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3rd Edition Editorial Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

Third Edition Editorial

We started the magazine as the lockdown began, many of us extremely fearful and anxious. A couple of months later, here we are with the third issue!  Amidst the fear and anxiety, it has proved incredibly affirming to hear from so many across the world who have found the magazine useful and interesting. We hear that some are using it in teaching, others have discussed specific articles in team meetings, and lots have been inspired to write for it. Indeed, such has been the response that we have had to split the content of what was originally proposed for this issue and will be publishing a further issue next week. 

As this issue shows, those experiencing services, students, social workers and academics have been sending in a wide range of contributions with poetry, videos and a cartoon to be found alongside more academic type articles.  We are delighted too to showcase reflections on Greece and Australia. We hear from birth mothers waiting and wondering about what is happening to their adopted children in lock down and a mother holding her daughter in mind as she watches from afar as she navigates a potentially dangerous digital world in a residential setting.  And we have the second video from care leaver and activist, Michael Clarke, talking about his experience of going outside in Covid-19.

We explore how poetry can provide us with hope and inspiration and return to themes in earlier issues such as how social work can be re-imagined as a more community-based enterprise and challenging government policies in England with the erosion of safeguards and protections in children’s social care. 

It has become commonplace to observe that COVID-19 has exposed the dreadful fault lines in our current social settlement; precarious working, insecure incomes, the lack of affordable housing and the hollowing out of the social and physical supports that ensure human flourishing and well-being.  A settlement that has denied our interdependence as human beings, our vulnerability and our need for care at all stages of the life cycle has been exposed as quite simply delusional as well as utterly cruel. It has also become commonplace to observe that we must not go back and that we need to construct a different more care-full and equal world 

For us in social work we can take great heart from the evidence that has emerged in the pages of this magazine, and elsewhere, of the acts of kindness, creativity and ethic of solidarity that has been clearly apparent. These will serve us well going forward. But, we must confront the realities of being a profession that is so tied to the government of the day and the lessons this pandemic is teaching us about the choices we may need to make, and own, if we are to be part of a better world going forward.

Across the world, and within the UK itself, this crisis has shown that governments matter, and crucially, that competence and humanity are essential when seeking to manage a pandemic where thousands, if not millions of lives, are at stake.  

The crisis has shown the need for governments that are composed of those who are steeped in the realities of making a living, caring for others and experiencing racism and exclusion because they are more likely to devise policies that will be attuned to the needs of the majority of citizens.

It has shown the need for governments that do not seek to command and control in a way that rides roughshod over local and community expertise not only because this makes for a stronger polity, but it means policies are more likely to be effective.   We also need governments that seek to build genuinely inclusive coalitions to challenge and transform inequality and to expose those who use crises to funnel taxpayers’ money to their friends for poorly thought through centralising vanity projects.

Too often social workers, especially researchers, have been dismissed as ‘political’ when they have sought to point out the problematic implications of particular government policies and practices.  Never again, should we allow our voices to be silenced in this way. This pandemic has taught us that our very lives, and those of our fellow citizens, may be dependent upon us speaking out. 

As Rebecca Solnit has noted: ‘There is a long, rough road ahead. Without radical change, the way food, shelter, medical care and education are produced and distributed will be more unfair and more devastating than before. …The devastating economic effect of the pandemic will make innovation essential, whether it is rethinking higher education or food distribution, or how to fund news media.’ To this list, I would suggest, we add social work!

Brid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work, University of Huddersfield

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3rd Edition Contents List Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

Third Edition Contents List

Brid Featherstone – Editorial 

Ariane Critchley and Autumn Roesch-Marsh – An uncertain future: poetry as a response to the impact of Covid-19 on social workers 

David Grimm [Cartoon] – ‘The Social Worker’ 

Denise Smalley, Jill Killington and Other Birth Mothers   –  Wondering and not knowing 

Eleni Skoura-Kirk – “Why make a fuss over some old people”? Covid-19 responses in Greece and the UK 

Ionut Cioarta – Short reflections on the activism of social workers in times of COVID-19 

Martin Webber – Towards a new community social work 

Matthew Jackman – The mental health and service user experience during COVID19 in Australia: from personal to professional disaster 

Megan Ormsby – Poem 

Michael Clark [VIDEO] – Going outside 

Common Threads Collective – Mothers Apart

Robin Sen – Entitled to special protection and assistance? 

Toks Francis – “…And the people stayed home” 

Yourgirlpower – Face time is working  

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Dr Ariane Critchley and Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

An uncertain future: poetry as a response to the impact of Covid-19 on social workers

Leave Poetry by Niall Campbell

(after Luis Munoz)

for those who are diminished or half-formed.                                                    

for those rare, unnamed birds on the bird-table.

for those who want to leave, but never do.

for those who talk, sing, curse, all without speaking.

for those who are alone.

for those who never share their evenings between two.

for those who, like mules, prefer the burden

and the journey through the unmapped provinces

of painful years, and don’t search for their youth.

Leave poetry

for when you need the guide of its magnetic north.

for the nights you wake, your throat too dry

for prayer, it can be your water.

for times you need a second, imagined life,

or times you wish to sleep a restless sleep.

because it watches us even until death

with its unflickering eye, and open mouth 

that sings of nothing but beauty.

for it gives us no explanations:

and this is sufficient:

and this is insufficient.

Leave poetry, my friend, for the shadows that retreat at morning.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author. Published in Campbell, N. (2014). Moontide. Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Poetry.

Poetry has traditionally occupied a role in relation to major life challenges. Poems are there for us as we are awed by the power of birth, or forced to accept the realities of death. Through poetry we express and seek to understand the overwhelming nature of human love, joy, and pain. Emotions that characterise our current collective experience. We bring poems into our shared rituals and into our private reflections. In all of these essential roles, poetry is called upon now. These sentiments are beautifully expressed in Niall Campbell’s poem above. However, what might poetry have to offer social work in these difficult times?  

Even in times of ‘normality’, social workers face high levels of occupational stress (Burns, 2011; Burns et al. 2019). Anxiety, stress, depression and burnout are all recognised problems for social workers across the globe, resulting in high turnover in posts and problems with recruitment (HSE 2019; Lloyd et al. 2002). Occupational stress is also increasingly recognized as a major risk factor for a range of negative health outcomes. At this time of crisis, social workers’ capacities are stretched even further. Our shared methods for reflection, rest, and care for self must be equal to this test. We would like to highlight poetry as a method to comfort, sustain, soothe, and educate.

Poetry has the potential to promote the wellbeing of social workers in several ways. Firstly, poetry is a powerful aid in the development of empathy and compassion, both for service users and for ourselves as practitioners. As Kotera et al. (2018) suggest, developing self-compassion can be a key strategy for improving social workers’ mental well-being.  Self-compassion improves physical health and productivity at work, while reducing health care uptake and improving relationships. Secondly, poetry can be a source of emotional support and a tool for reflection and discussion with others. For these reasons poetry is increasingly being used as a tool for reflection in social work education (see for example the new course at the University of Edinburgh, Creative Social Work and the Arts, and London South Bank University’s use of poetry on the PQ in Social Work Leadership).  This work is supported by a growing evidence based about the value of poetry for teaching and reflection. 

However, poetry has also long had a role in political resistance and in speaking truth to power. Salma El-Wardany has recently described the 2011 Arab Spring uprising as ‘a revolution fuelled by poetry’In conversation on BBC Radio 4 with El-Wardany, Lisa Luxx explains the political potential of poetry, ‘You can’t fit a novel on a protest sign, but you can fit a line of poetry’. 

Many of the challenges faced by social work are not new. The low status of the profession, a lack of understanding about the work that social workers do, and a suspicion about their role in private and family life are long standing problems. Featherstone (2020) has recently described a mixed picture of guidance and advice on social work with children and families in the pandemic. She highlights how our professional reliance on the ‘home visit’ is exposed in a period of social isolation. How do we assess risk and strengths at a distance? Our capacity to facilitate ongoing relationships with kin for children in foster care, residential care, and adoptive families are similarly being tested. The work that is going into solving these problems has had little public airing within the pandemic. Despite the fact that social workers too feel they have literally put their ‘lives at risk for the greater good’ (Meleady, 2020).

At the same time, approaches to criminal justice and incarceration that had previously been viewed as impossible have been adopted in efforts to protect offenders, prison officers, and supervising social workers or probation officers. For example, the U.K. government announced the release of many pregnant women and new mothers from prison on 31st March 2020. Begging the question of why low-risk childbearing women were ever incarcerated. A question that campaigners and organisations including Birth Companions have been asking for many years. Perhaps the current pandemic will act as a ‘portal’ (Roy, 2020) to more humane and community-based approaches to criminal justice in the U.K. yet.

Throughout all of these challenges, social workers, student social workers and our many colleagues in social care and support services are working increasingly hard to provide essential services. In social work education, this shows up clearly in the activities of our pre-qualifying students. Many are working additional and night shifts to provide much-needed cover, alongside their studies, as written about here for Iriss. As academics, our pastoral role, adaptability to online teaching, and commitment to supporting new practitioners into our profession have become vitally important.  

Prior to the outbreak of Covid19, we had begun working on an anthology of poems for social workers. Along with the Scottish Poetry Library, who have previously supported the development of collections for doctors, teachers and most recently nurses and midwives qualifying from all of the Scottish universities, we had been working on a similar project for social work. Further information about the project can be found here along with a call for original poems.  Given the challenges that social work faces at this time, we feel that our work to bring poetry and social work practice together is as important as ever. The road ahead is uncertain, the challenges and losses will be immense but poetry may be one way to find our light in the darkness. For this reason, we will continue to share poems between individuals and through social media but we also propose a poetry group for social workers. We intend to use this group as a space to discuss poems, workshop with poets, and engage in creative writing. The group will be convened remotely by Autumn and Ariane on a weekly basis. We hope to be able to include up to 12 participants. If you are a social work practitioner, manager, student, or educator who would like to take part, please contact Autumn at a.roeschmarsh@ed.ac.uk or Ariane at a.critchley@napier.ac.uk to register your interest.

The group, our choices of poetry and potentially poems that arise through participation will inform the final anthology. We hope that this collection will emerge, blinking, into the light as restrictions on movement and gathering relax. You can read more about how to support the anthology and the gifting of copies to graduating social workers here.  

Dr Ariane Critchley, Lecturer in Social Work, Edinburgh Napier University

Email: a.critchley@napier.ac.uk

Twitter: @arianecritchley 

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh,  Senior Lecturer in Social Work , University of Edinburgh

Email: a.roeschmarsh@ed.ac.uk

Twitter: @DrARoeschMarsh

References

Burns, K. (2011). Career preference, transients and converts: A study of social workers’ retention in child protection and welfare, British Journal of Social Work, 41(3): 520–38.

Burns, K. Christie, A. and O’Sullivan, S. (2019). Findings from a Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Child Protection Social Workers’ Retention: Job Embeddedness, Professional Confidence and Staying Narratives, The British Journal of Social Work, early view, 1-19.

Campbell, N. (2014). Moontide. Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books.

Critchley, A. (2020). Social Work Education in a Pandemic. Glasgow: Iriss. 

Lloyd, C. King, R. and Chenoweth, L. (2002). Social work, stress and burnout: A review. Journal of Mental Health, 11 (3): 255-265.  

Kotera, Y. Green, P. and Sheffield, D. (2018). Mental health attitudes, self-criticism, compassion and role identity among UK social work students. The British Journal of Social Work, Advance Access.

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David Grimm Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

‘The Social Worker’

David Grimm, Social work student

Twitter: @DavetheCareBear

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Denise Smalley, Jill Killington and Other Birth Mothers Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

Wondering and not knowing

Over the last four years I have met with and spoken to hundreds of people affected by and separated by adoption, speaking with adults who were adopted as children, birth parents and first family members who have experienced a child being removed from their care and adopted. Some of the older adoptees I meet know little or nothing about their birth parents coming from a time when closed adoption was very much the norm but I also meet mums who gave birth to a child and might have had them in their care for some months or years before their adoption. It’s very humbling to hear people’s stories and a privilege to offer support, I feel I have learned so much and been able to think about things from different perspectives, hearing from people that few social workers remain in contact with. What does stand out from what I hear is that while experiences pre and post adoption are of course very different, sometimes feelings and emotions are linked and overlap like a reverse lens or reflection. In my experience one is often left wondering about the other but might not be able to share this wondering or worry for fear of upsetting others or because of stigma and shame. Adoptees wondering if they look like their parents, how have their parents been, are they healthy, are they alive? Are they feeling pain or guilt because of the adoption-have their parents ever thought of them over the years? Birth parents and first families wondering are their children alive, healthy and well? Are they happy and being well taken care of? How tall are they now, what food do they like to eat and what is their favourite song or film? Most post adoption contact agreements in the UK consist of one letter exchange or email a year- no photos, sometimes drawings and handprints. One letter a year. Now the whole world faces separation and limited contact wondering and not knowing, maybe not being able to see loved ones face to face, having older relatives who cannot use tech to stay in touch. I wonder if this wider experience of separation and loss, and enforced limited contact might result in a re-think of current accepted postadoption contact. 

Denise Smalley, Post Adoption Outreach Social Worker, April 2020 

Wondering and not knowing 

I lost my son to adoption in 1968.  For 27 years we had no contact until he found me 26 years ago.  Over the missing years I always felt he was a part of me, and that he was an important part of my life.  I would try to reach out to him in spirit somehow or other.  At certain times – his birthday, Christmas and other special times – the feelings of grief and loss would overwhelm me to the extent that I would go downhill emotionally.  Little did I know that during those years he was also experiencing the same feelings about  me.  Wondering and not knowing.

I assumed that he would be living somewhere else in the UK and we would be sharing similar experiences in our own completely different lives, which gave me some comfort.  For instance, the seasons, the weather, Christmas and birthday celebrations, Easter egg hunts, day and night, TV programmes, the news and current affairs, school holidays.  But I just didn’t know, and the wondering was at times all-consuming.

When he found me in 1994 I had to abandon all those feelings that had so comforted me, as I found out that his parents had emigrated to New Zealand when he was 6 years old to start a new life where nobody other than his immediate family knew he was adopted.  His birthdays in December, and of course Christmases, had been spent in his glorious mid-summer, when it was day time there it was night time here in the UK.  His whole culture, his accent, were so dissimilar to what I had ever imagined, and much as it was a joyful (though emotionally difficult) reunion I felt cheated somehow that I just didn’t know.  I had spent 27 years of my adult life imagining and wondering about him. I could have been told. I really should have known.  It was cruel that I didn’t. 

With the Covid-19 crisis we are now facing birth mothers/fathers/families will be going through the same agonizing situation of wondering if their children are safe and well, but just not knowing.  Adopted children and adoptive parents might be doing the same.  It’s an anxiety to which there seems to be no solution – unless the letter-box scheme can be revisited and families can exchange letters of comfort and reassurance, at such a difficult time.  

Hopefully both adoptive and birth families may be able to take this into their own hands – not only for their own sake, but for the sake of their adopted children for whom this whole crisis is possibly so much more distressing, especially coupled with any other feelings and issues they might have in their adoptive placements which they may feel unable to express.  This will be having a huge impact on mental and emotional health.

There can never be a more crucial time for openness and cooperation between all parties.  There is nothing worse than wondering and not knowing.

Jill Killington, April 2020

Wondering and not knowing 

Reading about Jill’s experience made me cry as I feel the same at birthdays and at Christmas time. I wonder are they doing Easter egg hunts or celebrating Christmas Eve the way we did. Right now due to the Covid-19 crisis all the wondering is making me feel down and in a dark place, not knowing if your child is safe and well is very hard. It’s like having a heavy brick on my heart which makes it hard to function. It is hard for every family at the current time but for birth parents like me I don’t know where my child lives, are they in an area very badly affected? Is there a high infection or death rate?  I cannot ask what extra precautions the adoptive parents are taking, or if they are frontline workers. My child has asthma and has always suffered with coughs and colds. Recently I was lucky to get a brief update from the adoptive family via the Letterbox team that my child is safe and well, that the family are well prepared with medical supplies that they might need, and they have agreed to update me if there are any health changes. But this does not lift the heavy feeling of the unknown and the wondering. I know I won’t see her. I am not there to make her safe and give lots of hugs and cuddles. It will also be her birthday soon, a birthday in lockdown. My anxiety is through the roof but I have been thinking about the poems my group made and I have been reading these and keeping as busy as I can. Listening to music has helped me and just reminding myself she is loved and cared for in her adoptive family. When she asks about us as I know she does and she has asked about her grandma and grandad, I hope she will be getting some emotional support- from the reassurances I have received from the adoptive parents I believe this a bit more now

Wondering and not knowing 

After my children were removed from my care I found myself broken, I wasn’t coping well with life, they were, are, my life. I always feel like part of me is missing, my heart hurts all the time. Every night I pray to be normal, to have a normal life and to be happy but I don’t get a happy ending, my life will never be normal. I do get one letter a year called letterbox which is written by the adoptive parents, I love hearing about them, how they are, what they have been up to. Around the time my letter is due I get really anxious but I’m really happy when I get it, it is always a mixed feeling in the month my letter is due. Even though I do get my letter once a year, it is hard not knowing if they are okay for the rest of the year. I get scared for them, and worry if they are well or even still alive. I worry loads if my letter is late, I start looking through the news to see if anything might have happened. I look through the death notices page in the newspapers to see if there have been any awful accidents, my mind goes to dark places. It is really hard not know if your blood relatives, your children, are okay. 

A lot of my time is spent sitting and thinking about how they are, what they are doing, how big they have grown. My mind is full of the parts that are missing, that I am missing. Christmases and birthdays are hard. Passing places I used to take them or hearing a song they used to dance to, the grief and emotions hit you like a crashing wave. You can’t help but thinking about them night and day. I spend nights watching the sky, the moon and the stars, knowing we are all under the one sky, together. One of the last things I said to them was if they can see stars I will be looking too, they are not alone, I am under those same stars thinking about them. I have found some comfort in spending time in my garden. When my children were first removed I planted some trees to represent each of them and every birthday and Christmas I decorate the trees in their favourite colours and cartoon characters, the trees are quite big now and these rituals help me cope. Now we have COVID-19 and I have not received my letterbox yet or a brief update to say they are okay and it is really hard not knowing if they are safe. It is a scary time for us all and being on my own, not going out due to lockdown, all I can do is worry. Like most birth mums or adoptive parents, we worry about our children. We are all human, birth parents have made mistakes but are not monsters. If anything positive can come out of this time maybe it will be more compassion, it is not a war between birth family and adoptive families, maybe we can come together more and create better communication as our children might worry about and miss us as much as we worry about and miss them. 

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Dr Eleni Skoura-Kirk Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

“Why make a fuss over some old people”?

Covid-19 responses in Greece and the UK

On March 21st 2020, the Greek Chief Scientist Dr Tsiodras, a modest, softly spoken man, was leading the daily Greek government briefing on Coronavirus. Greece had recorded its first death from Covid-19 on March 12th. Schools had already been closed in the country on March 10th, followed – within days – by all cafes and restaurants and (in an unprecedented move) even Churches. Following the description of the latest figures, Dr Tsiodras shared that he was asked by an internationally respected fellow scientist as to why Greece was making so much fuss over a small number of elderly and chronically ill people. His voice breaking from emotion and holding back tears, Dr Tsiodras said:

[T]he miracle of medical science in 2020 is the prolongation of good quality life for those people. Many of whom are our mothers and fathers, are grandmothers and grandfathers. The answer is that we honour everyone. We respect everybody. We protect everybody. But above all them. We cannot exist nor have an identity without them.

Nine days earlier, on March 12th, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘I must level with you’ message pointed to a much more chilling position: “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”, he stated, whilst going on to advise older people and those with serious medical conditions “against going on cruises”. At the time, with 12 recorded deaths in the country, the UK government response was predominantly advice on social distancing, rather than freedom-restricting measures. At the time of writing, tragically the UK has the highest number of deaths in Europe (surpassing 30,000), whilst ‘debt-hit’ Greece counts 148 deaths, and is hailed as the ‘surprising success story’

Focusing on the words of leading figures in both countries is not merely a linguistic exercise. It holds deep personal resonance for me, as a Greek who lives and works in the UK, whilst her ageing parents reside in Athens. Unable to rush to their aid, I have anxiously followed the unfolding developments in both countries, the content of the daily briefings directly impacting on myself and loved ones. Language is not neutral; it creates identities, it constructs social reality, it leads to social action. Our culturally shared representations of the world often have far-reaching implications for how we treat people. This extends to responses to social problems; as asserted by Dizon, Wiles and Peiris-John (2020) the language policy makers choose to construct policy problems will directly influence the solutions created. In the context of a pandemic, those very words can mean life and death.   

Even before the pandemic, the prevailing discourses around older people often depicted them as frail, dependent, a ‘burden’ on social resources, especially in Western societies (Duffy, 2017). Quite often the language is one of ‘othering’ as well as homogenising of a very diverse population (Fealy et al, 2012). This is detected in the language used in the above examples. Boris Johnson wanted to “speak directly to older people”: “Because this disease is particularly dangerous for you, for older people…”. The direct address, however, did not last long- very soon the ‘you’ turned to ‘they’: “we should all be thinking about our elderly relatives, […] and everything we can do to protect them over the next few months”. The emotional words by Dr Tsiodras also seem to point to older citizens as ‘them’ and defined through their family roles. Yet, his emotive assertion that older people are not only a medical priority, but are indispensable to who ‘we’ are, to the collective identity, is galvanising a different social contract. The Greek Prime Minister, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, called Dr Tsiodras’ statement a ‘wake up call’ and  justified the implementation of strict measures as “the responsibility of young people toward the elderly” (March 22nd). The day after, PM Johnson’s announcement of the lockdown included no direct mention of older people, focusing instead on NHS capacity (in what has become the motto of ‘Save the NHS’). 

The ‘othering’ and invisibility of older people in public discourse has had dire consequences in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in the UK: care homes remained obscured from the government’s gaze (a process already in place via decades of care sector privatisation). Not even the celebrated image of Captain Tom Moore, raising funds for the NHS, just shy of his 100th birthday, was enough to alert the government (and the public conscience) to the unfolding tragedy simultaneously taking place in care homes. Initial death figures did not include care home numbers, with the UK government having to be pushed to account for this population and make it visible as part of the national statistics. At the moment of writing, over 6,000 care home residents have died of Covid-19 between April and May (ONS), a crisis that PM Johnson ‘bitterly regrets’, yet a crisis that was preventable. 

This is not new knowledge; structurally produced and on the main preventable inequalities are highlighted by Milne (2020) as particularly damaging for older people: “As a society we could address them and by so doing reduce harm; it is a political choice that we do not and a matter of social justice.” (p. 4). There are existing calls to move to critical social work principles when working with older people: Milne et al. (2014), Ray et al. (2015) not only argue for a recognition of the specialist role of gerontological social work, but also stress the need to reconnect such practice with social justice values, challenging poverty, health inequalities, ageism and promoting rights. Duffy (2017) outlines advocacy practices based on an awareness of negative discourses on older people as crucial in promoting critical social work practice. I want to argue that this work cannot only be directed at recognising and challenging unjust and ageist discourses ‘out there’. In order to shift the narrative, a lot of critical reflection needs to also be facing inwards for us all as social workers: our views, attitudes and deeply held assumptions on what it means to be ‘old’. 

The evidence is not encouraging: studies across countries have found that social work students are not interested in working with older adults, as the work can be seen as too depressing, linked to ageist views of older people (e.g. as unable to change), or anxieties about their own ageing (Wang, et al, 2013Goel, 2019). Greek health and social work students reported higher anxiety over ageing (Koukouli et al, 2013), pointing to negative views on old age and potentially feeding this unwillingness to work in the field. More worryingly, unfavourable or even well-meaning but patronising attitudes can also underpin professional practices, resulting in adverse outcomes for older people in health and social care settings (Hanson, 2014). 

As a social work educator, I have been aware of my own preconceptions and fears, and those of students around old age and have been unnerved by ways in which narrow, homogenising perceptions of ‘the elderly’ can seep through into the teaching language. As those over 70 are absent from the students’ university classroom experience, an inevitable ‘us and them’ forms when covering the topic in lecturers and seminars. Stereotypical views of older people as obstinate, passive, asexual are common. Recognition and skilled challenging of these is important as part of the classroom experience, as is consideration of innovative pedagogy with diverse groups of older people as co-producers of the curriculum.   

Social workers should be at the forefront of a societal response to the care of older members of society and we as social work educators need to consider how best to prepare future social workers for the challenge. The Covid-19 crisis has laid bare the need for a multi-faceted, co-ordinated and social justice-informed response to the needs of older citizens. This challenge is urgent and -in many ways- desperate given the care home crisis in the UK; yet, it is also long term, as the repercussions of this pandemic will be felt for years, nationally and globally. Changes will have to occur on many fronts, but it is imperative that we engage with the discursive dimensions of any potential ‘remaking of the social contract’ (The Lancet, 2020). A brave examination of our own professional narrative power to define, exclude, silence, make visible is imperative. After all, the most chilling words were not those of well-known right-wing politicians. They were instead the words of the world-renowned, and undoubtedly highly influential, scientist who asked Dr Tsiodras “why are you making so much fuss over them?” 

Dr Eleni Skoura-Kirk,  

Senior Lecturer in Social Work, School of Social Policy, Sociology And Social Research, University of Kent, contact: E.Skoura-Kirk@kent.ac.uk

Twitter: @Clemencyrows

References

Milne, A. (2020). Mental Health in Later Life: Taking a Life Course Approach. Bristol: Policy Press.

Milne, A., Sullivan, M. P., Tanner, D., Richards, S., Ray, M., Lloyd, L., Beech, C. and Phillips, J. (2014). Social Work with Older People: A Vision for the Future. London: The College of Social Work.

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Ionut Cioarta Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

Short reflections on the activism of social workers in times of COVID-19

The role of social workers in society is clear for scholars and practitioners in the field. At least in theory. The mission of social work is to support and empower people in need, to encourage social cohesion and collective responsibility, to promote human rights and social justice, and to engage in actions of social change in order to enhance the well-being of people. But is this actually happening in practice? If so, when and what is the possibility for social workers to act as agents of change? 

At the present moment, what forms of social change can happen when humanity is on lockdown, people are panicked, health systems are over-stretched and under-resourced? Or when individuals are isolated and already vulnerable communities become more vulnerable? What kind of social change is needed and how should it be pursued, when discrimination of the oppressed increases every day? When supporters of the far right are becoming more vocal? When authoritarian regimes capitalise on the crisis to take more control and to militarise the state?

Well, with all these complexities, there is still a place for social workers to fight for social justice and for the wellbeing of people. In my opinion, they are currently engaging in activism more than ever.

But what is activism? Generally, when scholars refer to activism, they associate the term with social change at social/political/environmental level (Fuad-Luke, 2009). As I have previously argued (Cioarta, 2019) social change is acknowledged in social work activism in many forms, some of which I discuss below. Additionally, activism in social work can be seen as a type of resistance by  social workers (Greenslade et al., 2015), or as a political act (Gray et al., 2002). 

But what type of activism do social workers do in times of COVID-19? As a PhD student studying this area, I would say almost every kind of activism. So far, for my information, I have watched online events hosted by the SWANIFSW, and other organisations. Additionally, I have followed news relating to social work activity and I am in touch with friends and social work colleagues, who are in the frontline. Although it might sound a bit flimsy, I have to praise the efforts and reactions of social workers in this critical situation. They proved themselves not only as professionals, but also as veritable defenders of the communities in which they work, and especially of the most vulnerable. 

It is important to say this because the general ignorance regarding social workers’ contributions, and role in the current times is alarming and sad. After several weeks of the general lockdown across many states, I have seen a picture circulating on the Internet, lauding probably every essential profession in the present crisis (I have counted 13), naming them heroes, but social workers were not acknowledged. This led me to ironically conclude that yes, some heroes have the power to be invisible – as social workers are for the public all the time, not only in this period. Meanwhile, the Internet did provide other similar pictures and videos in which social workers are acknowledged, which is gratifying. 

In any case, I believe it is important to point out the capacity of social workers around the globe to adapt to the present situation, because the pandemic experience is different in each state/context and, as a consequence, social workers have reacted differently. Webinars that I referred to earlier outlined some of the actions undertaken by social workers at the international level. For examples, one online event was “Social work intervention for social change in the time of Covid -19: International perspectives” which included a panel of representatives from six countries: USA, South Korea, Ireland, Scotland, Cyprus, and Spain. 

Currently, social workers seem to be more connected than ever and it was obvious to me, from the webinars, that social workers are in many cases acting as the connectors. They are building alliances with other professionals, supporting and promoting grassroots responses, staying in touch with communities and families. They are working overtime, side by side with professionals from the health system. They are writing and considering new guidelines, policies for intervention, and advocating for people’s rights, services and resources. They are on the frontline, organising fundraising and donation campaigns and distributing goods for those that are most in need. 

Social workers are making sacrifices, exposing themselves without proper facilities and PPE. In my home country, Romania, social workers employed in residential homes must stay quarantined at the workplace. Basically, the Military Ordinance adopted at the beginning of April obliges social workers and other professionals (care workers, medical workers, educators, psychologists, cleaning and kitchen staff) to leave their families (children, parents, dependent members) for a period of 14 days. In all this time, they have to co-exist with service users in residential care homes. The Romania Association of Social Workers (ASproAS) reveals that this situation had a negative impact on the mental health of social workers such as depression, anxiety, or high level of stress.

Nevertheless, social workers are getting creative and taking full advantage of technology and social media, as campaigns are increasingly organised online (donations, petitions, raising awareness). Additionally, some social workers are providing online therapy in order to support people affected by this collective trauma and take actions to prevent the phenomenon of domestic violence, which drastically increased since the lockdown was initiated. Social workers, community workers, and other activists are amongst those to challenge the increasingly racist and xenophobic reactions that have appeared on social media and in communities.

For me, and for others, it is clear that social workers have proved their importance and vital contributions to advocating for a just society, but I am not optimistic that policy makers will understand this. Of course, there will be voices that will argue that social workers failed to properly react to this situation. I believe that every sector failed. Critically, every state failed. Capitalism and neoliberalism failed by privatising health system and social services, by choosing profit over people’s lives. It is not really fair to expect a “proper” answer to a crisis for which no one was prepared. Although pandemic planning was going for years in the UK, austerity measures pushed this down on the agenda. Moreover, when we speak about a segment that is generally underestimated and strongly affected by the funding cuts, we cannot expect wonders.

To conclude, I believe that social workers can be considered as a true image of activism. Not only in the time of coronavirus, but every day. They fight for social justice and for those in need, even though their work is under-estimated and over-looked. They advocate for rights, they connect, they stand up for people, they mobilise themselves to find the best resources in everything. Activism in not an option anymore, it is a lifestyle, it is a duty. Paradoxically, this crisis might present us with an opportunity for people to understand the role of social work in society, but also for social workers to reclaim the true essence of social work – the engine of social change.

Ionut Cioarta, PhD Student in Social Work, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow 

References

Cioarta, I., (2019). Activism and its Manifestations in Social Work Profession in Romania – Between Conceptualisation and Practice, Romanian Social Work Review, XVIII, Number 3/2019, 29-43. 

Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. Sterling, VA: Earthscan.

Gray, M., Collett van Rooyen, C., Rennie, G., Gaha, J. (2002). The political participation of social workers: A comparative study. International Journal of Social Welfare, 11, 2, 99-110. doi:10.1111/1468-2397.00204

Greenslade L., McAuliffe D., Chenoweth L. (2015). Social Workers’ Experiences of Covert Workplace Activism, Australian Social Work, 68, 4, 422-437, DOI: 10.1080/0312407X.2014.940360

Categories
Martin Webber Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

Towards a new community social work

An earlier version of this article was posted on Martin Webber’s blog: https://martinwebber.net/archives/2541. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to re-evaluate our lives, our society and our economic system. Nationalism, neo-liberalism and individualism have been found wanting in the face of the global spread of the disease. A different set of values and principles are now needed to address our unfolding societal needs.

Social workers have something to say about this, and a contribution to make. But we need to take the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and our roles to consider what we need to change as well. I have long argued that individual casework needs to be combined with a community development function, but the pandemic has now made this much more vital.

Community organising

Communities and neighbourhoods are self-organising on an unprecedented scale. Mutual aid groups, informal online support networks or neighbours just looking out for each other are all helping to ensure that isolated – or self-isolating – people have their needs met. Social workers are involved in this, but largely where they live, in their own neighbourhoods, and not as part of their job.

Community organising, development or support roles do not feature prominently in statutory social work. Local authorities and NHS Trusts largely employ social workers to attend to individual, rather than community needs. However, we have seen over the last few weeks that meeting individual needs is inextricably connected to community capacity. Communities which are better organised are likely to be better able to meet individuals’ needs. There is a particular role for social workers here – helping to ensure every community and neighbourhood has the infrastructure to ensure people receive the support they require.

Some have said that ‘community’ died with urbanisation and is nothing other than nostalgia from a pre-industrial agrarian age. This is clearly wrong. With the forces of neo-liberalism on hold and the worst excesses of market capitalism being held in check, what is important now is that members of our community have access to food, medicine and shelter. This re-evaluation of our priorities – and a renewed focus on community – should shape our social and economic development once the crisis is over.

If anyone is in doubt about this, they only need to step outside their front door on a Thursday evening. People who do not necessarily know each other, and have nothing in common except for where they live, stand together in solidarity to acknowledge the beating heart of our nation – key workers who look after our health, wellbeing and essential needs. This is a seismic shift from the individualism which has been our organising principle for so long.

This is partly a symptom of our lives becoming hyper-local since the lockdown. But it may point to how we organise ourselves in future. A drop in air pollution, brighter stars at night and a repairing ozone layer may help to convince us that we need to be more home and local-based in future. We need to seize this opportunity to develop, implement and evaluate community models of social work which address inequality (not all neighbourhoods can self-organise) and refocus on the needs of all.

Community social work practice

I developed a module for mental health social workers in their first year of employment following qualification which focuses on effective social work practice with networks and communities. Its aim has been to challenge the individualism within mental health services and to expose practitioners and teams to community models which are effective in improving mental health and social outcomes.

The students have to develop and implement a community project, evaluate it and write it up for their assignment.  This could be bringing mental health service users together who share an interest and supporting them to access community resources to take it forward, for example. Or it could be bringing people together to explore their local community, or creating opportunities to connect people who would not otherwise have met, for example.

When lockdown started most of the current cohort were about to launch their projects but have since had to put them on hold. Some are moving their projects online, but most are waiting until social distancing restrictions are relaxed. This is somewhat frustrating as their work in connecting people to their communities is just what is needed at the moment. As home visits or any face to face work is currently reserved for crises, at no time more than the present people need to know who in their local community they can turn to if they need help beyond their household.

Over the years I have been teaching this module and conducting research in this field, the main barrier I have observed for practitioners to work with communities is organisational resistance. “This isn’t your role” is what they are commonly told. However, local authorities have a responsibility under the Care Act 2014 to promote the wellbeing of all adults, including those who do not have any current care needs. In addition, the Community Mental Health Framework for Adults and Older Adults states that mental health services should become place-based and adopt models which support people to become more active citizens. Services appear resistant to shift away from individual models.

A new community social work 

I am advocating a new community social work which addresses individual need and builds resourceful communities for the benefit of all. With active citizenship at its heart, a new community social work focuses on the contributions that people with social care needs can make as well as mobilising people with no support needs to look out for others. Of course, specialist functions such as assessment, safeguarding and the protection of human rights will be required, but they will be conducted in the context of place-based services which are a part of, and accountable to, their local communities.

The integration of health and social care services has been a policy goal for many years, but now is the time to merge NHS and local authority functions to create community wellbeing hubs within primary care networks. Bringing primary and community-based secondary health care alongside community social work and other local services, and providing a hub for the local community and voluntary sector, community centres can become a focal point for universal services and a gateway for more specialist services.

Specialist knowledge can be retained within regional centres, but local hubs would provide a focal point for child and adult safeguarding, assessment of care and support needs, and the provision of community-based services. However, this is not just another reorganisation. This points to a future when the orientation of practice is broadened from the individual to their local communities (or communities of interest). Practice models need to shift to encompass a whole community perspective so that services can be developed where they are needed – to tackle issues as diverse as loneliness, youth offending or early years child development, for example. As well as sourcing resources to meet individual needs, a goal of practice will be to attend to community wellbeing.

Back to the past or looking to the future?

The Barclay Report (1982) was a key moment in the timeline towards contemporary social work. However, it was a significant missed opportunity which may have led us on a different path, away from the reductionism and individualism of statutory social work we have today.

It was commissioned by the first Thatcher Government to review the roles and tasks of social workers. Most of its committee members advocated a community approach to social work which emphasised community engagement, with social workers working with informal carers and voluntary organisations to support people as citizens:

“The Working Party believes that if social needs of citizens are to be met in the last years of the twentieth century, the personal social services must develop a close working partnership with citizens focusing more closely on the community and its strengths” (p. 198, Barclay Report, 1982).

The report included two minority reports in the chapter on community social work. One of these, ‘An alternative view’ by Robert Pinker, argued for specialisation in social work and cautioned against a community approach which would provide a framework for the mobilisation of local communities into political pressure groups to advocate for an increase in statutory funding. This minority view held sway and the report was largely ignored by Thatcher’s Government.

New mental health and childcare legislation in the 1980s required social workers to become more specialised. While some local authorities briefly introduced ‘patch social work’ where teams were more community-based, most created structures for the specialist services we see today.

I am not suggesting a return to the past, but a negotiated future in which there is Government recognition of the important role which communities play in our lives. Specialism is retained, but community skills become part of the foundation of the profession and services working with the same individuals, families and communities join up to work together.

This may be a utopia, or just a foolish idea. But we need to consider alternative futures to help ensure individuals and communities are not isolated in the face of a pandemic such as this. Let us use this moment as an opportunity to reshape health and social care into a community-based and community-accountable service in which people have a dynamic relationship with their community. We have seen the capacity of many communities to look out for people during this pandemic. Let’s utilise this commonweal to develop new ways of local working which brings together the expertise of communities and practitioners to enhance both individual and community wellbeing.

Martin Webber

Professor of Social Work

Categories
Matthew Jackman Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

The mental health and service user experience during COVID19 in Australia: from personal to professional disaster

I write alongside my heater in the lounge room as the weather reaches 8 degrees centigrade on a dreary and rainy winter like day in Melbourne, Australia. Working from home has been a struggle, as I gather myself into some sort of routine by going for a walk, showering and setting up my laptop in an area well insulated in my flat. My housemates are either working night shift at the hospital attending to COVID19 demands or have gone home to their families in the country side due to quarantine restrictions. I have lost a sense of purpose during this time experiencing collective and global anxiety, given the world has lost its way forward as it responds to crisis without forethought about how the world will look when this global health crisis subsides.  

Recently, I lost my sessional academic role teaching social work. This was due to student enrolments decreasing as a result of COVID19. Sadly, there was no support from the federal government in job seeker payments, which is an injustice for 70% of the higher education workforce who are casual in Australia. However, I applied to access my superannuation early, due to losing more than 20% of my income, which was a federal government initiative. Our financial health has taken a battering during the collapse of materialism and a false economy founded on debt and capitalist sentiment as our focus has shifted to purchasing basic needs and avoidance of discretionary spending in order to survive. 

Fortunately, I continue to work as a mental health clinician in a government department alongside veterans and their families who need support via telehealth. Sharing common and collective concerns over the phone with people has been an empathic unifier. People I partner alongside as a clinician self-manage expectations about timelines and ask you how you are going as a clinician? What a change. 

However, working from home has been difficult, given I am battling with my own experiences of anxiety, mood fluctuations and thought disturbances with a diagnosis of ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder’ as defined by Psychiatry in the DSM and ICD. It can be difficult battling with others inner demons when you are experiencing a similar phenomenon.

The mental health system and its broader intersections with health, education, employment, income security, housing and disability has not been able to cope with the demand and many of us accessing services have felt let down in not attending to our complex grief, loss and trauma. Alongside our formal support system, we have seen the collapse of our informal support system as there has been significant family and relationship conflict due to the physical distancing and quarantine sanctions resulting in a relationship breakdowns and discord. Now to deal with my grief without adequate supports. 

The most devastating impact on my mental health has been witness to humanity’s greed and we have seen this in privileged individuals accessing essentials goods and services in supermarkets, those same individuals not complying with public health advice in physical distancing and quarantining, and privatised companies monetising mental health and other services for the betterment and gain of personal greed than the contribution to us as human beings. 

Despite COVID19’s detrimental impact on my mental health, I have been able to build inner resilience, and sit with my emotions and critical reflections. Listening to music, going for daily walks in the park, connecting with work colleagues online, daily phone calls and lots of cooking are strategies that have kept my wellbeing balanced. I have continued to access my formal support system such as therapist, disability worker and doctor through telehealth options. I have gained a greater sense of self in solitude and am thankful for the positive changes in human behaviour resulting in a more sustainable and just world. We are more than what we produce and consume. 

COVID19 has not been all bad. But we have had to sacrifice for great change in how we live, breath and sustain our Earth and human species. 

Matthew Jackman 

Service User and Mad Studies Academic, Victoria University, Western Pacific Regional Representative, Global Mental Health Peer Network

Categories
Megan Ormsby Third Edition, May 18th, 2020

Poem about the impact of the lockdown on a group of social work students from Ulster University

We were final year social work students, due to finish in May,
But little did we know that this would change on a Wednesday.
We arrived at placement ready for the busy day ahead,
Then to our surprise, were told ‘you’re finishing now instead’
We felt a wave of panic, thought ‘this can’t be true’,
We’re providing a service, and that is what we’ll do! 
Our Health and Social Care services need us, in times of worry and fear, 
It’s time to get our heads down and step it up a gear! 
Why are social workers needed? – Well that I can explain, 
To help families, struggling with trauma and unimaginable pain. 
We work beside others to fulfil a vital role, 
We will support you and your family – that is our main goal! 
Throughout the spread of Covid we are here for those in need, 
We are here for the most vulnerable, and that is guaranteed. 
Child abuse will continue, poverty and violence too, 
Children’s homes can’t close, that we cannot do! 
So we’re needed more than ever in such a challenging time, 
And you’ll find us with colleagues, working on the front line. 
We won’t get praised by BBC, or UTV or Sky
But that we show up and do our jobs can’t be denied.
We are working together to fight this, and will always do our best
And when this pandemic is over we’ll pick up the pieces with the rest. 
So our journey ended early, but a new one is starting, 
And as we move on to the next stage, this I am imparting – 
Ulster University, have showed us how it’s done – 
We are ready and I’m proud of everyone! 

Postscript May 2020

I was on a final Practice Learning Opportunity within a mental health inpatient unit. The Trust were fantastic in sourcing jobs for those of us graduating and I have been lucky enough to get a job back in the same ward. Although mental health services are maybe not considered “front line” we are already beginning to see the implications of C0VID-19 on mental health and there will be a long road ahead of us. The multidisciplinary team have been fantastic and I am glad to be providing an important service to those who need it.

Megan Ormsby, Social work student, Ulster University