The attitude of social professions involved in the child protection sector

by Marianne Haslev Skånland, Bergen
December 2000


    The ethics involved in carrying out one's work is an important part of any profession, part and parcel of professional work itself.
    What do people employed in the social sector understand the ethical goals of their professions to be? Some examples first:

1. England

    Social workers in the Liverpool area went on strike for higher wages. When they returned to work, the population they were supposed to serve had discovered that they had all told had a better life in the social workers' absence. People in need of help had helped each other and had found that such mutual, undemanding back-up and assistance produced a greater measure of happiness and content than did suspicion, supervision and control.

2. England

    A mother of four children was suddenly widowed while the children were still very young. The family's finances being humble, she had to ask for economic assistance from the social services. She was shocked by the social workers' attitude to herself and her family. The profession was clearly in need of personnel with a different way of thinking, and she decided that when the children were older, she would become a social worker herself.
    She duly did so and was employed in a district of London. There she was put on the case of a young couple, the parents of a baby, who had practically no income, and who were hard put to manage daily tasks such as cooking food and washing the baby's clothing, since the power was frequently cut off because they could not pay the electricity bills.
    When our social worker started sorting out their troubles, she found that both husband and wife were for practical purposes almost illiterate. (A number of people in any population are, regardless of teaching efforts, unable to learn to read and write to the extent needed in our complex society. This is usually a dysfunction based on various conditions to do with the brain. It does not correlate directly with general intelligence.) The couple had therefore not been able to cope with the necessary filling out of forms to obtain social security payments to which they were certainly entitled. Our social worker helped them through the procedure and got the system working smoothly for them. She also helped them claim the more than a thousand pounds they should already have had coming to them.
    With everything in shipshape, our social worker reported back to her office, giving the details of what she had done, which had brought the case to a satisfactory conclusion. But her superiors and her colleagues were negative. Her way of dealing with problems was not what social work should be, she was told. She should have taken the child away on the grounds that the parents did not care for it properly.

3. Norway

    A middle-aged woman, who had brought up her own children and in part her grandchildren, who was a teacher by education, and with valuable experience from several areas of life and work, applied for a job in the child care section of a social office. In the job interview, one particular question was of major interest to the chief of the social office: Would she be "loyal to the system"?
    The applicant was very surprised and when she understood that the social office was serious in considering loyalty to be due to itself and not to the clients, she withdrew her application.

4. Norway

    A psychologist, whose work lies partly in the education of social workers, is one of the very few to try and open her students' eyes to the realities experienced by people exposed to various kinds of "help" from our welfare state. She presents documentation in detail about concrete cases of the ordeals, faulty assessments and abuses of power perpetrated by Norwegian authorities against families, and about the results for children and their parents.
    The educational institution employing this psychologist has told her that since she is not loyal to their system, they want to get rid of her. They will probably succeed.

5. Norway

    The political leaders of a Norwegian county announced an open discussion meeting about the way the public child care of the county was carried out. A large number of people attended, several having cases of their own to relate of how they and their children had been hounded, lied on, and separated from one another by social workers.
    The administrative leader of the county's child care then got up. He told the politicians to keep out of the matter, stating that he himself had taken more than 60 children away from their parents. That was what the child care office was for, he said, and he intended to continue and would tolerate no interference, no control and no questions.

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Social work is internationally uniform

    The similarity between the English and the Norwegian incidents described above is not accidental. The stories are almost boringly the same in other countries too. Practitioners of social work in most countries have been taught the same philosophies by the same kinds of people, whose reading lists include the same books and articles (some of which I have read and must characterise as generally dense). These people are always on the look-out for studies and suggestions from abroad, and seldom bother to bore beneath the surface of anything presented by the social services of some other country and claimed to give entirely new insights and a solution to all problems. Ordinarily, however, there is nothing very new about anything social sector operatives write or quote; they practice great selectivity in choosing stuff which confirms what they already believe - or want to believe. They do precisely what one must
not do, in other words, if one is to do acceptable research work. Nevertheless they claim to base their practice on research, or even to be doing research themselves.
    The beliefs of these people in the social sector are based on loose ideas of various kinds, some of them a couple of hundred years old, some mediaeval; some go back two thousand years or more to helpless speculations which at the time were incapable of sound investigation because the necessary methods of conducting studies leading to proof and disproof were lacking, as was the requisite background knowledge of anatomy, physiology and disease, and the discipline of statistics.
    Occasionally the social sector also quotes, even claims to follow the lead of, advocates of some truly different method. An example is the New Zealander Murray Ryburn, whose writings are fairly critical of the way social workers make an enemy of the child's family, and who advocates putting the family back in authority and supporting them in their care for the child. Ryburn is hailed as an ideal by the Norwegian social sector in theory and he figures on students' obligatory reading lists, but in actual practice social workers always find Ryburn's ideas inapplicable to the case they are working on just now.
    A recent Norwegian tv programme showed another variant, also well-known: The social services in a southern district of Norway praised a "new" American method of "treating" difficult teenagers. The programme showed us Norwegian social workers driving around in pursuit of truants while calling their colleagues in America on their mobile phones, in order to ask for advice and be assured that they were proceeding in accordance with the wonderful method. Needless to say, probably, the method seemed to consist of talking to all and sundry about how necessary it was to be aware of ..., to support ...., to do an intensive study ..., - - - I was unable to discover anything new, or even any particular content at all of this method. But next year, we were told, the social service staff of all Norwegian districts are to go to America to learn the new method.

What happens to a social worker who feels a dilemma?

    It is natural that people in the social sector are rarely alarmed by what they do. Most of us have a positive view or expectation of a profession when we enter into it, otherwise we would not have chosen that profession. We also normally operate on the assumption that our own actions are good and justified. As we grow into our work, we acquire a record of past activities, a record which gets harder to break away from the longer it has piled up. To start treating cases in an entirely different way would be to admit that there has been something wrong all along.
    Let us take a social worker who is truly motivated by idealism and with a sincere wish to do good to others. To acknowledge, after several years of taking part in the child deportations, that such deportations do not save children but send them into a desert of danger and unhappiness, is for such a social worker to accept that the motive of rendering help has not led to doing good in practice, one has done inexcusable harm and one's vision of oneself as a ministering angel is tragically false.
    This type of social worker who really wakes up is almost non-existant in practice. The truly sensitive and thinking persons react long before they have saddled themselves with an unbearable burden of harmful actions committed. Many shy off from that type of job very quickly. (The turn-over of social workers in the child care sector is enormous.) Some of them refuse to obey commands to carry out harmful orders, and are frequently sacked or made to resign. Or, in order to escape sanctions from their previous employer the social services, when trying to find other employment, they get out of the child care profession quietly. The less alert drown their consciences, carry on and keep their job, gradually losing their initial sensitivity on the altar of expediency. The third kind are the ones who were never attracted by anything but power and voyeurism. Their souls hardly bear looking into.
    So, social work in practice, as it is generally carried out in our societies today, is a quagmire. The "system" is self-perpetuating because sensible people who could really do what the concept of "social welfare in the best interest of the child" intends them to do, flee from professions and occupations which act like our present social services so regularly do. Those who are satisfied with the existing state of affairs, stay on and make themselves deaf, blind and immune to all the information which exists about the real status of their beliefs and the real outcome of their actions.

Why do social workers act as they do?

    How the social sector can fail to see the realities of what they are doing is almost unbelievable for those of us who have seen at close quarters how families are destroyed through vicious actions carried out by people representing their welfare state and their society, in other words their fellow citizens, in what claims to be a society under the rule of law and with freedom of speech. How is it possible?

    The social work literature is full of considerations for the social workers themselves. Social workers are systematically taught to consider themselves as pure and their motives as beyond question. There are endless discussions and insertions in their textbooks about how they must learn to cope with their own pain when taking children away from parents or taking some other brutal action against people. They emerge from their training having learned to consider themselves as heroic martyrs who have taken on the heavy burden of acting in the best interest of the child.
    I rarely go into a consideration of what really motivates social workers, or what the mechanisms are which have made the individuals in such professions paint themselves into a corner. My natural reaction is that the question of how social service personnel feel and think is irrelevant to the issues of how they execute a terrible power and are the major creator of lasting detrimental effects on their victims. It is their victims who should be our concern. We should not allow the situation of the social professions to steal into focus.
    I have, however, come to think somewhat differently about this, for two reasons:

    Firstly, most clients who come up against the social services cannot understand what they experience at the hands of these people. One expects help, and receives harm. It seems unbelievable and many keep thinking that it must be some kind of a mistake and that all will be put right if one just explains even more fully the circumstances of one's life and problems and needs. In order for people to realise what the social services really are about and protect themselves better, it may be necessary, though unfortunately so, for us to study more closely the philosophies and mechanisms that rule social work organisations and individual social workers, and disseminate such information more vigorously.

    Secondly, it is only by examining the whole system of social work as thoroughly as we can, that we may be able to see points of comparison with other phenomena in history or contemporary life, and thereby understand better what we are up against and be prepared for what may happen in the future.
    Among the most seminal reading from this perspective is Zygmunt Bauman's "
Modernity and the Holocaust" from 1989 (Polity Press). Bauman is a British sociologist of Jewish descent, originally from Poland. He came to Britain before the war but is of course very well informed about the holocaust. His opinion on its causes differs from that of most people. He holds that it was not caused by actions of furious, aggressive hatred or by anti-semitism alone, nor did the holocaust represent a break with modern civilisation. Instead Bauman maintains that it was a natural consequence of what modern civilised states are. Two characteristics of modern civilisation are essential in this context: One is its developed technical-industrial sector, which enables the authorities to "expedite" people on an incredibly large scale. The other is its enormous and continually growing bureaucracy, which opens the door: to minimising what each employee does, to a consequent obscuring of what the total activity amounts to and results in, to a pulverisation of individual responsibility of each employee, to distancing away of most employees from their victims, to a loyalty to their mighty employer who guarantees their job and their conscience.
    If Bauman is right, the holocaust was not an isolated, incredible mass-madness. On the contrary, it was the product of forces and motives which are still present and which are bound up with modern social life itself. If so, such disasters must be expected to be recurrent, in somewhat different forms and of varying extent, and directed against varying groups of people, but the underlying forces still with us and never without an object.

    About 10 years ago, the Norwegian psychiatrist Reidar Larsen said to Adele Johansen, whom he tried to help when her child had been taken away by the Norwegian social services: "What we see today is only the beginning. It'll grow and become much, much worse."

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Zygmunt Bauman (1989): Modernity and the Holocaust. Polity Press