Celebrating the value of ‘dirty work’

Kristina Moodie attended Circle’s annual lecture which addressed the realities of social work practice, and came away realising social workers need support and not mistrust.

Q: How come they bury social workers 300 feet in the ground?

A: Deep down they are really good people.

Circle is a Scottish charity that works in deprived communities across central Scotland. Since it began life 40 years ago as a Family Service Unit (FSU) it has grown to become a large organisation supporting families affected by imprisonment, families struggling with drug or alcohol misuse, primary school age mentoring, kinship carers and much more.  Circle also provides vital learning opportunities for social work students by providing them with practice teaching and placements.

In order to acknowledge that aspect of the work they do, Professor Bill Whyte (Professor of Social Work Studies in Criminal and Youth Justice, Edinburgh University) spoke at the Annual Lecture in October entitled ‘A Celebration: 40 Years of Practice Learning in Circle’.

Professor Whyte addressed the realities of social work practice. He began by pointing out that some studies have suggested social workers spend 80% of their time on a computer rather than working hands on with clients and he wondered what, in that case, today’s social work students were being trained for?

He asked if there was such a thing as a ‘Scottish social worker’ by drawing from the report of the 21st Century Social Work Review Changing Lives, via the Christie Commission report and the Munro review of child protection, who all identified a need for change in practice in Scotland.

He talked about continuous learning, the importance of sustaining that learning and not reinventing the wheel every time, when coproduction works well and the inseparability of life and risk. He reminded us that service users are not passive recipients, that interpersonal relationships are not just transactional, that people need circles of support and a sense of agency and control and hope in order to desist from crime and be socially integrated.

Professor Whyte quoted sociologist Everett Hughes, who in 1951 referred to what he called ‘dirty work’, whereby certain occupations are considered physically, socially or morally tainted by the work they do that is necessary for the survival of society.   Annette Flaherty in 2013 went on to use this same terminology to describe child protection workers in the Northern Territories of Australia as regards personal stigma related to the work they do. This caught my attention and inspired me to seek out Flaherty’s work following the lecture.   The child protection workers she interviewed were working with Aboriginal families and were very much aware that they were considered the enemy, not only by the families but also by other service providers.

Professor Whyte asked how much do social work organisations take on the hurt and pain of social workers.  Can regular structured supervision support social workers, create a positive team dynamic, a supportive environment and confidence in the work they do?

Flaherty might have been describing an extreme situation in Australia where there is sensitive recent history with racist practices being adopted by Government policy, leading to a ‘Stolen Generation’ of Aboriginal people when children were regularly removed from their families.  But even in this country the media tends to show children and families social workers as fanatical about breaking up families and ‘taking your kids away’ while criminal justice social workers are derided for being ‘soft on criminals’. How does this negativity affect social workers individually, as teams and when it comes to working with other agencies?

The Munro report in 2011 identified this as an issue for the workforce and highlighted studies showing that the media had taken a ‘hostile’ position to social workers since the 1970s. It suggested social workers and social work employers should take the opportunity to work with local and regional media to present a more positive view of social work and its importance to society.

This week a new book and a BBC1 documentary examined the 2007 case of the death of ‘Baby P’. It has emerged that the police and the media (those who were in control of the story) may have used their powers to direct blame towards both the social services and the politics of the government at the time – despite Ofsted initially giving a positive inspection of Haringey children’s social care.  In the case of the police they were also acting to minimise their own, now documented, failures in bringing the case to court.

It would seem that the danger this child was in was missed due to errors on the part of the medical services, the police and indeed social work, yet only one service was named, shamed and publically blamed by the media: social work.  The three individuals who carried out the torture and death of the toddler could not be identified publically and the public responded by clamouring for punishment for the only people they could identify at fault: the social workers.

Although these tragic cases that so capture the imagination of the public can result in good lessons being learned, social work policy can’t be led or dictated to by disaster.  And absolutely no good can come from social workers being terrified of missing something, concerned about losing their jobs, and worried that they might become the next Sharon Shoesmith or the other named social work staff who received death threats from members of the public.

I started this blog with a joke, but the reality is, this is no laughing matter. We should perhaps return to the words that Everett Hughes used in 1951 and rather than concentrate on the term ‘dirty work’ and the concept of taintedness, instead look at the second half of the sentence and acknowledge that these are jobs that are ‘necessary for the survival of society’ and understand that a job of this importance needs the support of the people, not the mistrust.

About our blogger

Kristina has extensive freelance experience of working in mental health and criminal justice research. Read more.