Ask social workers what they dislike about their job, and ‘too much paperwork’ will likely be high up the list. Recording cases and filling out forms can feel an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, taking time away from seeing service users.
Be this as it may, keeping accurate, up-to-date records is a key social work task. What is recorded in files can have a huge impact on what happens to service users. It can give children in care information about their family they otherwise might not have. And, quite simply, it matters to the people who use social work services.
In a recently updated guide for Community Care Inform, David Wilkins, senior research fellow at the Tilda Goldberg Centre, University of Bedfordshire, gives practical advice on case recording and record keeping. Inform subscribers can read the full guide, which includes interactive exercises. Here, we present a few key tips from the guide.
Write clearly and without jargon
It is too easy in social work to unwittingly use complicated language or jargon in a way that obscures what you mean. When under pressure, many social workers use abbreviations to save time – POVA, ICPC, CP and so on.
One of the problems with jargon is that sometimes professionals use it without even realising because it becomes part of their everyday vocabulary. Phrases that you may not consider as jargon can still be confusing for service users. And even without jargon, social work records can still be too complicated and lacking in clarity.
Using more common words does not mean being patronising or missing out important information. But a key test of how well you understand something is being able to explain it to someone else.
Distinguish between facts and opinions
Social workers need to be comfortable making – and recording – professional judgments. Being personally non-judgmental is important but being able to judge levels of risk and need is a key social work skill.
The inclusion of opinions in social work records is not inherently problematic. Good records will contain both facts and opinions but there should be a clear distinction between the two. Otherwise, it becomes all too easy to mistake opinion for fact and to leave opinions unsubstantiated.
Record the wishes, feelings and views of service users
In many serious case reviews, it is found that the children’s views and needs were lost among discussion of the parents’ views and needs. This is not a new problem. In his landmark 2003 report regarding the death of Victoria Climbié, Lord Laming noted that Victoria’s wishes and feelings were almost entirely absent from her own file. This may also be the case for adults, where the service user has additional communication needs, severe mental health difficulties or learning disabilities.
Before you can record the wishes, feelings and views of service users, you first need to know what they are. This can only be achieved through spending time with children and adult service users and forming a trusting and meaningful professional relationship.