Sexuality and social work part 2

Despite, or even as a result of, enormous social, political and legislative change in relation to gay and lesbian issues, social work teams still struggle to deal effectively with them.(1) It is within this context that we were approached by a local authority to run a series of one-day awareness-raising sessions on lesbian and gay issues for social workers in fostering and adoption teams.

Alongside the content of the course we were also interested in seeing whether one day courses were an effective vehicle for achieving change in attitudes, acquiring knowledge and developing skills, given that many local authorities run much of their training through one- or two-day training courses.

Changes in law
Lesbian and gay issues in social work education and practice have been explored by, among others, Hicks(1) and Brown(2), who both describe good practice in social work with lesbians and gay men. In relation to practice within fostering and adoption, Brown says: “To approach an assessment of a lesbian or gay applicant requires that the social worker be familiar with the relevant knowledge base, consider their own and their agency’s values in relation to lesbians and gay men as parents, and
have the skills to undertake a full assessment.”

This also links with the general anti-discriminatory approach endorsed by the General Social Care Council’s code of practice for social care workers and the national occupational standards for social workers that underpin good practice with service users.

The recent change to the legal framework in adoption (Adoption and Children Act 2002) and the wider social changes in the UK affecting lesbians and gay men (such as the Civil Partnership Act 2004) have also affected social workers’ obligations toward prospective lesbian and gay adopters. Hicks argues that, because lesbian and gay families do not always rely on traditional forms of kinship and parenting, at best “contemporary forms of lesbian and gay parenting practice have much to teach all of us about the ways in which our ideas about intimacy, care, family and human relationships can be expanded”.

In our research study, held at a day’s training, the 22 participants completed an attitudinal questionnaire, Index of Attitudes towards Homosexuals, adapted from Hudson and Ricketts.(3) The questionnaire comprised 26 statements with responses rated by the participant on a scale of one to five. Participants also completed a questionnaire on the effectiveness of one-day training courses as a vehicle for changing attitudes and developing knowledge and skills. Some participants were interviewed six weeks later.

The day consisted of exercises identifying well-known lesbians and gay men, a presentation on the social and legal history of lesbian and gay issues, a definition of terms, interactive case studies and role plays highlighting some practice-based issues.

Initial analysis showed a small improvement in the overall scores from pre- to post-training. Of the 26 statements, two items scored the same across the sample group and 19 increased, showing that attitudes towards lesbians and gay men were more positive after training. However, five statements decreased. This may be due to several reasons, including participants’ increased awareness of some of the difficulties faced by lesbians and gay men. Feedback from the local authority “tick box” evaluation form was positive with most aspects rated good or excellent (96 per cent).

Impact in the workplace
Responses to the questionnaire on the effectiveness of one-day training courses focused on the effectiveness of this particular course rather than in general. Although some responses were positive, others signalled dissatisfaction that a wider range of issues had not been addressed due to time limitations. But participants could show how the day had informed key aspects of their practice – from individual assessments to reviewing existing policies and procedures. The key question for us was whether participants transferred this knowledge to the workplace.

A few interviews were conducted with participants after the training to see whether they had implemented any learning they had gained from the course, such as attitudinal change or improved skills. Although participants could identify the advantages and disadvantages of one-day training, concern was expressed at the likelihood of translating this learning into practice without further structured time and support to develop the knowledge and skills identified.

Despite early positive feedback immediately after the training, as time progressed there was a mixed response about the impact of the training in changing attitudes and improving knowledge and skills.

This concurs with the limited published literature on this topic: “Social work educators, as well as practitioners, often assume that competence with gay and lesbian groups can be achieved through short-term, and often ‘one-off ’ workshops or by inviting gay and lesbian guest speakers at lectures…these assumptions reflect a short-sighted, simplistic view of a complex process.

Restructuring one’s views and developing a sound base of knowledge and skills should be long-term professional endeavours.”4
Participants identified the need for such awareness training to include other workers in the respective organisation with links to lesbian and gay foster carers and adopters, such as district social workers and members of fostering and adoption panels. This can, however, only ever be one way of providing a conduit for change within a complex structural system. In addition to looking at local authority structures and processes, work could also include establishing links with private, voluntary and community organisations supporting lesbian and gay carers and adopters and using information, services and resources in these organisations.

In conclusion, this research raises implications for diversity issues generally. For instance, can training be expected to  address and bring about attitudinal change in social workers? Or perhaps more realistically, should its purpose be to ensure social workers are clear about the professional requirements prescribed in the codes of practice and national occupational standards so that they practise ethically, respecting the diversity and choice of the people with whom they work? Although the initial feedback from participants was positive, more work is needed to ensure any long-lasting change is embedded
into practice.

CHRISTINE COCKER is curriculum leader, and she and PAUL DUGMORE are principal lecturers in social work in the mental health and social work academic group at the Centre of Excellence for Teaching and Learning, School of Health and Social Sciences, at Middlesex University. Cocker has several years’ experience managing local authority child protection and lookedafter children services. Dugmore has worked as a practitioner and manager in youth justice. Between 2000 and 2002 he was also a director of the Albert Kennedy Trust, a voluntary organisation providing support services to young gay men and lesbians. 

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article looks at the effectiveness of one day training courses in addressing lesbian and gay issues in fostering and adoption. It focuses on an initial exploratory research study. The researchers found some improvement in social workers’ awareness of lesbian and gay issues after the training.

(1) S Hicks, “Lesbian and gay foster care and adoption: a brief UK history”, Adoption and Fostering, 29 (3), pp42-56, 2005
(2) H C Brown, Social Work and Sexuality: Working with Lesbians and Gay Men, BASW, Macmillan, 1998
(3) W W Hudson, W A Ricketts, “A strategy for the measurement of homophobia”, Journal of Homosexuality, 5 (4), pp57-72, 1980
(4) G P Mallon, B Betts, Recruiting, Assessing and Supporting Lesbian and Gay Carers and Adopters, British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2005

Stonewall: national campaigning organisation working for justice for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.
The Albert Kennedy Trust: providing homes for young people who would otherwise be homeless or in a hostile environment.

Related article
Promoting best practice in dealing with sexual orientation issues

This article appeared in the 16-22 November issue, under the headline “A day of change”

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