What character best describes your social work practice environment?
The other day I came across some articles in UK blogs about social work being akin to a “cinderella service.” It got me thinking about the character of social work and the environments where it is practiced. I found this quote COMMUNITYCARE.co.uk today when I went looking for these posts on the cinderella version. Though it was written at the end of the 90s it could have been written today and I think there is some credibility to the characterization of social work as firefighting:
“Despite all the official rhetoric about preventive work, and refocusing services, most social workers openly admit that theirs is a firefighting service, geared increasingly to crisis-management. The post-Seebohm era, when for a while there was an expectation that social services could attack poverty on a broad front, is long gone. In its place is a mood of battening down the hatches, with most departments grimly accepting the need to ration services”.
I found out it was Lord Laming who characterized social work as a cinderella service and that he also went on to say social workers in child protection in the UK were being managed by clueless highly paid executives.
I’m not entirely convinced by either characterization of social work. Cinderella is enslaved by her wicked step-mother and needs to be rescued by a rich man. Firefighters are primarily risking their lives fighting a force of nature. But, perhaps a blend of firefighter, Cinderella and her wicked step-mother would provide a better characterization of our professional work at times when you consider this comment from a youth interviewed for the cinderella article linked above:
“A boy of 16 interviewed for the probe said: “It seems like they have to do all this form-filling. Their bosses’ bosses make them do it but it makes them forget about us.”
Social workers are primarily women so it makes sense that a cartoon character for the profession should be female, but I can’t think of any smart, and compassionate cartoon characters who are female right now. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think there are many empowered female cartoon characters who lead and emulate humanistic qualities. Could be my age, but all I recall are the female cartoon types who were inevitably rescued by a knight in shining armor. So, I think the cartoon character who might best emulate social work is Papa Smurf. Papa Smurf leads a community built upon principles of compassion, sharing and unity.
Of course, Smurf world is constructed in a fictional reality, but I sometimes think that social work is also constructed for a fictional world, so it still fits. As Harrison argues:
“Social work has lost much of the foundation myth which has fortified the profession in the past. The myth is one version or another of the idea that each social worker practices with or for both the individual and the social collective”.
Harrison’s article is about the so-called “state of siege many of our professions are under as the work is broken up into parts of production. I recommend it. I found myself agreeing with everything he said about social work, particularly about the myth of social justice in practice and the need for reflexivity. It is also well documented that social workers who take a stand for social justice pay the price and I don’t think we will get very far so long as we don’t have a bridge to close the gap between the realities of practice and social justice theory. Plainly, social work and its workplaces are too complicated to be summed up by one cartoon character, but if I were to describe the places where I have practiced they would take the full spectrum from firefighting to smurfdom.