Social work is an act of courage

BASW England Manager Maris Stratulis salutes the bravery of social workers as part of our campaign

It’s so important to Stand Up for Social Work and the campaign is a good opportunity to remember how all social workers in diverse roles and settings have contributed to positive life changing circumstances for children, families and adults.

Social work demands bravery. Many social workers and social care workers have died in the course of their work; others have had their lives ruined for speaking out.

The ultimate sacrifice

In 1984, social worker Isabel Schwarz was stabbed to death in her office in Bexley psychiatric hospital by a former service user. The tragedy led to the introduction of the Community Care Act 1990.

In 1985 social worker Norma Morris was murdered in Haringey, north London, while visiting a young man who had attempted suicide.

In 1986, social worker Frances Bettridge was strangled in Birmingham by a man who thought she planned to take away his children.

In 1992, care worker Katie Sullivan was washing up in the kitchen of a MIND hostel in Kingston when she was stabbed to death by a resident.

In 1993, volunteer Jonathan Newby was left in sole charge of a hostel for the mentally unwell in Oxford when he was stabbed to death by one of the residents.

In 1998, hospital social worker Jenny Morrison was stabbed to death by a client in a south London hostel, where she had gone to check on his deteriorating mental health.  Social worker Audrey Johnson was killed in the same year in the course of her duties.


Whistle blowers who are brave enough to voice their concerns may not lose their lives but their careers and personal lives can be left in tatters.

Haringey social worker Maria Ward recently told Panorama of her experience being vilified by the media and fearing for her safety after the tragic death of Peter Connelly.

Haringey’s Nevres Kemal, Wirral Council’s Martin Morton, Liz Davis at Islington Council and Simon Bellwood, who helped to spark a major inquiry into children’s services in Jersey, are just a few of the social workers who have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet and suffered the consequences.

Every day bravery

Less dramatic but no less significant are the little acts of bravery social workers commit every day on the job; such as giving evidence in court proceedings or knocking on doors for the first time – not knowing who or what they might encounter.

Social workers have to be the person to break the news to a child that a sibling has died, or to parents that their child is no longer safe in their care. The conflict, physical and verbal aggression which social workers must manage every day demands huge reserves of strength and courage.

Social workers have to decide if they tell the truth of their working lives to Ofsted inspectors as well as sharing the reality of a child’s journey.

Standing your ground

Social workers often have to stand their ground to help people access the right support – “no, being locked up in a police cell is not good enough, I will stay on duty as long as I need to sure this person get access to a hospital placement”.

Just like doctors and nurses, social workers around the world also work in conflicts, war zones and humanitarian disasters and must still maintain their professional value base when doing so.

But social workers being creative, innovative and determined to set the bar of high quality standards are also being just as brave, steadfast and determined.

Let’s salute that bravery. Let’s celebrate the history of social work, the ethics and value base of the profession and the important role that we as a profession have to play.

Speaking up

The voice of the profession must be heard and that includes challenging poor practice, injustice, wrongs and collusion in not listening to children and adults.

Let’s also be brave and courageous about acknowledging which factors can directly impact upon the functions and roles of social workers as well as organisational systems and employer responsibilities.

The 2015 the HCPC published a research report “Preventing small problems from becoming big problems in health and social care”. It highlights the common reasons for disengagement and ‘competency drift’ amongst health and care professionals.  They included: workload pressures, working patterns,   professionals operating outside the scope of their practise, under-utilisation of skills, professional isolation, lack of autonomy, lack of support for continuous professional development , poor or infrequent supervision, poor management, dysfunctional relationships (at work), personal circumstances and a blame culture.

Prevent little problems from growing

Being valued, good team dynamics, good supervision, regular appraisal and performance management, buddying schemes, mentoring, team building, professional network, reflective practice, self-awareness, keeping up to date and no blame culture were cited as key ingredients to prevent small problems from becoming big problems.

As Maya Angelou, the poet, author and American civil rights activist, said: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently”.

Let’s be brave and courageous as a profession. Let’s embrace those willing to speak out and blow the whistle, not vilify them. Let us protect ourselves and other social workers and never ever forget those who have lost their lives doing this job that we love.

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4 Responses to Social work is an act of courage

  1. Scampi101 March 18, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Too many Social Workers are put under pressure not to share the real position of their role with OFSTED. In one authority I am aware of those who are selected to speak to the inspectors are instructed and given practice on the comments they should make. The same is true for service users again being selected and invited to groups etc where they will share very positive experiences because they have been instructed to do so.
    Record keeping is also another area which is “pawed” over to ensure everything in line with requirements. The rest of the time these records are sadly lacking.
    To assist social workers I believe there should be more unannounced visits to LA and it’s service users to ensure compliance is continual. Social workers should be selected haphazardly at the visit to ensure no prior coaching has been given.
    Social workers are losing autonomy, having to comply with rigid managerial views to provide numerical outcomes required by inspectors to judge a service. Unfortunately this is never a true reflection on the real issues facing workers and service users involved in the provision of care. The real position is high case load burnt out workers and service users not been given the service they require. With the area of accountability becoming more to thd fore all workers in social and health care provision should be able to whistleblower bad practice as and when it arises without fear of repercussions.

  2. Ken Rogers March 18, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    Scampi101’s post is spot on

  3. julie March 18, 2015 at 10:24 pm #

    I just despair. The profession is in dire need of overhaul. I walked away from the profession after 16 years. Even though I have withdrawn my name from the register I follow what is happening in the profession and for most part now grieve for a profession that i was once so proud of being a part of. n

  4. Andy West March 19, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    Like Julie I stepped away from social work but was fortunate enough to be in a position to retire after 37 years. I too keep following developments.

    What would be good to hear would be someone in social care feeling able to come forward and say that when they had raised an issue they had felt welcomed for doing so and were seriously listened to.

    My experience was of raising issues over the years but in the main being ignored. I have no way of knowing whether this affected my career but certainly came to feel an outsider.

    My experience in my own agency was that there was more encouragement of front line staff contributing to policy in the past, more encouragement of local interest groups for social care staff.

    In more recent times the emphasis was on introducing new initiatives that appeared to be forced on managers and senior managers as much as they were on front line staff. The issue then became one of training staff to implement the initiatives rather than encouraging any discussions as to whether they were suitable or whether they could be implemented in their current form.

    As regards Scampi’s comments about unannounced visits my concern is that this would spread anxiety about inspections to an even greater extent particularity among managers which may create even more pressure on staff.

    I fear that without a more comprehensive overhaul of the inspection system things will not change. My own experience of OFSTED just before my retirement was that the inspector I spoke to about private fostering (I had a lot of experience of private fostering within the agency) was not interested in a discussion about the broader difficulties of this area of work but came with her own agenda about what was required of the agency.