Open Forum – 9 November 2006

The Ashleigh Ewing tragedy is a reminder of the risks taken by professionals in the name of duty, writes Elizabeth McAteer

For social care staff, risk is part of their professional lives. They provide services, often to people living under considerable duress in a manner that is user-focused and empowering. Are these risks understood by wider society, or is the general criticism of the workforce – that it lacks skills in identifying and managing risk – just part of looking for easy solutions in dealing with people who have problems?

How many of our legislators have had involvement with social care staff? Journalists, whose narratives question the competence of social workers in assessing risk in child protection or in supervising vulnerable people in the community, may have no experience of these services.

Attempting to assess risk is not an exact science, but staff who are employed to do so must receive training and supervision that ensures that they can undertake their roles safely. Organisations have a duty to protect their staff by ensuring that they do not become isolated and at risk of harm. Newly qualified staff or students on work placements have a right to be protected by being accompanied and mentored by experienced staff who can assess the possibility of danger in a situation.

Staff whose professional bravery is rarely acknowledged do this regularly. They will knock on doors and enter situations where risk is present and will manage that risk so that clients and the wider public remain safe. They do it, certainly not for the money, but because they care.

This was the case with Ashleigh Ewing, a mental health worker, who was stabbed to death last May while working in the home of a client. Her parents described her as “caring and compassionate for others less fortunate than herself”.

It is hoped that Ashleigh’s death will remind everyone who criticises that those who undertake such work do so because they see the human being behind the label and as such should be cherished and protected in their work rather than abused and vilified.

Elizabeth McAteer is an independent social worker, trainer and consultant

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