In his recent report on social work education, Sir Martin Narey is largely dismissive of the 2002 international definition of social work and its inclusion of social justice as an aspiration. Narey’s myopic view of the profession suggests social work is about social control or social engineering as opposed to social growth and change. It seems to be about rescuing children from neglectful or abusive homes. But this is a small part of the repertoire of children and family interventions; children grow into adults and the scars of injustice can be very deep.
Today is World Social Work Day, when from the United Nations downwards we celebrate the achievements of social workers around the world who are committed to social justice. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) is working with others through the global agenda for social work and social development to promote an equalities agenda that will work towards reducing stigma and those in our societies who live in the shadows.
Promoting social justice means working to help people find change in their lives so that they can experience that sense of well-being that comes from feeling included and part of something positive. This resulting self-esteem in turn generates their confidence in contributing to growth and is essential in building the social capital that drives economies. When people feel well, they work well.
The majority of both aspirant and established social workers view a desire for social justice as their motivation to get out of bed every morning. It’s what inspires them to do very hard work helping people feel part of their communities, not in the shadows, not stigmatised.
When you start a legal action as a social worker, whether in children’s or adults services, you are starting on a course that may lead to someone or several people losing some of their human rights (as specified in the human rights declarations and conventions that our politicians have signed up to on our behalf as citizens).
This may be loss of liberty by being detained in secure accommodation, a prison, a mental health facility or losing your birth family, your friends, your locality. These actions will have an effect on the person who is taken through our legal systems. They will ask themselves who am I, where did I come from, why are people taking this action that affects me?
Following such interventions, the sense of self and ultimately self-confidence in both living and working with people is affected for the rest of their life. Who judges this as an effective intervention and what do we know about the stigma people feel or if we have achieved our aim of helping people achieve social justice?
As young social workers in the 1970s, we were expected to work with individuals, but also to do community work, building up local assets for people to support each other. People like Bob Holman, co-founder of the Easterhouse project in Glasgow, who still goes on the annual camp, are exemplars of how to build local capacity.
Nicola Barry, author of Mother’s Ruin, has said that she did not want to be removed from home, but for the abuse and all the neglect that went with it to stop. Over the past 40 years of practising social work with both adults and children, I have found this to be a constant theme.
I came into social work at the time when the last child migrants were being legally trafficked to new homes in Australia. Barnardo’s was amongst the organisations involved in this practice. The work of Margaret Humphreys, whose book inspired the Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine, tells us much about the long term outcomes. More will be revealed in the work of the historic abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland and any reports that may come from Scotland’s National Confidential Forum for adult survivors of childhood abuse in residential care to help us understand the longer term effects of what may have seemed, at the time, the best option; to remove children from their families.
Ultimately, the people we work with are in the driving seat and they are the ones that choose the direction of travel. It is our task to help navigate a good journey; only when we meet that point of needing to prevent action that will harm themselves or another do we take that legal action to interfere with their human rights. This is a much more complex task than rescuing people and displacing them away from their emotional base to alien situations and experiences. It demands a standard of training that is sharp on the analysis of complex intergenerational matrix to know when we have to make that judgement.
I and many of my colleagues did not join a profession to be an agent of social control engaged in social engineering. We must listen to the people whose lives we interact with and what works for them. Social justice has to underpin our actions in achieving good quality social work intervention if people are to be helped to remove the ultimate shackles of stigma.
Ruth Stark is a social worker and member of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the IFSW’s Human Rights Commission