What we learned about social work in England by visiting America

Three participants in the Tri-City Social Work Exchange explain how they left a visit to Chicago feeling more pride about their own way of working

By Seanna Lassetter, Kelly Tighe and Professor Jon Glasby

In the summer of 2017, a spate of gang-related shootings hit the headlines in Chicago. News of new fatalities came almost every day, and at least 101 people were shot over the July 4 weekend alone, 15 of them fatally.

On a day where two young men were fatally shot, social workers, managers and elected members from Birmingham were in the area, visiting a local children’s home and walking down the street where the shootings took place shortly afterwards to meet local volunteers and community representatives.

‘Safe Passage’ volunteers who put on high-vis jackets were on the streets at the start and end of the day to make sure that local children made it to and from school without being caught up in the violence. We also met local mums running an impromptu candy stall on the street near the school, so that children were still able to buy sweets on their way home, in a simple but powerful protest against the problems.

This was just one of many challenging situations we encountered during the Tri-City Social Work Exchange.

Believed to be the longest running scheme of its kind, the scheme was established in the 1990s between social workers in Chicago, Birmingham and Hamburg.

Learn globally

Birmingham champions the exchange on the basis that good practice knows no bounds, and that we must share experiences globally to reflect, learn and improve locally.

While social work is an international profession, too few practitioners get the opportunity to travel and learn from colleagues working in different systems and contexts.

This year, we witnessed some high quality relationship-based professional practice, which was person centred and appeared less preoccupied with time/resource constraints and carrying out set tasks.

Although we work in a different system with different demands and approaches, this still raised the challenge of how we create the time and space in our own practice to do these things well.

Political light

Community organisations working in deprived neighbourhoods often employed ‘credible messengers’, usually people who had grown up in the area concerned and who were experts by experience. By recruiting local staff, agencies were boosting local employment, but also giving themselves a better route into local communities by working with trusted intermediaries.

While the agencies we visited had a key role in providing services, many also saw their role in a more campaigning and political light than in the UK, with a focus on community organising and supporting local people to advocate for their own needs.

At the same time, we saw much that was troubling to a UK and a German audience – not least the prevalence of guns and the existence of neighbourhoods which felt almost completely segregated on ethnic grounds.

The latter felt particularly uncomfortable to a Birmingham delegation so accustomed to diversity in our city of 100 languages and a Hamburg delegation working so hard to welcome refugees and asylum seekers.

Higher status

While social work felt higher status in the US than in the UK, it also felt more dominated by a medical model, with a strong emphasis on neuroscience and on medication.

In one service for young people with mental health problems, the children were aged five to 19, and all of them had a mental health diagnosis and were on various medications. Crucially, this was a residential service for children who had difficult family lives, not a specialist mental health facility as such. For all residents to be medicated (and some from such young ages) was a surprise to a Birmingham group who are accustomed to working against labelling and medicating children wherever possible.

People who were victims of abuse were seen as suffering ‘trauma’ and were expected to face a series of future health problems because of the neurological changes that were believed to have taken place during key phases of their development (for a critique of this emphasis on neuroscience, see Blinded by science by David Wastell and Sue White).

Role of the state

Above all, we were surprised by some of the differences we saw in terms of attitudes to the role of the state.

Although lots of people were working hard to provide counselling to children who had been the victims of violence and abuse, for example, there seemed to be much less recognition that the state could have a role to play in tackling broader issues like poverty, gun crime and violence.

Here, the group questioned whether the symptoms rather than the causes of these difficulties were being addressed, and found a contradiction in seemingly highly interventionist approaches to individual issues (e.g. mental health) and an apparent absence of social interventions.

Hamburg delegates had similar worries, which gave space for wider reflection on European practice perspectives and how these may differ from our US colleagues. While some of the services we visited seemed well resourced, there were strict eligibility criteria, with lots of people from deprived communities who might have needed such support seemingly unable to access them.

Chicago had also been in a budget deadlock for three years and counting, and funding restraints were biting deep, with many community organisations struggling to retain staff. While we have similar financial challenges on one level, at least we have a budget – and indeed it wouldn’t be feasible for a local authority to operate without setting an annual budget.


Interestingly, international delegates at the final conference celebrating international sisterships were also impressed by the legal frameworks and local policies we have around topics like mental capacity, adult safeguarding, child sexual exploitation and the rights of children and young people to participate in decisions affecting them.

While we might usually take these for granted, we came away with a significant amount of pride about some of the things we do well but never realised, as well as some positive practice to emulate, and some questions to ask of our own approaches.

People often look at other systems hoping to find a ‘magic answer’ that we can import and use to resolve our own challenges. In our experience, these seldom exist – and most countries are struggling with similar underlying problems.

However, visiting a different country undoubtedly gives you a new lens with which to look (both more critically and more sympathetically at the same time) at your own system – and this feels an invaluable development opportunity. As the Tri-City Social Work Exchange celebrates 20 years, we hope this international learning and friendship continues for many more years to come.

What is the Tri-City Social Work Exchange?

The programme provides a unique opportunity for frontline social workers, managers, local politicians and universities to meet peers from different ‘sister’ cities to discuss local agendas, compare service models and frameworks, share good practice and learn from others.

The scheme exists on a shoestring – through goodwill, lots of voluntary effort and lessons learned over time about how best to keep costs down. The host city provides delegates with basic accommodation and Tri-City volunteers offer dinner at their homes and provide transport where needed.

Participants fund their own living expenses, make a small voluntary contribution and have cheap airfares provided by their own organisation.

Site visits and presentations, such as those taking place on the day of the shooting, are offered on a voluntary basis by local social work professionals and community organisations keen to participate and share their work.

The theme of this year’s exchange was ‘Diverse International Approaches to the Prevention of Violence’, an apt focus in a city where gang-related violence remains high.

This year’s trip to Chicago coincided with the founding organisation – Chicago Sister Cities International – celebrating worldwide sisterships.

As a result, our visit was supplemented with a two-day final conference where we were joined by several other ‘sister’ cities: Shanghai, Paris, Durban, Osaka and Casablanca.

At the final conference, Birmingham delegates shared the stage with various senior leaders such as the Senator of Hamburg, the director of Paris’ social services and the former chief of staff at Chicago Public Schools, before going on to present on topics such as child abuse, youth violence, elder abuse and gender violence.

To apply for the exchange, social workers must have at least two years’ post-qualifying experience. Their application has to be endorsed by their manager and they should commit to active participation, present at an international conference and produce a 2,500 reflective report setting out how the experience has informed their understanding of the relevance of international social work. They should comment on how it enhanced their practice, professional identity, skills and values; and informed their thinking about the strengths and limitations of local practices.

Seanna Lassetter, specialist practitioner safeguarding, Birmingham council

Kelly Tighe, team manager, Birmingham council

Professor Jon Glasby, School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

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3 Responses to What we learned about social work in England by visiting America

  1. londonboy September 15, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    Very interesting. As an expert by experience in a number of contests, this is the first time I’ve seen that phrase used in relation to SW by S Workers in the UK context.
    I’ve also reservations about a number of the big UK charities – what they have come from and what they have become ( there is a tension there and probably always will be when so many services are contracted out to them) It feels like the ground has being prepared for a whole new swathe of very focussed and uncompromising grassroots campaigning organisations that have come from the Govternments inability to understand its role to know, empower and to protect the populace whether they vote or are powerful or weak or indeed very difficult or very different and the charities inability to understand that just because they have been invited to sit at the table is’int necessarily a good thing

    The medical/social model tension is very very real here although I’m not sure SW training of the issues is particularly nuanced. Both models seem to be failing perhaps because health and social care work in silos – sometimes even silos within silos and because specialist services are being slashed to be replaced by programmes ( easy to tender, easy to control budget, very one-size fits all, administrators can administer) such as Troubled Families Programme.

    Many here are now looking at the New York model – it is just so important not to get dazzled – to see what you want to see, ignore the local context and most of all follow because that what we all do when someone has ‘charisma’ and seems to have all the answers.

    Anyway thanks for this piece again.

  2. Just a US thought September 17, 2017 at 9:21 pm #

    “While social work felt higher status in the US than in the UK, it also felt more dominated by a medical model, with a strong emphasis on neuroscience and on medication.”
    What is perceived by a visit to one of 50 states is ok for that state it should not be precieved or implied that all the US is comfortable with or continue to use the Medical model.

  3. frustrated September 20, 2017 at 10:07 pm #

    Children who have suffered abuse enough to meet current thresholds will need support to help them over come the trauma. That is what is wrong with much of the UK system is that we do not provide such support. Instead we wait until there is a crisis or they are parents themselves and the patterns repeat.