Grim up North? grimmer down South

“It’s grim up North” I am not sure of the origin of this phrase but on a frosty Wednesday morning I know what it means. I also know that in the Social Work world it is grimmer in the South. I think that it is important not to become cocooned in your own place and space and that it is affirming to look around and see what is going on in other places and spaces. Over the last week or so I have been drawn to what is going on in England and most importantly the impact this has on Social Work.


Looking at it from the outside I feel for those people who use social work services and for those who provide social work services. The never ending debate on social works public persona rumbles on and almost everyone I have spoken to on the subject has an opinion, but that opinion is undoubtedly shaped by two (or more) influential forces, namely the media and the government. When both seem to line up in opposition to social work it is an uncomfortable place for professionals and service users to be.


Let us consider Michael Gove’s recent speech on Child Protection reform. It is disingenuous to suggest that his speech was about Child Protection reform; from my reading of it it seemed more to be about Gove locating social work in the cross hairs and gently squeezing the trigger. Make no mistake his speech was about a root and branch reform of the social work profession, from training and education to direct practice. The focus on social justice and ethical approaches in the provision on support to the vulnerable has long been anathema to politicians such as Gove.


Astonishingly he managed not to mention Eileen Munro’s work on Child Protection or the work of the Social Work reform board. To me this is a clear indication that Gove and his government colleagues have a direction of travel and are not going to be put off, especially not by rigorous academic evidence or the expert knowledge and experience of professionals in the field. Gove did however provide some evidence, from a Times journalist, which reminds me, I must set the Sky to record the outcome of the Levenson inquiry, now who owns the Times??? Who is being investigated for press standards and ethics???


Most worrying seems to be a simplistic linear view that there are a certain number of “problem families” and that social work should become more ready to remove children from these families and that the adoption process should be simplified to allow for a speedier transition from these problem families into the arms of nice middle class adopters. Social Workers need to become more sensitive to squalor and concentrate less on asking intimate personal questions of adopters, after all anything is better than where these kids were, right?


It is packaged up in simple language and simpler terms of reference. Social work is failing the most disadvantaged children. Blame is attributed to the professional and the most vulnerable in our society are played into a political game that seems to have at its heart a desire to erode a fundamental function of social work; asking difficult questions, either of prospective adopters or the systems that people interact with that can, if not checked, disadvantage people who are already vulnerable.


If social workers are not allowed to be reflective, analytical and critical and if students are not encouraged to learn about the complexities of peoples lived experience then that amounts to a reform of the profession on an unprecedented scale. For me it would fundamentally change the nature and scope of what we do. Social Workers operate at the very margins of society, it is vital they have an understanding of why people find themselves there and if social workers find it unpalatable that people are living in such extremes and are willing to challenge it then so much the better. Not just for the profession and for those who use the services but also for those who believe that in a truly democratic country the importance of a unified professional voice that seeks to support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged is vital.


Rotherham is a case in point, you may or may not agree with a decision to remove Eastern European children from a family who are members of UKIP but it seems to me that this was a tragic example of a situation that should have been played out in a confidential manner being played out in public for political gain. I question the morality and the ethics of anyone who would seek political advantage from the experiences of children in foster care. These are the very vulnerable children that Gove wants us to believe he can protect more fully, it seems hypocrisy then to conflate their situation to prove his point. And for those in the press who rushed to get this story out there willingness to see the “story” before the children is indicative of a section of our society that has lost some sense of proportionality.


Gove does his best to ignore some stark facts, we live in terribly austere times, his government has cut jobs and services, his government has a fundamental belief that public service should be reducing, his government also believe that reducing the support provided by the welfare state is desirable as it offsets the economic crisis, particularly if we reduce the availability of welfare benefits through the aggressive use of means testing, his government believe that privatisation of the NHS is something to aspire to. All of this is an unprecedented attack on the safety net that we have always known to be inadequate even in the most financially secure of times.


An active, voluble social work profession is not so much desirable as necessary attacking it and those who use it for political advantage is tragic. It might be grim up North but I fear it is even grimmer in the South

Child Sexual Abuse: Contradictions and Challenges for all of us

The issue of child sexual abuse is being discussed and debated widely in society today. The allegations relating to Jimmy Saville and the prominent sexual abuse stories centring on Children’s Homes in North Wales has brought one of society’s huge skeletons out of the closet and we seem to be struggling to put it back in. In this blog I wanted to explore my own thoughts and perceptions on this most sensitive of issues.

And sensitive it is indeed. The sexual abuse of children is an issue for our society. It has gone on, it is going on and it will continue to go on. It is insidious and unpalatable and yet it is something we all find difficult to talk about. It seems tied up in some many taboos that a balanced and reasonable discussion about it is very difficult to maintain. The place of the child in our society is seen as sacred we have an overwhelming desire to protect children. Not just because of their vulnerability but also because for many of us our children offer a future and it seems a natural human instinct to want the best future possible for them.

To think of children being sexually abused is extremely difficult. It is not a place we want to be and definitely not a place we want children to be. It wrecks lives and takes away childhood. We have a desire to see childhood as a good time as a positive time as a time we can reflect on and find happiness, most often happiness in innocence if that innocence is shattered then childhood is irrevocably changed. It’s a terrible place. And one we find difficult to inhabit but inhabit it we must. If only to provide support for those who live there and are not visiting. Providing services for survivors of child sexual abuse is one of the greatest challenges to our modern welfare state. Our systems and services were never developed to cope with this and you can see now that we are hideously un prepared to manage this.

Disclosing sexual abuse is incredibly difficult, how do children manage it? Who can they trust remember the abuser abused their trust, making it so difficult to trust again for fear of the same thing happening again. Once you do disclose how can you control what happens next? By disclosing what chain of events are set in place and does this mean you have to go back there? To revisit your abuse? To see your abuser again? For children this must be an impossible place to be.

And do we help? Does society help? Do social workers help? Take a look at registration statistics for child sexual abuse in Scotland in 2005 2006 given what we know does this seem fair and reasonable? We have some insight into the scope of the issue yet our only formal way of recognising it seems unable to grasp the extent of the issue. Disclosure of sexual abuse for children sees the law as having paramouncy; the emphasis in getting the right kind of evidence led carefully and sensitively from children seems to me to be an obstacle in supporting disclosure. The interview process in complicated and requires a child to disclose in front of a police officer and a social worker. Rest assured that if the case ever came to court the debate would not be on “did this happen?” but on “how was this information gathered?” After Orkney Scotland has struggled with Child Protection, local authorities have the responsibility to protect children yet faced with a restrictive economic climate and a mind-set that cannot seem to grasp the issue is it any wonder there is a sense of confusion?

It seems that everyone has an opinion on the issue. Open hatred for those who commit crimes against children is easy. Who would not have these feelings about people who do this? Not to feel this way could be construed as having some kind of support for them. Organisations that have dealt with this issue seem to miss the point instead of looking at the people they look at structures, at the role of managers and see opportunities for restructuring. Being tarnished with the issue results in responses that have little to do with children and much to do with using hindsight to limit or attempts to eradicate risk.

We seem unable to locate child sexual abuse in a place we can deal with it best. As individuals we seek to remove ourselves from it, almost to try and protect ourselves from being exposed to it in any way, it is toxic, it is dangerous and damaging and we don’t seem able to grasp it. All too often the drama is played out in the wings, surely our challenge is to put it centre stage.

Care Home Kids, Some reflections on caring for children

Care Home kids on BBC3 last night presented an accurate and honest examination of the issues facing young people who are involved in the care system. The experience of the presenter provided a thoughtful commentary on the issues that the system faces today.

I wanted to consider three particular aspects of the programme. The first was a phrase used by a young woman care leaver. When asked what she thought of the support she had received since leaving care she was positive about many aspects of it, however she was critical of what she termed the “emotional support” that was available to her.

It seemed tragic to me that the most vulnerable of young adults are deprived of the understanding and empathy that is crucial to their ongoing personal, social and emotional development. I wonder why this is the case? Do we as social workers and professionals in the social care field possess the required skills to empathise with out most disadvantaged service users? Are we able to go to the complex personal spaces that these young people inhabit? Can we as professionals develop the skills to engage in the most intimate of dialogues with the most disadvantaged of young people?

In Scotland there has been a move to disaggregate Throughcare and Aftercare services from local authorities and move them to the voluntary sector. I believe this is morally wrong and an abdication of the local authorities responsibilities to our most vulnerable young people.

The second theme that was of interest to me was the disconnect between some foster carers and some of the young people they cared for. In the programme one foster family described how challenging their assessment period was, they stated that more than half of the families who started the process did not complete it, suggesting that the assessment process was more than rigorous. Why then do placements disrupt as a result of the “behaviour” of the children? Somewhere in here seemed to me to a blaming of the victim. The young people who I spent twenty years working with came from complex, abusive and frightening places, there experiences were beyond any reasonable understanding of “troubled”; abuse, of all forms was commonplace and the messages received from parents were more than confused. There was no consistency, the children I worked with had no parental role models and they were exposed to disruption violence and uncertainty. Why then were foster carers using the paradigm of behaviour to explain their actions? This seemed to me to be setting the children and the carers up to fail, perhaps the preparation groups need a greater emphasis on understanding the extent of the difficulties young people face and the need for there to be responses that are proportionate and supportive of all involved. The link between care and incarceration was considered and it seems to me that investment in developing better fostering services would negate the cost of incarceration, and the repeated costs of recidivism.

Finally and on an optimistic note it was heartening to see the influence that some residential staff had on the lives of young people, it was uplifting to hear that Ashely (the narrator) had obtained a degree, he himself cited the support from a residential worker as an important motivating factor in this. The power of the relationship was such a positive. I could write thousands of words about my admiration for residential workers, I have been privileged to work alongside some wonderful, committed, dedicated staff whose unshakeable belief in the young people they care for has been and continues to be an inspiration to me.

It’s Not All About Sickness and Health


As it is carers’ week I have been reflecting on the role that carers play and I have decided to put my thoughts down. Partly because I think they might be of interest but also partly because I wanted to take some time to explore an aspect of caring that we may not always give our fullest attention to.

Caring seems to me to wrapped up in a number of powerful societal images. There is a sense of duty and stoicism about it, a classic “stiff upper lip” aspect.  Spousal carers would often use the phrase “in sickness and in health” to explain why they were offering so much of themselves to the person they were caring for. As well as the sense of duty there is an aspect of love, the powerful emotional ties felt between people who care and people who are cared for, toward the end of my Fathers life my Mothers love for him was expressed in the affection she sowed while caring for him, their intimacy and shared experience was moving and affected everyone they came into contact with, right to the very end it was obvious that here was a couple who were in love and had the roles been reversed the same would have happened. It was touching and inspirational all at the same time.

As someone who has worked with carers, had some experience of caring and now teaches others it seems this pastoral element of caring is a characteristic of our society, it seems bound up with so many altruistic, powerful notions we have came to rely on carers without being full aware of the complexity of the role they play. On the surface carers are admired for their commitment and dedication, we encourage and support them and we dedicate weeks to them. We have a deep seated respect and admiration for them. This is perhaps related to our own awareness that it is unlikely we will never have some or all aspects of this role in our life, we respect it because we know we might have to do it. We support it because it feels “right” but also out of awareness that we too will one day walk the same path.

Yet we need to also recognise that carers experience other emotions, they can become angry, frustrated, they can feel a loss of their own identity and experience a sense of their own lives, their own aspirations and desires being stymied by their role. For some they can feel resentment toward their role and this resentment can become enmeshed in their feelings about the person they care for and can spill over into their attitudes and behaviours toward the person they care for. This seems in direct opposition to the image we have of carers and we can struggle to understand how this can happen. Our image and ideas about carers are in opposition to these negative and challenging behaviours we find it hard to assimilate these opposing feelings.

As a Social Worker I always struggled with this. Reflecting on it now this struggle had two main themes. One was that I found it hard to “go there” to that place of challenging emotions, I feared that if I explored them I could inadvertently destabilise the situation and might contribute to it breaking down, there was an organisational aspect to this as well as I felt that it was important that if the situation did break down the organisation could not be seen to have contributed toward this. Secondly and most significantly was a lack of ability on my behalf to recognise that there should be nothing unusual in carers feeling conflicted, after all we all do. I love my job but there are times I become frustrated and annoyed by it, there are aspects to any situation that bring us to boiling point, finding someone to share these feelings with contributes to your ability to manage them and to feel more skilled.

For carers I have found that exploring all of their feelings is important, on many occasions I have seen carers showing a palpable sense of relief that someone is giving them permission to examine there own emotions in a non judgemental manner. Indeed I have found that carers find this kind of support as meaningful as any other and more meaningful than most. For professionals it is important that we are willing to go beyond the stereotype and populist images of carers and be willing to support carers emotionally as well as practically and socially.

The Importance of “Stuff”

I have been reflecting recently on the issue of work space and particularly how your work space can support you in developing your skills for critical reflection. Critical reflection means different things to different people but for me and for the purposes of this post I would describe it as an activity undertaken to reflect on situations and consider your actions. Importantly this reflection should be balanced; we should recognise the things we did well as well as those things that we could improve. In undertaking this activity we develop and grow as practitioners, and I would argue, as people.

For the last twelve weeks I have been teaching on a module that student social workers undertake prior to going out on their first placement. Students are required to engage in an interview with a service user and demonstrate their ability to engage with the service user. Students are required to demonstrate a range of competencies. These relate to the students abilities to actively listen to the service user and to allow the service user the “space” to tell their story. Students are urged not to try and “fix” things, rather they are asked to be open and encouraging, to be supportive and to allow the service user to develop their own understanding of their issue through a supportive dialogue.

All too often these skills are described as “soft” skills and all too often I have described them thus. Having taught on this module and reflected on my own performance I have came to realise that describing these skills as soft is erroneous. I believe that these are fundamental skills as they are skills that separate professionals working in the care sector from professionals in other sectors. They are obtainable and many of the students I have taught have some basic awareness that they have a facility in this area but they are often in need of support to develop this understanding and then further support to implement them in a way that is empowering and transformational.

Students are asked to reflect on their performance in the taped interview and describe how they felt they managed. In essence they are required to demonstrate their own ability to critically reflect. I enjoy teaching on this and for me this has been a transformational experience as it has allowed me to reflect on my own awareness and to consider how effective I am and have been at critical reflection. Un surprisingly I have found that in practice I used these skills without being fully aware of them and sadly all too rarely. A greater commitment to allowing people the space and time to arrive at a deeper understanding of their own issues would undoubtedly have led to a more enduring change. In my rush to fix things I overlooked the importance of a more fundamental set of skills that would have been far more effective and have given service users a greater sense of their own capacity to resolve come of the issues they are faced with.

Arriving at this conclusion was an empowering process, one which I undertook while surrounded by my own stuff. Here at my desk on my right hand side is a small collage of family photographs. My son and daughters provide a link back to my home life reminding me of the importance of the balance I often fail to strike. A reproduction print of St. Cecelia and the Angel sits over my left shoulder, it reminds me of my love of music and it is a thing of beauty. Next to it is Nasirean the giraffe. Well not a real giraffe of course. It is a print given to me by an African student who bought it while on holiday in Africa. Nasirean has a special significance, I remember the student giving to me and feeling a sense of gratitude and humility. A student thought of me in the cradle of civilization and brought me something back. It seems that I made enough of an impression on this student that she wanted to bring me a gift back from half way across the world. I am taking that as a positive.

This then is my environment. I have constructed it. Partly it comes from me but partly from others. It is a personal space in a large institution in what was once the second city of an empire and it is here that I write this. Here that I reflect on my own abilities, here that I recognise my achievements and consider what I can do better. The quality of my fundamental skills development is directly affected by the environment that I operate in any adjustment to this environment to me would adjust my ability to undertake a key aspect of what makes me the person and the professional I am.

I have a digital environment as well, my Twitter feed represents who and what I am. My timeline keeps me up to date with the professional and personal aspects of my life and provides encouragement, support and a virtual network that I have developed over the last two years. I have contributed to this and I have given and received support and encouragement and it is a two way relationship that I now cannot imagine not having.

Without these real and digital locations I would not have developed or written this post, and as a social worker I believe that any de personalisation of the environment that we operate in would have an impact on the quality of the fundamental skills that we seek to develop and promote. Your environment provides a sense of self and of place, mine provides me with a sense of security and ownership and I am comfortable in it, it is the personalised space in a diverse, fluid organisation that alters and changes, often outwith my control.

So stuff is important, not just for security and comfort but to develop fundamental skills and to allow for critical reflection. Do you agree?

What Mr. Cameron’s comment meant to me

David Cameron has rightly apologised after his “Tourette’s” comment about Ed Balls. As the Prime Minister he is expected to uphold the highest standards in public life. On this occasion he has failed miserably to so do and I believe his comment is symptomatic of a more concerning direction in our public life.

Tourette’s is not funny. Any illness, condition or disability experienced by anyone is not funny. Nor is it acceptable for anyone to suggest it is. Ricky Gervais recently attempted to justify his use on the word “mong” claiming that people would know he was using it as a generalisation and it was not to be seen as anything else. I am not sure that even he believed this, to make deliberate fun of someone by suggesting they are suffering from a condition such as Tourette’s or downs syndrome is never funny, never acceptable and can never be seen as anything other than unacceptable.

There is a continuing trend in the reality TV world to make documentaries that focus on marginalised societal groups. Such programmes claim to offer an insight into the lived experiences of groups of individuals and their lives. Yet such programmes also entertain and often the “entertainment” is captured by considering singular aspects of these societal groupings lifestyles without affording the viewing public the opportunity to appreciate the intricacies of the history, traditions and culture’s of those the programmes are about.
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Social Work’s professional space in Scotland

I have to admit that the idea for this blog entry has been around for some time. For various reasons I have avoided writing it but after a brief Twitter discussion on Sunday I though it best to put some thoughts down.

The idea of professional space has interested me for some time. Andrew Cooper’s paper, The State of Mind We Are In was the first that I read that made me think about the idea. This blog entry will in no way offer what Cooper’s paper offered but will give some insight into my thinking abut this issue.

So what am I defining “professional space” as? Well for me it is a mixture of the professional identities, the social policies that are around and the prevailing economic or social conditions that people are exposed to. For the purposes of this entry I will use my own experiences of working in Social Work in Scotland for the last twenty years.
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