role in shaping views of the profession, there was a consensus that reporting is rarely objective, and it was commonly suggested that both the press and television news have played a role in perpetuating negative images of social workers.
(Davidson and King, 2005, p. 7)
This research also inquired into people's attitudes towards using social work services and discovered that while participants would approach the profession in order to help others, there was some reticence in using these services themselves. Social work was seen as a ‘last resort’, and needing help continues to be a source of social stigma.
These findings suggest that negative perceptions of social work do have an effect on everyday practice, raising questions of how to establish trust between service users, practitioners and the general public, and highlighting the possibility of resistance to intervention. It may be less obvious, but it is equally important to recognise that positive perceptions of social work can, on occasion, undermine good practice. For example the unquestioned belief in a helpful and caring profession can lead to the raising of unrealistic expectations, over-intrusion in people's lives and abuse of professional power. Later on in this course we will consider how knowledge of the law can assist in these situations.