A strong, independent voice

At SASW we are excited about being a lead partner in the Revisiting Child Protection in Scotland research project. We know that there are some real challenges around for social workers today. We also know that there are things that are working and helping to improve children’s lives, as well as those of their families and communities.  This is an opportunity to work with academics and practitioners to actively support social workers and ultimately improve outcomes. Our key contribution to this research study will be the establishment of Communities of Practice for children and families social workers across Scotland. The communities will be an opportunity to share knowledge, research and practice, to focus on what works, what we can do better and how. They will be a forum for critical reflection about child protection, with academic input. Our focus will not be on implementing or reviewing systems, but on what can be done to support improvements in practice in what are challenging times of austerity. We will look at better contact and meaningful co-production with people who use the services. We will talk about the impact of this complex work on social workers; how can we support you, and what can you do to keep yourself well and safe and maintain the enthusiasm that led you to this area of practice?  SASW already has access to a wealth of knowledge and research, and the communities of practice will enable us to further open this up to the social work community. SASW is part of BASW, the UK wide organization, and we are a member of IFSW, the International Federation of Social Workers, so part of a global network.

In the course of our work at SASW we are often met with the question “Why should I join a professional association? What’s in it for me? I’m in a Union, surely that’s all I need?’ However SASW is so much more than just a Union. Yes, we do have the Social Workers Union which provides expert employment representation from fully trained trade union officials who are also registered social workers. SASW membership also provides social workers with £5 million Professional Indemnity Insurance, a Code of Ethics, a monthly magazine, access to e-bulletins and online materials, discounts on books, journals and events, and access to special interest groups and branches.

And there’s more. Did you know we are the only independent and member-led organisation for social workers in Scotland? We are a campaigning organisation – we lobby the Scottish government on your behalf. Our remit is to protect, maintain, develop and promote the profession. We are passionate about the code of ethics and our code of practice, and will not stand for any dilution of our professional identity.   Run and governed by our members, we are independent of any other social work establishment stakeholders – this allows us to deal squarely and honestly with all of them on behalf of our members and in the sole interest of the profession. We work with partners within the Social Services Strategy for Scotland, where we reflect your views and interests. We have a steadily growing voice in the media, and we actively campaign to raise the public profile of social work.

We have been invited to be part of the current review of the child protection system announced by the Education Secretary in February.  We will represent what our members tell us about what works and what needs to change, how it feels to work within this context, and what can enable and empower social workers.

SASW is the professional organisation for social workers in Scotland. Being part of SASW means being part of a collective voice, a voice that grows in strength as our membership increases. A voice which shouts out for the profession and what it needs to grow and flourish. This is a time of real flux, change and uncertainty for social workers. Increasingly we hear about a climate of fear, where the focus is on risk rather than need. We need to join together and speak up about how we feel and what we need to do our jobs effectively, so we can improve outcomes for vulnerable children and adults.

Individual professionals are as strong as their professional association. Professional associations are as strong as their membership. SASW will continue to grow. The more it grows, the more it can do for social work practice. Our profession has protection of title, and we stand up for that and will not see it eroded. We have to ensure that striving for social justice is not jargon, but an ambition we work towards in partnership with the people we work with and for. We must be proud to call ourselves social workers.

Sarah McMillan

Professional Officer, Scottish Association of Social Workers

20th July 2016


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How do we best protect our children?

Welcome to the first blog of Revisiting Child protection in Scotland. The project emerges out of academic research – out of the findings from a UK-wide study of how social workers communicate with children and young people in child and family social work settings. The Talking & Listening to Children (TLC) study will produce lots of scholarly articles and tools for practitioners which, we hope, will help our social workers and their managers to do their jobs better. But our blogs will be different to this. They will be a space for invited individuals to express their views about the current state of child protection social work in Scotland. And of course, they will inevitably talk about Liam Fee.

The death of two-year-old Liam at the hands of his mother Nyomi and her partner Rachel Fee hit the headlines on Tuesday 31 May, the day before our new project began. Since then, there has been an avalanche of anguished writing – all of it keen to ask what went wrong – again – to a child in our care. The terms “off the radar” and “slipped through the net” have been used again, prompting echoes of previous tragedies. And it is clear already that there were a number of failings along the way, institutional and otherwise. The highly respected paediatrician, Jacqueline Mok, will chair a Serious Case Review that will explore the case in detail. I have no doubt that she will bring to this the attention to detail that characterised all her previous work in the fields of child sexual abuse and HIV positive children.

So what might our project add to this shocking and distressing story?

What we have found in our research is that social workers work with children and their families in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They care deeply about the children whom they work with, but are often trying to hold too many cases, and the new world of ‘hot-desking’ and ‘agile working’ means that the opportunities they have for debriefing and informal support after a stressful meeting are severely limited. Institutional performance targets for report-writing get in the way of the necessary time it takes to build relationships with children and their families. And it is those trusting relationships that are at the heart of good social work. Is it any wonder that staff go off sick, or that social work has an ongoing problem with retention?

But there is another, equally important message in all this. Soon after the ‘guilty’ verdict was reached in Liam’s murder trial, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister for Scotland rightly called for lessons to be learned. But in a press interview, she also said, “It’s a ‘hard fact’ that there is no system which can ‘absolutely guarantee’ the protection of every child.”* This was a brave and extremely honest statement to make, and it is one that we will foreground in our work over the next year on this project. What Sturgeon was reminding us is that the state cannot prevent children – and indeed other vulnerable people – from being harmed. We can put in place as many supports and systems of protection as citizens are prepared to accept. But it is impossible to know fully what happens behind closed doors when we (social workers, police officers, health visitors) are not present. And it is extraordinarily difficult for children to tell us what is really happening in their lives. These are indeed “hard facts” to take, and ones that we hope to explore more fully over the next year, in discussion with policy makers, practitioners and the general public.

Viviene Cree

Professor of Social Work Studies,

The University of Edinburgh

2nd June 2016

* http://stv.tv/news/east-central/1356020-first-minister-describes-revulsion-at-liam-fee-murder/