Children’s social work and ethics: ‘It’s about social workers connecting with their base values’

Community Care spoke to BASW chief executive Ruth Allen about what the adoption enquiry could mean on the frontline

Photo: Jenny Sturm/Fotolia

The publication of the enquiry into the social work role in adoption will invite frontline professionals to engage with thinking about ethics, human rights and moral issues in the profession.

At least, that is the hope of Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), who spoke to Community Care after the enquiry’s publication on Thursday.

The enquiry found that social workers were not currently using ethics to inform practice, and concluded a “human-rights discourse in social work in relation to adoption is under-developed”.

Allen believes one of the first actions social workers should therefore take is to revisit the BASW Code of Ethics, because it gives social workers a “language” around ethics to use in day-to-day practice.

“If you read it through it’s a good document and it reminds you of a lot of the basis of social work, and I think it also gives people strength to feel that they can come together to maybe have their voices heard.”

Applying ethics

Allen says one of the things to come out of the adoption enquiry was the idea that social workers “don’t have enough time to make sense of what they are doing sometimes”, which is where a better relationship between children’s social work, human rights and ethics could support frontline professionals.

“If social workers feel they are being put in almost impossible situations, having to take decisions that they don’t fully support, how do they get the strength and the solidarity with each other and find the platform to speak?”

Application of human rights and ethics could be developed in adoption to be more like other areas of social work practice where it is strong, such as mental health and physical learning disabilities, Allen says.

“It is a lot stronger and it drives the way in which social workers [in those fields] go about their practice.”

‘Connected with base ethics’

A consideration of ethics, morals and values would mean social workers remain “connected with their base ethics” in daily practice, Allen says. She adds it would be a step towards “not performing things in a procedural or technocratic way or because it’s part of [a] managerialist approach”.

“We’re seeing some improvements in those kinds of areas and the fact we’re doing this in a context where there’s lots of optimism about how social work can be recognised again for what it needs to practice with autonomy, with professional judgement, underpinned by explicit use of ethics as other professions do,” Allen adds.

Allen is “hopeful” that can be the norm, and the enquiry contributes to that.

“There is a lot of contention and criticism in the adoption arena, social work needs to be self-reflective about its part in that. We should celebrate successes, [but also] just hold up a mirror, look at it really hard and say ‘what can I do better or differently?’”

More from Community Care

2 Responses to Children’s social work and ethics: ‘It’s about social workers connecting with their base values’

  1. Gill Gillbutler January 25, 2018 at 2:49 pm #

    As an adopter of 3 older siblings and an experienced social work practitioner I could not agree more. Our eldest son, aged 15, had to be accommodated due to the high levels of risk to himself, siblings and us. We have experienced extremely poor values and ethics, L.A. breaking about every rule in the book.Two years on, we still feel traumatised by shoddy practice. Of course we have articulated this via a complaint. Still believe there are contentious caring SW practising, unfortunate the three who have worked with our son have fell short. There definitely is a training issue in relation to values and ethics, attachment disorder and stress.

  2. Robyn Kemp January 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm #

    Thanks to Ruth for raising this important issue. Connecting with our foundational social work ethics is crucial and in my view there’s no better way to help this process than engaging with the coherent and ethical framework for practice that the relationship based profession of social pedagogy offers.

    Social pedagogical learning and practice uses a head, heart, hands approach – engaging all three in the process of developing ethical professionalism, not only focussing on knowledge (head) but also processing feelings (heart) through experiential learning and critical reflection, and woven into everyday practice (hands). More info here and here

    While there are a great many factors at play in this report on adoption, when social workers aren’t acting ethically or upholding the rights of those involved in processes we must step back, take stock and look more widely at how we are training social workers, how we continue to support them (I’m not talking about assessing and accrediting them) and crucially how we create, develop and sustain the kinds of professional relationships where people feel recognised and respected no matter who they are or what they’ve done.

    I doubt whether anyone came into social work to undermine people’s human rights or act without an ethical direction. But our society’s narratives around the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’, welfare claimants and social services recipients are so strong, negative and lop sided that when coupled with heavy caseloads, over stretched resources and the kind of surveillance managerialism that invokes anxiety, I can understand why ethics may not stand front and centre as they should. Reflection is a core aspect of social work yet the responsibility for this appears to lie at the feet of individual practitioners, not the organisations they work for. Where organisations value and integrate critical reflection into everyday practice we see lower rates of staff absences and client complaints, and most importantly better care and support for clients. See the difference reflective practice has made in Brighton and Hove here

    The rise in support for relationship, strengths and asset based approaches to social work, where working with and alongside people as opposed to doing things to or about/for them, is really encouraging. Social pedagogy helped me to re-find my roots as a social worker and gave me a coherent ethical, theoretically sound framework for practice. There are thousands of UK practitioners using and developing social pedagogy around our four nations and in Ireland too, many of them social workers. Lets get these two disciplines together and see how we could support each other for the good of society and particularly those accessing social services.