‘Being held up with a machete was one of my least favourite moments in social work’

Confronting the risks faced by social workers every day is vital, so is acknowledging how intrusive child protection visits can be, writes Sophie Ayers

Photo: Fuzzbones/Fotolia

by Sophie Ayers

The risk that social workers face is a popular and justified area of debate. In discussing workers’ rights it is important to highlight the most important aspect of our practice: we are entering a person’s home, and their most significant personal space.

Perhaps I had previously become blasé about the home visits I completed. I viewed it as a professional necessity rather than my foot over the threshold into a person’s own living space being the greatest intrusion possible.

It was not until I was interviewed in a personal capacity by a social worker in my own home, for a friend’s application to adopt, that I gained even the slightest comprehension of the personal encroachment within this situation.

Inner sanctuary

A professional was sitting in my inner sanctuary and probing questions were delivered regarding issues I had thought were personal. To make matters worse, a fly had found itself in my living room and was circumnavigating my lampshade.

I was preoccupied in the visit by the thought that the visiting social worker would perceive my home in a negative way due to the fly. I found myself apologising profusely for the presence of this little critter. I felt overwhelming embarrassment despite the fact the social worker had only come to seek my views regarding my friend’s ability to care for a child and was not assessing me.

This encounter was incredibly significant in the way in which I progressed my practice. I started to reflect in greater detail upon my service users’ experience of my casual ‘drop ins’ and request to view the contents of their fridge. The statutory requirements of child protection visits by their very nature are incredibly intrusive.

The dilemma

The dilemma that is in place for social workers is that we need to understand the lived experience of children. To gain full clarity, in-depth investigations are required to assess whether the service users’ self-reporting is borne out through their living standards. Particularly with cases involving neglect, intrusive practice can be required. However, probing questions and a sense of infringement of a person’s right to a private and family life can lead to hostility.

Since my own experience of a social worker visiting my home, I have applied further thought when completing ‘investigative’ social work. As a worker, I always try to challenge with complete respect and propriety. However, there are times when situations don’t exactly go to plan.

Most social work visits are ‘run of the mill’ and often are rewarding experiences. However, risky situations are an inevitable part of social work practice.

Police involvement

If you are aware that a situation is likely to be overtly dangerous, you will generally request that the police are present. However, this request is not always as simple as it may appear.

You have to be aware that the presence of a police officer may exacerbate a situation and this level of power should only be used sparingly. In addition, it is commonplace when you require urgent support, the local police force may not prioritise a child protection concern against other situations. You and your manager can sometimes face the difficult dilemma as to whether you should venture alone into unknown situations to prevent the concerns escalating further.

In emergency and dangerous situations you are often balancing your own personal safety against the backdrop of imminent harm to a child or service user. It is easy with hindsight to evaluate how situations should have been managed. However, there is sometimes no ability to pause and reflect.

The machete

Being held in a house at machete point has to be singled out as one of my least favourite social work moments of my career. You have to draw upon all of your social work and life skills to negotiate your way out of this situation. I find that remembering no matter how scared you are, the children in the situation must be ten times more frightened than you are can be useful. This thought and acceptance can have a surprisingly calming effect and focus your mind on a solution.

There should always be a clear and coherent risk assessment in place for each social work visit. However, due to timing, limited information and the unpredictability of humanity, risky situations will enfold.

The encounter with the machete was a number of years ago but I will never forget how this initial assessment visit turned so sour. I lived on my own at the time and faced a weekend of unravelling the situation in my mind, thinking about the impact for the children who were removed from their family home in terrible circumstances and the utter physical reaction in my own body from the situation.

I was locked in a situation where I could not seek out external support due to the confidential nature of my encounter and was forced to suffer the horrors of this situation on my own.  I now realise that somebody from the local authority that I worked for should have contacted me.

Coping strategies

It is often that the aftermath of such visits are forgotten quickly to enable other work to be completed. The very nature of our job means that we duly attend for work the next working day, our vacant smile betraying the experience we have just encountered. I believe that most social workers have developed avoidant coping strategies which enable our diary to be fulfilled.

In an ideal world, social workers should not have to tolerate situations that jeopardise their sense of safety and expose them to trauma. However, due to the complicated dynamics that we work with, it is inevitable that we will face physical or emotional risk at certain points within our career.

We cannot impose a ‘no tolerance’ policy as used by other professionals because it is our duty to intervene and protect the most vulnerable within society. To opt out of managing situations due to verbal aggression and other risk indicators would render the services that we provide totally ineffectual.

However, the way in which we manage risk is imperative for long term social work survival. I have found that there is significant disparity in local authorities in terms of risk management. I have been provided with the highest level of protection including a hire car and personal alarm being fitted within my home following serious threats being made. However, I have also experienced a dismissive and ineffectual culture by other local authorities.

We need to move away from thinking that because exposure to harm is almost inevitable, we must suffer in silence and stoically continue. I have learned during my career that sometimes we need to assert and demand that our personal safety is protected. This is relevant in both coping with emotional consequences of trauma and imminent risks to our safety. Do not make assumptions that your managers understand how you are feeling or truly understand the risks that you feel.

It is imperative that social workers start an active dialogue regarding their physical and emotional protection. In turn, it is vital that there is a standardised and legally enforceable code of conduct for local authorities in managing risk for their precious and dedicated workforce.

Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982.




More from Community Care

8 Responses to ‘Being held up with a machete was one of my least favourite moments in social work’

  1. SSM October 19, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

    When friends who are social workers are coming to me house for a coffee… my carpets have tram lines on them from the over vacuuming… I always reflect on this when undertaking home visits.

    I strongly believe that local authority and social workers need to be far more protective of social workers. But when we are run on a shoestring, and the good will of the social workers, it is often impossible to undertake joint visits etc. Without adequate funding, we are not in a position to minimise the risk to ourselves.

    Other professionals, particularly health and police perceive the risks to social workers are all part of our job. I have previously argued with police that it is not acceptable to give some a caution for attempting to murder me, if I was a police officer they would never have considered a caution being appropriate consequence. If the police are unwilling to protect us…. god help us!

  2. Barbara MacArthur October 19, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

    reminds me of when I was a social worker in Cardiff. Upon my retirement I emptied my drawer of the varied collection of sharp knives that I had confiscated over the years. I have since found a couple of them useful in cooking. The other objects, such as a couple of chair-legs, I disposed of. I

  3. Graham October 20, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

    If a police officer, in the course of their duty, is verbally abused they can arrest the offender, who may be charged with a public order offence. Perhaps fortunately, social workers do not have the power of arrest and we accept a level of verbal abuse others would not. In mental health we can often accept that the person is disturbed and not in their right mind.
    However we should NEVER knowingly put ourselves in a situation where there may be a physical threat without police presence, even if that means doing nothing. To do so would be irresponsible to ourselves and our families and feeds into the ‘macho’ school of social work that I sometimes see expounded in these comments pages.
    If society cannot keep us safe through lack of resources, society cannot and must not act.

    • HelenSparkles October 27, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

      I think the problem is that the visits one expects to be risky can be assessed, visits that become risky are often unpredictable rather than anyone being macho enough to want to take on a machete.

  4. CT October 20, 2016 at 8:00 pm #

    As ever it is a great article from Sophie in lots of ways, but still I am left speechless. I can’t quite believe that a social worker hasn’t considered what it is like to be on the receiving end of a home visit until they had their own. Every person we visit is different, as is the stage they are at, and the details of their experience. Social workers need to think about what they want to achieve in their visit and what that experience will be like for that person/family, and on every occasion they visit. Things change we need to change our approach sometimes, in order to capture what life is like for the children in that family accurately, and the power dynamic is an intrinsic part of all of our interactions.

  5. Sophie a October 21, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

    Thanks for your feedback CT. i it is Important to say that I never commented that I had not previously considered the impact of a home visit prior to the experience of the SW visiting my home. It is just that this experience gave me a much greater insight into how this feels on a personal level which prompted me to consider this issue further.

    We all grow as we encouter new situations and I think it is ok to reflect upon this. However, I have been respectful of people’s own homes throughout the course of my career and mindful of the power imbalance that this brings.,

    • CT October 29, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

      Thanks for the clarity Sophie.

      Must admit that I wasn’t bothered by SW visits either pre or post qualification but we are all different.

  6. Ian Kemp October 23, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Hi I can recall many hazard experiences over many years. There was not much protection in those early days…… Way back in 1976 I was given a case of a man who had spent 10 years in Broadmoor for murder. He was out on licence .. He had married had a child and was living in a Tower Block in south Birmingham …He was I recall a very large man. Anyway he was transferred to me. The social worker said take it easy with him. He has just lost his job, he is a bit on edge and will need help with Bills ect I telephoned the Midland electricity board and the gas board and asked them to send the bills to me after explaining a bit about the difficulties involved .. So one evening a few days later ,I went to introduce myself to him on my own .. When I knocked He opened the door and shouted come in which I foolishly did ……….. The next 30 min were pretty frightening . I was 6 floors up with this very large man .. shouting and screaming at me …. He had received the bills from the utility companies and was not very happy .His wife shot out of the room with the baby leaving with this very angry man. I tried all the things I knew I knew to try to pacify him . Not arguing back appearing very understanding sitting down not standing up. but his rage continued he then lent over me and shouted you know why you are supervising me … I humbly said yes I did .. I figured that this must be the top of his rage.. so I waited for his mood to calm down .. I had to make sure that it was sufficiently down and then get the door between me and him I left saying that I would deal with the matter next day. I had been calm and controlled throughout the episode. It was now 8 pm and I got into my car… sat still and tried to Press the clutch down and found I had no energy so waited a bit longer. and eventually drove home. There were no colleagues to speak to .. The next day explained what happened to senior and colleagues. There was not much support really . It was just part of the job was the attitude . You survived ok. good . I reported him to the supervising Psychiatrist… 3 days later the man came into the office and apologised to me ……. It could have been to my corpse