Social work has never evolved into a universal service such as health and education; its main business has always been involvement in the lives of children and families who are poor.
More than four out of five users of social services live on or below state benefit levels and the chances of children being removed from their parents increases with the level of poverty.
Research (Bebbington and Miles, 1989) has demonstrated the way in which factors such as social deprivation, social class and ethnic origin increase the likelihood of a child being looked after by a local authority. It showed that there is a one in 7,000 chance of a child entering care from a waged, white, owner-occupied household and a one in 10 chance for a child from an unwaged, mixed ethnic origin and rented household. Further studies have shown that three-quarters of looked-after children are from families that rely on benefits or who are from low income groups.
Does this mean that social workers judge families by their lack of wealth and resources? One hopes not. Social workers, by the time a case goes to court, will have completed assessments, with the hope that children can remain within their own birth families. Once a case is in court, the child has their own independent legal adviser and all social work assessments and plans are scrutinised.
As a social worker, I was always uncomfortable with the fact that I was targeting those who were poor and disadvantaged, and never provided a service to children who were from more affluent backgrounds. Several studies show that neglect and abuse of children can occur in any section of society, yet it seems that money can provide a barrier to intervention into family life by the state.
It seems a pity that the debate about social work is reduced to bashing social workers and their decision-making, as opposed to looking at what’s really going on, in all its complexity. But if most people have never had involvement with social work, they wouldn’t know, would they?
Elizabeth McAteer is an independent social worker