It’s time to put down the petition and make real change

Following a string of high profile wilful neglect cases, the Government has been forced to respond. This has resulted in changes to legislation that have divided social workers and the establishment; but is this divide justified? In this article, Tiffany Green, our voice of the social worker, discusses the changes and what they really mean for the social care profession.

Background

The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has proposed that “care workers” who are found to have ill-treated or wilfully neglected an individual can face a maximum penalty of imprisonment of up to 5 years and / or a fine.

The Act states “the ‘wilful’ element of the neglect offence connotes that the perpetrator has acted deliberately or recklessly. ‘Ill-treatment’ is a deliberate act, where the individual recognised that he was inexcusably ill-treating a person, or else was being reckless as to whether he was doing so.” (Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015)

This all makes sense, but it has upset many social workers. They are concerned, and not without valid reason. Professor Ray Jones wrote in Community Care back in March, 2015:

“… when horrific abuse takes place, they (the government) ensure those who give their professional lives to protect children are blamed and now to be punished.

There is then the predictable consequence that it is increasingly difficult to recruit social workers, paediatricians and others at the frontline, or appoint directors of children’s services experienced in children’s social work and child protection.” – Hardly surprising.

There is much online commentary about the outrage of social care professionals at the very thought of threatening care givers with jail time.

I understand, but I do not agree

I understand that this action is further undermining social work. Ahead of the closing of the College of Social Work; the child protection task force that contains no social workers; consultations on special guardianship; budgets announcing further council cuts and a call to split social work education, the need to take drastic or dramatic action is so far in the wrong direction that not even our beloved London transport system could be any help. I understand the fear, especially in the current climate when we are routinely and callously scapegoated despite recognition of failings across the board. I can understand where social workers feel threatened and it would make it more difficult to recruit to the profession, but I don’t agree.

I don’t agree that this law will universally affect the profession or recruitment to it. As a matter of fact there are concerns that supply continues to exceed demand. There are still newly qualified social workers who cannot find jobs but there are reports that other routes into social work are being highly successfully – i.e. Step Up and Frontline. There will always be people to help and people willing to take on the systems, no matter how dysfunctional.

When confronted with this recently at the #openswforum both Sir Martin Narey and Isabelle Trowler said they didn’t believe anyone would be jailed so social workers shouldn’t worry. I thought it a bit rude and callous the way they seemed to write off peoples anxieties and I still do. Though I understand that there was no way for that forum to contain and support practitioners. However, having done some research and taken a step back, I think they’re right.

I discussed this briefly with a colleague of mine who deals with allegations against professionals and her view was that we need to work in an open and transparent way. She is absolutely correct. This means being responsible professionals even when it may not be popular or you’re being challenged to change your view. She went on to say “with all the cases of neglect that we take to court, how many parents actually receive custodial sentences?” and again, she’s right. In this way I do agree with the opinions of social workers that this is just another way to detract from the people who are responsible for the acts.

In my view this is broadly about professional responsibility and accountability to vulnerable people, though it goes about it in completely the wrong way. In the wake of Victoria Climbie, Rotherham, Jimmy Saville, it is warranted; so many knew, so many suffered and no one stopped it. Some do heal but sometimes the damage is irreparable.

Respect the challenge

Isabell Trowler told the #openswforum that these measures were not put in place by politicians who were out to get social workers. I am still sceptical about that one. She said it arose from lobbyists – survivors and victims who wanted people held accountable and I for one respect the challenge. If the roles were reversed I don’t know anyone who would feel differently and here is where I challenge the profession.

A response to the claims that social workers shouldn’t worry because it was unlikely that anyone would be jailed, will upset the lobbyists further as they see a law being passed that isn’t being enforced. But as I said, I don’t think social workers have to worry. We’re doing our jobs when we make reports and document what we see, the decisions being made and how we are proceeding. And yes, we can get into a whole argument about managers covering their backs, disappearing records and so on, but that would get us nowhere.

If lobbyists, a group of people with a vested interest in change, can get this law passed, then surely a body of 80, 000 social workers can get it repealed if we feel like it is going to hinder or negatively impact our ability to continue to protect vulnerable people?

What could have happened?

I feel my scepticism toward government is warranted. The government were in a position to improve the relationships between care workers and victims/survivors of abuse. But instead of getting these lobbyists and care workers around the table working together to improve the system, they decided to take the path of least resistance. They had an opportunity to start open and honest discussions getting social workers and service users around the table to talk through how they can actively be involved in making systems better and reducing the number of future victims. This was an opportunity for honest change that has become another strike against social workers.

We could have facilitated an opportunity for better working, open conversation, healing/recovery from trauma. We could have walked away with service user led proposals for prevention and disclosure programs. It is obvious government doesn’t operate from a strengths base which is what it would have taken to turn these horrific events into an opportunity for genuine reform. We need social workers in government, with the backing of a combined social work voice to make the changes needed that won’t hinder the functioning of the profession.

Call to action

No one has ever accused me of being politically savvy but I am good at starting a debate and getting people talking. If it is believed that this is going to inhibit our ability to protect vulnerable people then I welcome the change. What are we actually going to do about it?

There have been articles and even a petition but let’s be realistic, rarely do articles and petitions make people, especially politicians, uncomfortable enough to change. As change agents we know change will only come when the prospect of remaining the same is more uncomfortable than change.

So what are we going to do?

Take up the challenge

I don’t believe this is going to stop entrance into the profession, nor do I believe social workers will be jailed. At the risk of sounding a bit callous, even if some are, I recommend a statement refocusing the attention on the person or people who actually committed the offence and taking everyone with you. No social worker acts alone. We work in multi-agency structures. If we’re all willing to help, we should all be willing to go down. However, if as a profession, it is largely felt that we want this gone, I will stand with you in solidarity. I may not agree, but I also will not ignore the anxiety and disquiet in my colleagues. We’re in this together. Stand and I will stand with you, as will many others.

Rarely does a finger make an impact, but where five come together, they pack a mighty punch.

What are your thoughts? Have your say in the comments below.

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