The Impact of Austerity as seen by a Principal Child and Family Social Worker.
As an employee of local government, I am acutely aware that austerity measures have placed public services in a fragile state. The collective impact of such measures is seen often by social workers, such measures often being experienced within the households in our communities where we have our highest levels of deprivation. As a principal child and family social worker I want us to consider how austerity is affecting our most vulnerable, and often most marginalised.
Children are our most treasured possession – Nelson Mandela famously said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
I am proud to be a social worker and passionate about investing in our children. As a social worker I uphold the values and ethics as outlined by my professional training, BASW and also the Health and Care Professions Council.
BASW’s code of ethics suggests that “the ability and commitment to act ethically is an essential aspect of the quality of the service offered to those who engage with social workers. Respect for human rights and a commitment to promoting social justice are at the core of social work practice.”
The role of the principal child and family social worker is a wonderfully privileged one in local authorities; we have a helicopter view of the whole system, all the teams, how they function and an understanding of the needs of those who use the services. At the same time it is crucial to stay connected to both practice and understand the needs of those who use our services. When I spend time in all the teams, I cherish the opportunity to visit children and their families. To be a social worker is a privilege but I have been overwhelmed by the levels of poverty I see.
The connection between austerity and poverty means that we have some children in our society that go to bed hungry, that wake up hungry, whose parents do not have any money to top up electricity or gas meters when it’s dark at 4 pm and cold. Imagine what it is like not have warm, well-fitting clothing or the equipment you need for school, to not be able to engage in PE because you don’t have a pair of trainers. Parents are striving daily and this often takes its toll on their well-being and mental health.
Poverty affects children in many ways, economically, materially, socially and personally. Poverty affects all areas of children’s lives at home, in their community and at school. Children worry about their parents having enough money and children try to protect their parents from additional pressures such as the costs of school trips, social activities, school equipment or books needed.
School should be a safe place and an inclusive place, but some children feel excluded within school. Children are clear when you talk with them that they know what being poor means, they know what it’s like to have a bailiff at the door, looking to take whatever is of value in the home. These children often spend a lot of time on their own because poverty really affects social relationships and the potential for friendships due to the fear of stigma and difference. It often means that they are left mulling over their worries and the worries of their parents/carers because they don’t seek to share with others who they recognise are already burdened. Children are acutely aware if they don’t have the right brand of trainer or the latest gadget. They don’t ask for these things or for opportunities like the cinema because they know their parents feel bad when they say no. Children therefore, especially girls, moderate their needs, reduce social participation, experience shame and stigma, lose confidence and self-esteem and do a lot of worrying about their parents and siblings.
The level of poverty that social workers and other professions see daily is growing. For a social worker the complexity of assessing the impact this has on children is emotionally tough and requires skilful critical thinking and analysis. It also requires the social worker to really understand the lived experience of the child. Ethical practice in child protection is critical when assessing neglect. Trying to balance the nuanced impact of poverty on parental capacity is by no means straightforward.
As professionals we have a duty to explore the impact of austerity, A study carried out in February 2018 by 11 academics, led by Professor Kate Morris of Sheffield University suggests that children in the most deprived communities are more than 10 times more likely to enter care than those in the richest areas. Also of concern, the study commented on how social work practice is now normalising poverty because it can be so typical in some communities. This piece of research brings home the inversion that children living in certain communities are more likely to be subject to child protection processes and services. Surely, we need to ask why and consider how to practice ethically. If we as a professionals normalise poverty, how is this helpful to children and their families? We must ensure that we stay alert to the impact of poverty, challenge our thinking and ask ourselves if this is not good enough how can we as individuals and a professional group collectively address the impact of poverty?
An event hosted by BASW and the University of West of England on 12th April 2018 “Austerity vs Social Work”, asked if social work as a profession is doing enough to advocate and challenge the cause and effect of poverty. I was privileged to sit with Ruth Allen and others on the panel and have the opportunity to explore and reflect with a range of professionals and social work students and academics.
Measures such as exempting care leavers from council tax, which we did some years ago in North Somerset, only touch the surface of the level of need for our vulnerable young adults living independently.
As professionals we often see a poverty of aspiration, policy makers are looking for answers to why young people are carry knifes in our cities, my view and I am sure the view of many social workers is that their actions are a social problem. When we have a sense of citizenship we actively flourish, we feel invested in, valued, hopeful and we can contribute.
Austerity has required us make some tough decisions and we still need to make more. Local authorities continue to innovate and redesign services. We are already learning from others who have been part of the Department of Education’s innovation projects. This model of funding is designed to improve services efficiency and co-production. Some very helpful learning is arising from Local Authorities such as Hertfordshire and North-East Lincolnshire who are trialing innovation and demonstrating that despite social difficulties we can work more purposefully and more collaboratively with partners to tackle social problems and reduce the need for children being subject to child protection plans or coming into our Care.
The Local Government Association recently warned that by 2020 children’s services will face a funding gap of £1.9bn. Children are our future. As a profession we need to ensure that our work both collectively and as individuals considers the potential impact of poverty ethically, that we advocate for children, families and carers, and recognise that hunger, homelessness, ill health and poverty of aspiration is not good enough for our children.
So, when it gets tough I remind myself that it’s crucial to build a sense of optimism within our workforce and to be purposeful and ethical in our practice when so many experience stigma and exclusion. Social workers can and do make a difference, this is what motivates us all and why our profession is a privileged one. We need to commit to continue to strive for better for our service users, advocate for the vulnerable and support and encourage children and their families overcome adversity by making meaningful and positive relationships and interventions in their lives.
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