Social Workers: Whose Servants?

Joy Roxborough shares ways in which the Church can support those who may be susceptible to being scrutinised by social services

Recently, I had the honour of attending my graduation ceremony, having gained a master’s degree in Social Work. It was my moment to say thank you to God for the tumultuous time that He carried me safely through, even while I was completing the degree.

Like most Social Work students, I signed up for it because I wanted to help people. The curious thing, though, is that as I read for the compulsory Critical Perspectives module, I discovered that we were not being paid to advance our ideological aspirations of helping anybody. Rather, we were essentially pawns – as most other citizens of a welfare state are – and our role was to maintain social order and stability among the masses in order to protect the interests of Capital! Forget the balderdash in the Social Work Code of Ethics.

The Critical Perspectives module expounded the idea that the current social work system is a product of the Victorian workhouse system and the Poor Law Act (1833). Under that old system, people who needed state help were vilified, deemed as vagrant, and the entire system was highly stigmatised. That fact is not hard to see when watching any typical Victorian-set film, such as Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Although the Poor Law Act was gradually dismantled and replaced by the National Assistance Act (1948), the current welfare state that emerged still carries vestiges of the former.

The long and the short of Critical Perspectives was: 1) We were being trained to go into the field with a clear understanding that we had no right or justification for adopting any stance of arrogance that could result in us looking down our noses at any client who, for whatever reason, found him/herself dependent on state welfare; and 2) Welfare and all its trappings was the price Capital was willing to pay to maintain the societal order needed to make conditions favourable for continued capital accumulation for the minority. For those of you who may be interested in exploring these ideas further, Iain Ferguson’s Reclaiming Social Work: Challenging Neo-Liberalism and Promoting Social Justice provides a fascinating and easy read.

Most of us as Caribbean people are hard workers, so what has all this got to do with us? you may well ask. Think about the UK child protection system which, although separate from Welfare itself, is an integral part of the state apparatus and subject to social work interventions. While I am not in support of ‘smacking’ children, how many of you upstanding, church-going people would admit to applying any measure of pressure, however mild, to your child’s rear end in today’s dispensation? Maybe none of you, and that’s great.

However, a family I know – serving in church, happy marriage, respectful children, though not perfect – recently found themselves subject to social work intervention for that very reason. One parent was forced by the system to leave the home and they were required to cut all contact with each other. Months later, when the intervention was wrapped up, Social Services stepped away and left the family amidst the ruins of the intervention. I say ‘ruins’ because the parent who was arrested and forced to leave was so traumatised by the sequence of events that that parent was unable to voluntarily return home. Unless God intervenes, that is one more Black family fractured, in my estimation, for no justifiable reason.

This could happen to any family, if you raise your voice at your children – if you shout at them or smack them – and I am not even talking about the kind of beatings those of us in our fifties and older know about.

As churches, how would you support a member family who found themselves in such a situation? In the first instance, open communication from such a family would be important, and having someone to support them in an advocacy role at social work meetings would be useful.   As I said previously, social workers are not there primarily to help you. If you do get one who understands and is in your corner, their suggestions/recommendations can easily be overruled by a manager who does not really know you.

Secondly, churches could develop programmes to support families with finding alternative ways of disciplining children before problems arise.

Thirdly, counselling services are an invaluable resource for families facing struggles. Is it time for counsellors to become a regular part of church tradition once more? I would say yes. It could take some time, but it is certainly something to begin thinking about.

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