The relationship between social workers and those who use services has been described as both the “cornerstone” of practice (Alexander and Grant 2009, p. 6) and the “heart of social work” (Ruch et al. 2010, p. 1). When individuals are asked what is important to them when engaging with services, a recurring theme endures: the quality of their relationship with their social worker is paramount. Despite this consensus numerous commentators have emphasised the need to ensure that relationships remain at ‘the heart’ of practice (Ruch et al. 2010, especially in the climate of austerity (Featherstone et al. 2014; Hingley-Jones and Ruch 2016). Furthermore, this is especially pertinent given the current situation we find ourselves in with the added pressures and new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic (Golightley and Holloway 2020).
Whilst many points made in this essay may be relevant to other areas, the focus will be on social work with children and families. When researching this area it was impossible to ignore the interconnectedness between the personal and the environmental, the individual and the collective. To navigate this I have developed a model presented in Figure 1, loosely based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) ecological systems theory.
To address the question of how we build better relationships, I thought it would first be useful to consider what constitutes a strong relationship. The centre therefore represents the basic ingredients of a positive relationship as identified by children and families in various research studies (Ridley et al. 2013; Oliver 2010; Hill 1999). In essence children and families say they want their social worker to: stay the same (if it’s positive), be around when they need them, to care about them, to have mutual trust and to involve them in decisions that affect them. I will discuss each of these.
Having the same social worker is crucial if a meaningful relationship is to flourish particularly for individuals who have experienced inconsistent personal and professional relationships in the past (). Unfortunately due to a high staff turnover we know this stability and continuity is difficult to preserve (Longfield 2018). This picture also features alongside reliance on agency staff which further compounds inconsistent care (Solem et al. 2020). These themes have been identified in serious case reviews which clearly highlights not only the importance in providing quality service but crucially in keeping children safe (Solem et al. 2020). Whilst more can be done systemically to address staff turnover is it important to acknowledge that we need to approach this issue in a relational way. To promote stronger relationships it therefore becomes important that relationships are seen as a ‘phased process’ making sure that transitions between one worker and another are not only limited but also caring and sensitive.
Accessibility and time
Relationships cannot be expected to grow if they do not have the time or if social workers are not available. This is affected by high caseloads, strict timescales and bureaucratic demands (Ferguson 2014). An observational study following social workers on home visits to children on the child protection register highlighted how often the “system needs triumphed” over more compassionate work with families (Ferguson 2014 p. 289). As social workers we need to become more ‘visible’ by placing ourselves within communities. This again needs to be meaningful and adaptive to where people are. A good example of this is a recent pilot of social workers being placed within schools gaining further government funding (What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care 2020). If relationships are forged this could make interactions with social workers the mainstream rather than a shameful and embarrassing experience for children. This community-based work could help to build strong relationship with children, families and teaching staff. Additionally, direct work is often now referred on for specific agencies to complete which perhaps misses an opportunity for further strengthening the relationship. Furthermore direct work is something that social workers have expressed that they want to do more but unfortunately are dominated by bureaucratic tasks (BASW England 2018).
Involving children and families in decision-making about their own lives is considered central to effective practice (Diaz 2018). This is about working ‘with’ individuals rather than ‘doing to’. A good platform for this to be enabled is Family Group Conferences (Brown 2007). It is important however that participation is encouraged in a meaningful way rather than tokenistic: not as a one-off but as part of a wider picture of involvement (Diaz 2018).
Empathy and trust
Empathy is about being able to understand and share feelings of the person you are supporting. Forrester et al. (2007) recommended the potential in social work adopting skills from the field of counselling in facilitating more empathetic work. Like the other elements listed above, trust in the social work relationship is affected by a number of wider factors. Many commentators agree that the media portrayal of workers as ‘child snatchers’ has negatively impacted public trust in the profession (Westwood 2007). Trust is closely linked to the second layer of the circle which highlights the psychological space in between the social worker and individual. For example a previously negative experience with social services may impact a family’s initial willingness to engage. Having an awareness of these issues and by striving to understand and reflect on the social issues people are facing are crucial to relationship-based practice (Featherstone et al. 2018).
The wider picture
The outer layer and one concept in particular has featured throughout the discussion of barriers to relational practice: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be understood broadly as an economic theory which favours free markets, individualism, reduced public spending and privitisation (Spolander 2014). Private sector principles of performance indicators, cost-effectiveness and targets have been adopted by policymakers and enforced upon the social work profession. As shown the impact of this for relationship-based practice is significant with the increasing pressure on practitioners to meet deadlines, undertake assessments and meet targets instead of focussing on the ‘quality’ of the interaction.
To further address the question, I am proposing that to ensure relationships are placed at the ‘heart’ of practice we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room; politics. I agree with Fraser’s et al. (2017,p. 1) proposition that “social workers need to re/politicize their purpose”. To do this, avenues for change need to be forged. More integration between Universities and Trade Unions should be encouraged. Universities could go further than encouraging awareness and knowledge about structural factors and politics but support students think about ways in which this can be acted upon. Also, the linguistics of ‘radical’ social work may also want to be reconceived instead as ‘standard’ practice; there shouldn’t be anything extreme about standing up for what is right. Perhaps if it is viewed as part of our role then it will seem more imaginable that wider change is possible.
Currently we are living through a global pandemic due to COVID-19 which has perhaps shone a light upon politics and how it directly affects us all. The tragic murder of George Floyd has invoked a series of protests and social media campaigns to challenge wider systemic racism that exists not only in the US but worldwide. Maybe now is the time for social workers to engage more with politics and structural inequalities that affect them and the people they are trying to support.
“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much” (Helen Keller)
Charlotte Pitt, Social Work Student, University of Cardiff
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