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'TheJournal.ie' - Social Work, the backlash

Three years ago I began my journey to become a professional social worker. Back then, Ireland’s torched economy smothered any prospects of a career within Ireland for my classmates and I. It mattered little. My experience of chronic illness since the winter of 2011 had not only changed my career goals and life ambitions, but also offered me an insight into the necessity of social supports to someone experiencing sudden, acute or more chronic vulnerability. I felt equipped to put myself in someone else's shoes through my experience of illness, as well as issues I had faced as an adolescent. I was hopeful that I could be a positive influence on vulnerable people’s lives. In September I will enter my fourth and final year of training. My perception of many aspects of society has evolved dramatically in the last three years. Regretfully, one of the most striking transformations has been in my understanding of the public’s perception of the role and integrity of social workers. I always understood that the confidential nature of social work meant that widespread appreciation of its value and function was unlikely. That being said, I never envisaged the level of distrust of social work that would exist amongst the public. Unfortunately, it appears the widespread perception of the profession is at rock bottom. 


Attacks on social workers 

An article published in one of Ireland’s leading national newspapers recently was titled “No parent can rest easy about Tusla’s unquestionable power”. During the course of the piece, the author compared Tusla, an agency tasked with the protection of every vulnerable child in Ireland, to the religious orders that perpetrated the most horrendous abuse against children for decades. The author authoritatively outlined how “prevailing prejudices” were the only measurement used by Tusla in deciding if, or when, a child should come into care. Somewhat ironically, it was suggested that social workers and relevant agencies are oblivious to the “emotional trauma of sundering a child” from their home. Sadly the narrative presented in this article is nothing new. I have read and listened to similar attacks on my future profession for the last three years. Ideologies that were opposed to providing more protections for children in our constitution in 2012, have suddenly become beacons of children’s rights. I’m sure practicing social workers have learned to simply ignore these attacks. However, my inexperienced exuberance makes me feel obliged to set the record straight. 


A lack of understanding 

To suggest that “prevailing prejudices” influence social workers’ decision-making more than empirical evidence, respected best practice, or professional judgement is grossly inaccurate, and quite frankly unfathomable. Moreover, to suggest that prejudices could dictate outcomes for vulnerable children ignores the legal and judicial oversight that exists for all care orders. When commentators speak about specific child-care cases in the absence of professional expertise, direct involvement in specific cases, or an entire picture of the circumstances, they discredit themselves and any argument they may attempt to present. Furthermore, despite the attempt by the author to scaremonger, parameters in Ireland remain significantly high for children coming into care, while placements within a child’s natural family will always be the most desireable. However, sometimes a placement with a child’s family may not always be in the best interests of a child. Cases like ‘The Roscommon Case’ and ‘The Kilkenny Incest Case’ showed us the horrific outcomes for children when services don’t act quickly enough. Consequently, when people suggest that it is never right to take a child away from their family, they represent an ideology, and not a child. 


The role of a social worker 

My experience of social work thus far has been of a discipline that never stops questioning its role and responsibility. As a student of social work, one of the most frequently highlighted pieces of learning throughout my education to date is of the imbalance of power that exists between social workers and their clients. This imbalance in power is not something that social workers take lightly. In little under a year, my own desire to defend the role and integrity of social work will be significantly curbed by my professional responsibility to those I will be working with. Due to the sensitivity of social work, especially that which involves vulnerable children, social workers and agencies can never publicly defend themselves or their decisions. This is part and parcel of professional practice, and should never prevent public oversight. That being said, I would hope we could start offering agencies and professionals the benefit of the doubt. As I edge nearer to practice, I am conscious that one of the greatest issues facing me and the profession of social work is burnout. Many see the hugely emotive and difficult situations social workers face on a daily basis as being the main contributor. I often wonder if the pressure of public attitudes towards social workers, and the automatic assumption of incompetence is as much to blame. I hope experience will prove me wrong. 


Originally appeared in www.thejournal.ie/author/diarmaid-twomey/4460/

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