Practitioners have overwhelmingly backed a proposed definition of statutory adult social work as a relationship with people that goes beyond arranging services for them to making best-interests decisions with them.
They also said such social work should only be carried out by qualified, registered practitioners because of the legal accountability this brings for service users and employers.
One hundred and twelve social workers, from assistant directors down to newly-qualified practitioners and two students were consulted on the proposed definition of social work as “the effecting of adult social care when a relationship is required which goes beyond customer boundaries”.
This means that social work goes beyond arranging services in line with people’s wishes to safeguarding them from harm, recognising when it may not be appropriate to follow people’s wishes to promote their well-being and achieving a balance between the well-being of individuals and others in their network and community, where relevant.
This conception of social work is based on the brief definition of “relevant social work” in the Care Standards Act 2000 and a set of decision-making principles for social care practitioners devised by the Law Commission in its review of adult social care law from 2010-11.
It was drawn up for The College of Social Work by Angela Jenkinson and John Chamberlain of the Centre for Quality Assuring Professional Practice in Community Health and Social Care at Kingston Business School.
Chamberlain was formerly assistant director of adult social care at Hammersmith and Fulham Council and Jenkinson was until recently head of quality assurance for adult care at London’s tri-borough councils (Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea). The College plans to use the definition to build a business case for adult social work.
Jenkinson and Chamberlain consulted social workers in the tri-borough councils, and also in the London boroughs of Camden and Ealing, in 11 groups during May and June this year.
While backing the definition, practitioners also expanded on it, developing seven themes about the nature of statutory social work:
- Building relationships is central to social work, to help people develop their capacity and networks, to promote their independence;
- The social worker holds a statutory role, which involves using legal powers and balancing the interests of the client and their wider community;
- Social workers engage with people in their social context, so effective social work requires local and cultural knowledge;
- Social workers work to mobilise wider social networks and other professionals for the good of the client;
- Social workers build relationships with people at times of crisis to help them make difficult decisions;
- Social workers have a particular responsibility to safeguard vulnerable adults from harm, balancing their rights against potential harms to themselves or to others;
- Social work is a “bottom line” service that provides a safety net to protect people’s well-being.
Eight of the 11 groups agreed that social work – so-defined – should only be carried out by a registered social worker. The other three groups said that, while relationships could be built with clients by suitably trained people who were not qualified and registered, all case decisions should be made by registered social workers.
While 10 of the 11 groups said community care assessments could be carried out by non-professionally qualified staff, all agreed that assessment services should be managed by a registered social worker. It said the assessment process needed to identify those people who needed a social work intervention, as opposed to the simple arranging of a service, so that these cases could be referred to professionals.
“Registration was seen as the only mechanism which can now generate a confident expectation that the worker has the requisite skills and judgement required to fulfil the duty of care in social work,” said the report of the consultation. “This was seen as protecting the client, the council and the social worker.”
Practitioners also called for stronger quality assurance and professional governance of social work practice through independent audits of practice and the appointment of chief social workers in each authority to provide leadership and accountability for professional practice. They also called for more time for practitioners to engage in reflection, study and research, along the lines of the medical professions.
Social workers on social work
“I do what no one else will touch. I am the safety net.”
“The social work relationship may be used to help a person build the capacity to realise their wishes when they seem beyond them.”
“Social workers engage with individuals in their social context in a way others wouldn’t.”
Social workers “make significant decisions at complex changes in [individuals’] lives”.
Social workers “use authority in a way which is not oppressive”.
Source: Consultation with 112 social workers in five London boroughs, May/June 2013, Kingston University
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