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Has J K Rowling created the best ever fictional social worker?


Here is some good news about the fictional portrayal of social work for those who have been dismayed by Eastenders recently, writes Jonathan Scourfield*. 
Anyone who has entered a bookshop or read a newspaper in the last month will not have been able to escape the publication of J. K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy – it has been heavily hyped. What people might not have picked up from the articles and reviews is that this is possibly the most sympathetic ever portrayal of social work in a mass-market novel. I will try to explain, while avoiding spoilers for those who plan to read it.

Social justice and a specific social work storyline

Rowling is very strong on the social causes of personal troubles. The novel deals with poverty, emotional deprivation, the demands on a young carer, drug dependency, sexual abuse, racism and, perhaps most of all, class-based prejudice. She is passionate about social injustice and this is the novel’s central concern. She has made no secret of her political views, and The Casual Vacancy sometimes feels like a centre-left manifesto, albeit one that has a much stronger plot-line than any literature from a political party. So, the whole book is relevant to social work. But more than that, there is also a specific social work storyline.

The book is not as centrally concerned with social work as Hungarian novelist Georg Konrad’s The Caseworker. In Konrad’s book, the central character is a state social worker, whereas Rowling’s book is about the social fabric of a small English town and has a range of different characters. But at the heart of the book is the troubled Weedon family, who have a social worker, Kay Bawden, because of child protection concerns. There is a three-year-old boy, Robbie, a sixteen-year-old girl, Krystal and their mother, Terri. 

‘Realistic scenarios not social work fairy tales’

Social work processes are described in some detail and fairly accurately. There is description of several home visits, a case review and the social worker’s deliberations about the case. The portrayal of social work is not rose-tinted; there are some negative aspects. The office is rather chaotic, with a constantly ringing phone that just goes unanswered. The previous worker for the Weedon family, Matty, is often off sick and when in work has no warmth and no memory for individuals. Kay Bawden, however, is portrayed very sympathetically. 

Bawden is thoroughly human, having made some poor decisions in her personal life. As a social worker she gradually builds effective relationships in very challenging circumstances, with warmth and honesty. Both Terri and Krystal come to trust her. For a time, her involvement with the family seems to make a positive difference. This is not a social work fairy tale of transformation, but a realistic scenario of some temporary minor improvements following statutory intervention.

‘What empathetic, assertive social work can achieve’

The Casual Vacancy is not straightforwardly a good advert for a social work career. The Weedon family circumstances are very grim indeed, as is most of the novel in fact, and the job is shown to be very tough. But there are glimmers of what empathetic, assertive, relationship-based social work can achieve. I would not be surprised if the book gets cited as an influence on social work career decisions in years to come. For now, I would say to social workers – get a copy of the book, read it and discuss it in book groups. To social work lecturers – get it on your reading lists. Let’s find a way to use the book in media campaigns to show there is more to social work fiction than Eastenders baby-snatching.

*Jonathan Scourfield is professor of social work at Cardiff University 
Pic: Jeff Blackler/Rex Features
Camilla Pemberton, journalist,

About Camilla Pemberton, journalist,

Camilla Pemberton is Community Care's children's editor

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