Takes two to tango

If the 21st century is teaching us anything, it is that violence
increasingly rules the world. Physical violence means being
demeaned, degraded and humiliated. It means terror, hurt and pain.
For its proponents, on the other hand, violence may mean respect,
power and authority.

But in a society like the UK, only a small proportion of people
have any regular contact with violence. Perhaps that explains our
misbegotten love affair with fantasised violence on the box, screen
and videogame. However, the minority who are at particular risk,
also tend to be those who are most vulnerable in terms of age,
ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability and poverty.

It is just these groups who are most likely to be users of social
care services. There tend to be two ways of presenting the issue of
violence in social care – according to who is seen as the victim.
One scenario sees control as the solution; the other sees it as the
problem. The first tends to go something like this:

Social workers operate at the heavy end of the market. They work
with some very “vulnerable” and “disturbed” people. Social services
“clients” are associated with “high rates of mental disorder”.
There are growing problems of antisocial, disaffected young people.
The problem of violence is predictable. Social workers need
protection. This requires controlled environments, adequate alarm
systems, defensible space. To ensure safety may require armoured
glass, metal grills, locked entrances and bolted down furniture.
Training in physical avoidance techniques, in some cases, unarmed
combat, may be helpful.

Then there is the social control model, which runs along the lines

Social care has moved a long way from the aspirations of the
radical social work of the 1970s. Statutory social services have
increasingly taken on the role, culture and appearance of the poor
law and benefits office. Their soft cop role has become
increasingly evident. Contact with clients has diminished.
Interviews, tied to ever-narrowing eligibility criteria, have
become increasingly mechanistic. In a broader context of defensive
practice, organisational back-watching, “welfare to work” and the
political prioritising of benefit fraud, distrust is in the air.
“Clients” are likely to be increasingly desperate as they face
gatekeepers, long waits, polite and not so polite refusals in
dreary offices.

There’s probably not an objective fact any of us could reasonably
challenge in either of these conventional characterisations. But
both rest on complex assumptions which encourage
over-simplification. Neither takes us very far in understanding or
addressing the problem of violence in social care. Violence is a
two-way street anyway and we should never forget this. We may never
know just how many service users experience explicit and more
subtle forms of violence within social care, especially within its
residential services. The focus must always be on violence as it
affects both service workers and service users.

Violence is the offspring of alienation and inequality. It thrives
where human beings don’t. So long as social care operates in this
territory – as it does – there will be the potential for violence.
There is no need to pathologise service users or equate mental
distress with automatic violence and threat, to take this properly
into account. Here’s where we can helpfully connect the micro-world
of social care with the wider world it operates in.

We should also remind ourselves here, that service users and those
who work with them are often devalued and treated as marginal. The
two groups are natural allies.

Social care may not be able to isolate itself from the wider world
of violence and has its own role in dealing with it, but it can do
more to minimise violence in contacts between service users and
workers. This will include a culture from the top based on real
respect for clients and an organisational approach which rests on
seeing each person as an individual. It also means encouraging the
personal qualities in workers of warmth, empathy, openness,
reliability and respect. Also in situations where people may be at
their wits’ end, where the only strategy some may know is violence,
it means an even greater emphasis on developing interviewing and
communication skills, to identify difficulties and help avoid them.
Most of all, it must mean that workers are never left alone on
their own to cope.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University. He is active in the psychiatric system survivor

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