UK and Russian social workers share disaster-planning best practice

Large-scale disasters are a rare event in the UK, but social service departments have plans to respond if they do happen. By contrast, Russia has suffered numerous deaths from its crumbling infrastructure and conflicts in its territories. But scant planning and resources result in ad hoc responses from their social services.

The Russian European Trust for Welfare Reform brings together leading social services managers and experts from the UK and Russia to learn from each others’ experiences of disaster response. Last November, a delegation of social workers from Moscow, Siberia and the Caucasus travelled around the UK to meet experts and exchange information.

The visitors’ stories are far from cheering, as Lyudmila Makarova, head of domiciliary services in North Ossetia, can testify. Her state contains the town of Beslan where a school siege in 2004 left 334 dead, 187 of them children. “The siege was unexpected but, from the first day, all the services came together to deal with the consequences,” she says. “But not all victims were ready to receive psychological help. They couldn’t be helped because the volume of human grief was so enormous.”

The small size of Beslan – just 35,000 people live there – intensified the challenge as social workers also wrestled with their own grief. “But we Ossetians, although we are not a big nation, still support each other in grief and in injury,” Makarova says. “We had to go to the victims’ houses to estimate their material and psychological needs. We saw the beds and photos of dead children. We social workers cried together with the parents.”

Universal principles

Stories like Makarova’s show that the underlying principles of social work are the same the world over, but the means of response differ enormously.

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, is a consultant on the exchange project and has visited Russia regularly. He says a stoic culture has developed and people are reluctant to accept help. “When organisations in place under the communists became unsupported and destabilised, people dealt with the situations they were facing themselves,” he says.

“There wasn’t the money available for social workers when they were working – they may have been forced to do several jobs in order to have a decent income.”

The visit was undertaken partly to examine the UK’s legislation to support people in a crisis. “We have a well-developed structure and process of planning and rehearsing for disasters,” says Jones. “There’s a clear line of accountability, and in terms of what to do when a disaster happens. We’re clear about where responsibility lies.”

The Russian European Trust for Welfare Reform is an EU-funded project to bring western expertise to bear on problems in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The programme has helped Russia and the UK exchange disaster management information since the Kursk submarine sunk in the Barents Sea in 2000.

But learning about disaster management is not a one-way street. After its recent toll of disasters, Russia has developed effective ways to engage families. Maria Pavlova, a psychologist with Russia’s ministry of extreme situations, says: “We provide support to disaster victims and try to deal with the consequences of extreme situations. Our main aim is to provide psychological support, and our experience is unique – foreign colleagues say psychologists don’t work during disaster, whereas they do in Russia.”

Pavlova met staff from the Institute of Psychiatry and St Christopher’s Hospice who work with the Metropolitan Police in supporting families after trauma with a view to working together in the future.

Mining tragedy

The Russian delegation also visited Northumbria University’s disaster and development centre, saw how Westminster Council responded to the 2005 London bombings, and met representatives from the British Association of Social Workers and the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

For Irina Fedorova, the deputy mayor of the Siberian city of Kemerovo, where in 2007 a mining accident killed 108, the most important part of the trip was finding out about the practical activities connected with social work in disaster-struck communities.

“We had a conference with Roy Taylor [director of community services at Kingston Council and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services national lead for civil contingencies] and learned there are special services that regulate practical help to disaster victims, both through legislation and interagency working methods,” she says.

“This sphere is well developed in the UK but it’s just developing in Russia.”

Russian European Trust for Welfare Reform

Published in the 29 January edition of Community Care under the heading Disaster Recovery

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