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What is the point of child and family social work?

A blog by Professor Donald Forrester

An edited version of this blog was previously published by the NSPCC

I came into social work to help people. Helping social workers to help people is still why I do my job, albeit through research and teaching. And in every study we carry out we hear stories of how social workers have transformed the lives of children and their families.

Yet doing research has helped me realise there is more – far more – to good social work than improving outcomes. And in my opinion we have become unhelpfully obsessed with outcomes.

Outcomes are important – but they are perhaps not as important as I used to think. This is for two reasons.

First, the influence effective helpers have on outcomes is in general a lot less than we tend to think. If you read evidence about “what works”, even the best methods only have a relatively small impact on average. They may work better than normal practice, but they do not matter compared to all the other stuff in someone’s life – their relationships, social factors, their personality and myriad other things. More than anything people try to sort out their own lives and the influence of helpers on this for most people tends to be limited.

Second, and even more important, social work is about more than helping. For instance, a lot of social work is working out whether or not people need a social worker. In child protection workers are often making complex judgements about whether to be involved in a family against the will of the parents, and about the weight that can be placed on the views and wishes of the child.

In this respect social workers are more like a judge than a therapist. We would not evaluate a judge on “outcomes”. Similarly when social workers are assessing risks to children they are also making difficult judgements about the limits of freedom and state involvement in a family’s life. A good “outcome” may involve greater confidence that a child is safe enough, or a difficult decision that nothing is to be gained by further work with a family. Such decisions may be great social work, but they may not influence the outcome for child or family. Rather they are about balancing freedom and protection on behalf of society.

So what are the implications of this for understanding what child and family social work is for? I draw three conclusions. First, to change the metaphor, often social workers are akin to GPs. They deal with a whole range of different problems and, like a GP, their ability to differentiate those that are serious from those that are not is a key element of good practice – even though it is quite difficult to measure the “outcome” of such an activity.

Second, again like a GP, the quality of the interaction is important in its own right. Social workers deal with individuals with very complex individual and social problems, we come armed with great authority provided by the state and make crucial decisions about individual liberty and its limits. A humane and wise social work is therefore central to a caring and enlightened society.

And finally, of course, social workers DO still make a huge difference. This is most apparent for the minority of families with really serious problems. Here wise, caring and authoritative social work transforms lives. This is the heart of great social work – but it is not all that is involved.

Ultimately my point is that social work is not just about helping people. It is also about balancing individual freedoms and state involvement. As such social workers are as much the protector of a humane and liberal society as we are professionals who help people with serious problems.

Therefore, an act of kindness or the ability to empathise is important not merely because it may influence “outcomes”, but because in such acts of human respect and care we embody the just, humane and caring society we seek to create.

Or, put another way, social work should not be “evidence based”, nor “relationship based”, nor simplistically “radical”. Social work should be rights based. And a rights based approach to social work needs to be evidence based, relationship based AND radical.