Power, Status and Professionalism

power. to protect.

 

kenyee@flickr

I was ruminating over the post I wrote yesterday about the interplay and interaction between being a social worker and being a foster carer and the one aspect that played on my mind was the differential in ‘status’.

I used to think status and professional status was very important to me as a social worker. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud to be a social worker but I think when I was first qualified, I was also proud to be doing ‘something proper’ and recognised.

I had, at this point, in my defence, worked for years in the care sector as a support worker and a care worker. I had had friends and family asking me when I was going to get a ‘proper’ job and tell me that my academic qualifications were ‘underused’ in a minimum wage care job.

And I listened. I began to believe. The process towards my professionalisation was one I was proud of. Sometimes if you do a ‘low status’ job or have no job, society makes assumptions about your general intelligence level so being able to prove that I could make it through a postgraduate course was also an element of pride for me. I liked the idea of ‘having a profession’.

But I wonder if I was too taken by status and if the divides and gaping holes that exist between policy makers and practitioners is because ‘status’ is a bar.

For example, yesterday I had an extensive conversation with the Personal Budgets Implementation Manager about a case I was working on. We made good progress on hopefully working on a more creative option for a service user I’m working with currently.

My colleagues were surprised that a) I had approached this ‘manager’ directly and b) that she  had listened.

I thought about this and my role in perpetuating the divides between policy and practice and how status remains such a predominant factor in blocking conversations from the ‘front line’ to ‘management’.

We are institutionalised both by our employers who determine that ‘conversation’ flows in one direction and by our society where we, as a species seem to be keen to label everything, put labels on everything and want to by our nature, know our place in the societal pyramids of power.

So back now to the foster carer and the social worker. Is the foster carer really on a ‘lower’ rung of the ladder of professionalism than the social worker that they can be ‘looked down on’ by so-called professionals? It can honestly feel that way and taking a step back to look at the way I am ‘dealt’ with when I have my ‘social worker’ hat on as opposed to when I introduce and describe myself as a ‘foster care’ is a glimpse into the different statuses that it is accorded.

Status is afforded because power is present and this is something that overrides the social work profession in whatever capacity it is undertaken. Whether it is in adult care management where it can feel as a practitioner that you are pretty reined in in terms of what care can be provided on financial levels, in the eyes of the service user you are the ‘gatekeeper’ to the mythical goal of ‘provision of care services’.

In Mental Health work there are some obvious legal powers under the Mental Health Act but even in day to day care co-ordination, you become the conduit between the multidisciplinary team and the service user. You decide what is important to feed back, what constitutes a concern or a worry and how situations may be resolved or, if necessary escalated.

And we go into people’s homes. We make appointments. We decide on timings to fit into our busy diaries. Sometimes we even cancel appointments. These are all displays of power. Power isn’t about flexing of muscles, it can be as much about sending a letter or making a phone call suggesting a time to visit. Of course, it has to exist but the important thing is never to forget the power differentials and the way that they change the dynamics between user and provider.

With my last social work student, we spoke a lot about power and I alluded that she should reflect on the power relationship between us as well as the power relationship with service users. I smile and I joke with her but there is an enormous power differential between us that cannot go unacknowledged.

And as a foster carer, I accept that social workers will turn up at any point to see the child I have in placement or to just see the home or to check up on us. That’s fine, it’s understandable and I have no problem whatsoever with that, I know it’s a part of the process and I would feel angry if foster carers were not subject to checks but there is a power differential there and it has to be acknowledged  – even if it is not openly acknowledged.

We can never have an truly equitable ‘status’ because social workers can come and check on me and are responsible for my approval as a foster carer but I can’t wander into their home or even office at will (trust me, I wouldn’t want to!).  I think without acknowledging this power differential or by pretending there is any kind of ‘equal’ status we do both parties a disservice.

Once acknowleged, issues of power can be addressed and considered but if it remains unspoken, they can be levered and used for less positive outcomes and ends.

As for ‘professionalism’ in social work, I think we could go round in circles with this one. Respect is helpful but that is a truism that can pretty much be applied to any sphere of life. Is the respect based on professionalism? Only if the professional is respectful and competent.   An incompetent professional can do far more damage than good and the converse is true for a good professional.

Thinking back to the stories of abuse at Winterbourne View,  we see much more obvious displays of power. The power was held by the care workers and exercised on the patients at Winterbourne. There is something within the care sector where so  much work is done with some who for many reasons may have little power that it can attract people who want to exercise power for the wrong reasons – to augment feelings of self-worth or to bolster failings in other areas of their lives. It is important that the power dynamic is acknowledged and guarded against at all levels and that it never ever becomes something that is taken for granted or played on to make others feel threatened or denigrated.

The status, the qualification, the experience and the practice alone don’t make a ‘good professional’ – it is a mixture of all of them and the way that power is used, acknowledged (internally) and processed that create good practice and good practitioners.

We can often talk about qualities that are important for good social workers and social care workers. I wonder if I’ve mentioned it but for the reasons above, I would put the quality of humility very high. We need to listen and be aware of the inherent power we have. We need to ensure the voices we hear are echoed upwards in our chains of ‘command’. We need to listen to experts of their own situation and the people close to them. Sometimes we have to impose and sometimes we have to say no, but we acting with humility is a rich and exceptional quality and one that makes a good social worker.

How being a Foster Carer has affected my practice as a Social Worker

I don’t bring the foster care that I do onto the this blog too much. It might be because we don’t have a child in placement at the moment (although that could, of course, change at any moment) but it’s because I know my ‘audience’ is related to social work and I am very wary of any information that might identify a child that is placed with me.

However, there are a few general points that I’ve learnt from being a foster carer, going through the assessment and review process and having my own social worker (a supervising social worker who is allocated to us as foster carers) as well as interactions with the respective childrens’ social worker.

1. The power dynamics in social work while being constantly re-examined in practice, can sometimes be taken for granted by social workers. Having been on the other side of that dynamic is a very very strong feeling. I try to remember these feelings in my own practice.  Phoning up social work teams and being passed around/kept on hold/fobbed off can be disempowering. In practice, I try to give people answers as best as I can and be honest with them as much as possible because the feeling that people are ignoring you or are too busy for you is not one that helps an individual or family feel valued.

2. I didn’t grow up in poverty. I see poverty and the effects of it every day at work but having a child come into your house who has never been to the cinema, never owned a book, indeed, lived in a house where there were no books, brings issues of luxury and need v want home in a dramatic way. One child looked aghast at our 32” TV and said she didn’t know people had TVs that size in their homes.  One of her best friends described how she lived in a bedsit with her mum and was too ashamed to invite friends round. It put my whining about wanting a 40” TV into context. I knew this on a professional and intellectual level but seeing it made a difference and made me value more what I have and what I had.

3. Prejudice. I have dealt with schools that have policies which seem to be less equitable for children in care or less thoughtful of the issues that they might face – for example, when school trip places are allocated on a first-come/first-served basis and I have to get permission via social services, it means a child in that situation may miss out (I did have a long discussion with the senior staff in the school about that and they just hadn’t considered it and child got her place on the trip.. but that’s possibly because I’m mouthy and pushy). People I meet tend to assume that foster children are ‘difficult’. All the kids I have had the pleasure to share my home with for differing periods have been wonderful, thoughtful and kind but sad. Very sad. Children are individuals. People are individuals. Labels never help.

4. Developing new skill sets. I haven’t worked a great deal with children but I have a strong belief in honesty and openness (while keeping conversations age-appropriate) . It is hard though when a child asks questions that you don’t know the answer to like ‘when can I go home?’ ‘why can’t I go home?’ and the social worker who is clearly pushed for time, endlessly postpones visits so the answers remain distant. I think I expected more support to be honest and more interaction with the social workers and less, just do what you think is best..   Foster care needs a lot of resourceful thinking and quick thinking. It is one of the most responsible ‘jobs’ I have ever undertaken. If ever I feel disillusioned about my idea of going into social work ‘to help people’, I think of the much more dramatic and immediate ‘difference’ I can make with the foster caring. I do despair that foster care has such little regard as far as ‘professional status’ goes and particularly it makes me as angry to hear social workers make flippant and disrespectful comments about foster carers as it does for me to hear some of the foster carers make assumptions and unfair comments about social workers.

5. Assumptions. I think that social workers working with me as a foster carer make assumptions about what knowledge I have and other foster carers who know I’m a social worker are a little bit wary of me.  I am absolutely sure I’ve been told information by social workers that I shouldn’t be a party to. I suspect it is because I’m a social worker and they feel a bit ‘safer’ with me but there are still some fairly gaping confidentiality issues that I have been concerned about. Sometimes they chat informally about other kids they are working with. ‘No no no’, I think, internally – don’t tell me that. I don’t need to know!  At some of the foster carers’ events, other carers seem a bit diffident and less than friendly and over eager to criticise or maybe I’m just oversensitive. I’ve also mentioned this before but as my partner is the ‘main carer’ and is male, this seems to mess with a lot of the assumptions that people make about us and they still seem to default telephone calls and letters to me, because I’m female.

I think that being a user of social work services is something that is enormously helpful in my practice and hope it will continue to be so. It sometimes feels that the two roles pull me in different directions but I also think that both help the other. I know some of the ‘social work think’ and know the importance of not drawing unnecessary lines of ‘status’ betweeen professionals and users of services.

Respect goes a long way but it has to be given if it is to be expected.

Adoption, Agencies and Costs

Children in Jerusalem.

Image via Wikipedia

This week is the so-called ‘National Adoption Week’ where press focus switches towards the promotion of adoption. It’s an area I don’t really have any experience of but there are a story milling around in the press gave me pause for thought.

It emerged from the Independent on Sunday. The Leader headline ‘The shame in our adoption failures’ highlights the plight of children who are waiting for permanent homes, currently languishing in temporary foster care due to the local authorities’ reluctance to use agencies to find placements.

The companion article in the Independent starts with the slightly galling statement that

Hundreds of vulnerable children are stuck in foster care because local authorities are short of cash and begrudge paying adoption agencies to place youngsters with families.

Begrudge’ is quite a weighted term here. Maybe unable to actually afford the costs could be considered as well. Agencies make a lot of money through recruiting for adoption and fostering services remember. Remember the lessons learnt through contracting out services in adult care. Private and profit-making does not always equal good.

The Independent produces some scathing quotes, and to be honest, any child who suffers as a result of these processes is one child too many but all the quotations in the article come from these self same agencies or representatives of them.

For example

Satwinder Sandhu, director of adoption and fostering at the Pact agency, said some social workers wrongly thought the agencies were making money out of adoption, which was holding back adoptions. “Annual budgets do not work for adoption,” he said. “If the money were ring-fenced and local authorities worked in partnership with particular agencies, it would allow everyone to think more long term, and we could make sure the right families were being recruited for the children coming through the care system.”

Now, having never worked in an adoption team, I don’t know but I doubt it is the individual social workers who make such high budgetary commitments as to whether to place a child through their own adoption service or through an agency. Yes, I’m sure some social workers are wrong in their assumptions, but there is no refutation to that position in the rest of the response – just the obvious fact that a placement is cheaper and better than the alternative. To be brutally honest, I am one of those social workers who thinks that agencies make money out of adoption. Please prove me wrong.

Christine Smith from CVAA said: “Adoption makes economic, emotional and social sense. We want to get to a position when we are working in conjunction with local authorities to find the best family for the child, as quickly as possible, and cost doesn’t come into the equation. All we are asking for is a level playing field; for local authorities to recognise that working with us will not cost more, but will actually save money in the long term, especially because we are good at recruiting families able to take more complex children.”

It’s hard to refute this statement. Of course the children and their wellbeing has to remain at the heart of the issue and there is the plea that ‘the cost doesn’t come into the equation’ but that’s a little shallow when the initial costs are higher than the local authorities can provide. A happily adopted and settled child is ‘cheaper’ for both financial and social reasons than an unhappy, displaced child but the argument doesn’t explain why an agency is better than an in-house adoption although perhaps having access to more or different families might be a reason.

I live in an idealistic world where people don’t  make profit from children but that’s just me. This is exactly the reason I actively choose to foster through my own local authority. I think it is important that the links are retained and although I know I could get higher fees through countless foster care agencies that seem to be relentlessly touting for business promising ever  higher fees,  for me support and local links are much more important. Every child that we have fostered has been able to continue attending their own school.  I also don’t like the idea of gouging the local authority of much-needed cash to allow a private agency to profit from that child’s difficult situation, but I do realise that is not the way the world works and that adoption and fostering is big business for agencies.

I wonder if the Independent considered a more balanced article involving comments or remarks from local authorities about their lack of enthusiasm for the use of agencies. That is my concern with the piece. It just plays out like a whine from some agencies that they aren’t getting enough business as local authorities are increasingly pushed for money.

Maybe appealing to central government for ring-fenced funding rather than to the pig-headedness of stubborn social workers would do them better as a means of campaigning.

We, in adult services,  have seen the impact of privatisation in our sector and it is not a pretty sight. Yes, there are good providers and costs have been driven down by block contracting but the cost has been too high regarding general overall quality. We have seen the future and it doesn’t work.

I feel uncomfortable about profit-making in the health and social care sectors  but this is the way we are being pushed and articles like this which are inflammatory and do not balance the point against the positives of in-house local authority adoption services are hastening the end of those in-house services that at least are able to provide a little more consistency across the board.

The Independent Leader closes with

Anything should be tried in the drive to raise standards not only of social workers but of social work management, so that a sense of urgency can be transmitted to the front line of arranging adoptions.

Which brings us back to the quality of social workers being questioned. Again. As if the lack of use of these agencies is somehow due to the incompetence of individual social workers or social work management rather than higher level organisational decisions made to reduce costs which take place in the broader umbrella of ‘childrens’ services’ possibly by managers who have no connection whatsoever with social work.

My own answer would be to halt the privatisation of adoption and fostering agencies and bring all the services in house including specialist teams that could do the work of these agencies at lower cost because the profit-making element could be removed.

I fear the absolute opposite will happen and soon, it will only be the private agencies that are an option. Contracting out seems to be in vogue at the moment but it is not only more expensive in the long run for many reasons not least because ‘profit’ has to be accounted for but it does not necessarily lead to a better service.

I’d be really interested in people who do work in the sector to share their experiences of working with these agencies though.

P.S Thanks to fluffosaur who inspired me!

The Hamster

Our foster child has now been with us for five months. There are no plans for her to be moving on any time soon although previous (admittedly limited) experience proves that things can happen and change very quickly.

She arrived late on a Thursday night. We had been called by the council just after five and were given no more information than age and gender. It was an emergency placement and after some time (at the police station) she arrived with her social worker who was clearly working extremely late that night so didn’t have much time to stay and chat.

That evening as we made something light for her to eat, she told me about her hamster. She was worried about her hamster because she had only had him for a few days and he was at home alone. Noone to feed him or look after him.

The next day, I called the social services department. Repeatedly. About the hamster. Could anyone reassure us that hamster wasn’t ‘home alone’? Would we be able to tell a very distressed, displaced child that her hamster – that her parents had clearly told her that she was responsible for – was safe. She was terrified that her hamster might not survive the weekend. Clearly and understandably, I suppose, hamster care is not the top priority for a very busy child protection team in London. We had no response.  Eventually and actually after calling an out of hours team, we had some information that hamster was safe. I have to say I was a little suspicious and thought it might have been a rapid ‘fob off’ and I’m sure we developed reputations about neurotic foster carers obsessing about the well-being of a hamster.

But the importance of a hamster was not lost for a child who had been robbed of so much familiarity. Her home life had been blown apart. She had just started a new school in a new country with a new language (English is a second language to her).

The weekend was tough with no firmer news of hamster but news arrived on Monday that Hamster was safe and well. The next day, we took delivery of a foster hamster who came to join her owner.

I write this with child next to me playing with that same hamster. She has so much love for the little critter. She feels that her hamster is going through what she is going through. When she was sick, hamster cage moved into her bedroom. I might laugh about the little rodent but I look at the little furry face and can’t imagine how much little hamster is helping her.

We have had some scary overenthusiastic play ‘Don’t squeeze the hamster’ ‘No, you can’t take the hamster to meet the neighbour’s cat’ ‘I’m not sure your hamster really enjoys being thrown up in the air.. even if you are sure you can catch him’.

I have to say, I’ve gotten quite fond of the hamster too. He is very bombproof and has been handled to extreme levels – while displaying not the slightest nibbley temperament – unless you have a chocolate drop in your hand.

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