by Sophie Ayers
The risk that social workers face is a popular and justified area of debate. In discussing workers’ rights it is important to highlight the most important aspect of our practice: we are entering a person’s home, and their most significant personal space.
Perhaps I had previously become blasé about the home visits I completed. I viewed it as a professional necessity rather than my foot over the threshold into a person’s own living space being the greatest intrusion possible.
It was not until I was interviewed in a personal capacity by a social worker in my own home, for a friend’s application to adopt, that I gained even the slightest comprehension of the personal encroachment within this situation.
A professional was sitting in my inner sanctuary and probing questions were delivered regarding issues I had thought were personal. To make matters worse, a fly had found itself in my living room and was circumnavigating my lampshade.
I was preoccupied in the visit by the thought that the visiting social worker would perceive my home in a negative way due to the fly. I found myself apologising profusely for the presence of this little critter. I felt overwhelming embarrassment despite the fact the social worker had only come to seek my views regarding my friend’s ability to care for a child and was not assessing me.
This encounter was incredibly significant in the way in which I progressed my practice. I started to reflect in greater detail upon my service users’ experience of my casual ‘drop ins’ and request to view the contents of their fridge. The statutory requirements of child protection visits by their very nature are incredibly intrusive.
The dilemma that is in place for social workers is that we need to understand the lived experience of children. To gain full clarity, in-depth investigations are required to assess whether the service users’ self-reporting is borne out through their living standards. Particularly with cases involving neglect, intrusive practice can be required. However, probing questions and a sense of infringement of a person’s right to a private and family life can lead to hostility.
Since my own experience of a social worker visiting my home, I have applied further thought when completing ‘investigative’ social work. As a worker, I always try to challenge with complete respect and propriety. However, there are times when situations don’t exactly go to plan.
Most social work visits are ‘run of the mill’ and often are rewarding experiences. However, risky situations are an inevitable part of social work practice.
If you are aware that a situation is likely to be overtly dangerous, you will generally request that the police are present. However, this request is not always as simple as it may appear.
You have to be aware that the presence of a police officer may exacerbate a situation and this level of power should only be used sparingly. In addition, it is commonplace when you require urgent support, the local police force may not prioritise a child protection concern against other situations. You and your manager can sometimes face the difficult dilemma as to whether you should venture alone into unknown situations to prevent the concerns escalating further.
In emergency and dangerous situations you are often balancing your own personal safety against the backdrop of imminent harm to a child or service user. It is easy with hindsight to evaluate how situations should have been managed. However, there is sometimes no ability to pause and reflect.
Being held in a house at machete point has to be singled out as one of my least favourite social work moments of my career. You have to draw upon all of your social work and life skills to negotiate your way out of this situation. I find that remembering no matter how scared you are, the children in the situation must be ten times more frightened than you are can be useful. This thought and acceptance can have a surprisingly calming effect and focus your mind on a solution.
There should always be a clear and coherent risk assessment in place for each social work visit. However, due to timing, limited information and the unpredictability of humanity, risky situations will enfold.
The encounter with the machete was a number of years ago but I will never forget how this initial assessment visit turned so sour. I lived on my own at the time and faced a weekend of unravelling the situation in my mind, thinking about the impact for the children who were removed from their family home in terrible circumstances and the utter physical reaction in my own body from the situation.
I was locked in a situation where I could not seek out external support due to the confidential nature of my encounter and was forced to suffer the horrors of this situation on my own. I now realise that somebody from the local authority that I worked for should have contacted me.
It is often that the aftermath of such visits are forgotten quickly to enable other work to be completed. The very nature of our job means that we duly attend for work the next working day, our vacant smile betraying the experience we have just encountered. I believe that most social workers have developed avoidant coping strategies which enable our diary to be fulfilled.
In an ideal world, social workers should not have to tolerate situations that jeopardise their sense of safety and expose them to trauma. However, due to the complicated dynamics that we work with, it is inevitable that we will face physical or emotional risk at certain points within our career.
We cannot impose a ‘no tolerance’ policy as used by other professionals because it is our duty to intervene and protect the most vulnerable within society. To opt out of managing situations due to verbal aggression and other risk indicators would render the services that we provide totally ineffectual.
However, the way in which we manage risk is imperative for long term social work survival. I have found that there is significant disparity in local authorities in terms of risk management. I have been provided with the highest level of protection including a hire car and personal alarm being fitted within my home following serious threats being made. However, I have also experienced a dismissive and ineffectual culture by other local authorities.
We need to move away from thinking that because exposure to harm is almost inevitable, we must suffer in silence and stoically continue. I have learned during my career that sometimes we need to assert and demand that our personal safety is protected. This is relevant in both coping with emotional consequences of trauma and imminent risks to our safety. Do not make assumptions that your managers understand how you are feeling or truly understand the risks that you feel.
It is imperative that social workers start an active dialogue regarding their physical and emotional protection. In turn, it is vital that there is a standardised and legally enforceable code of conduct for local authorities in managing risk for their precious and dedicated workforce.
Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982.