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I will discuss both the personal and professional values that influence social work practice and discuss a particularly challenging experience I had with two service users who came for counselling where myself and a qualified social worker was to assist the service user. The names of the service users have been changed to ensure confidentiality.
An important thing to recognise regarding values in social work practice, according to the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) is that “values are integral to rather than separate from competent practice. Therefore there can be no such thing as value free social work practice. Such is the influence of values in social work practice that CCETSW set out six core values, that the student must demonstrate competence in, before she/he can be awarded the Diploma in Social Work. The first of these values is: “to identify and question their own values and prejudices, and there implications for practice”.
It is not easy to recognise your own values, as often they are unconscious ideas or views, which can only be challenged or changed, when brought to the conscious level.
Personal, societal, political and cultural experiences influence the values that an individual develops, so it is important to become aware of these influences. The values people hold affect the way they act and treat other people, without an awareness of this people can unconsciously act in what may be perceived as an oppressive and discriminatory way.
Another of the core value requirements of CCETSW 1995, and one, which highlights one of the dilemmas faced by Social Workers, is: “Promote people’s rights to choice, privacy, confidentiality and protection, while recognising and addressing the complexities of competing rights and demands”. (CCETSW 1995). To illustrate this difficulty what follows is a description of a challenging practice I have experienced, during a counselling session I had with a women whom I shall call Jane. Jane came for counselling because she was in a violent relationship. She described how her husband both physically and mentally abused her, and that she had a history of abuse from controlling men. She had returned to London from Pakistan where she and her husband lived, after he had once again abused her whilst she was in the process of deciding whether to stay in Wales or return to her husband in Pakistan. Her husband has two children from a previous relationship, for which he has custody, although this was not a particular concern for Jane, for me there could be a conflict of competing rights. Jane had a right to privacy and confidentiality, but the children had a right to protection. Confidentiality in instances such as this “…may be breached, where it is demonstrably in the client’s interest or where there is an overriding concern for the rights of other people, when for example the behaviour of the client may endanger others”. (Social Care Association 1988).
Had my role in this been that of a Child and Family Social Worker the rights of the Children would have been paramount. As I worked with Jane I became aware of my own values which were urging me to protect her, and wanting to encourage her to remain in London . Only by reflecting on my practice did I become aware, I could have become another controlling male figure and missed the opportunity to enable her to take control for herself.
Jane made her decision to return to her husband in Pakistan, I did not hear from her again for one months, after which time she made another appointment to see me – this time with her husband who I shall call Bill.
When they came to see me and my colleague I was aware that I had seen Jane on her own previously and was careful to ensure the things she had talked about were kept confidential, and that I did not accidentally disclose these to Bill . Jane had told me her story from which I had developed my own picture of Bill, before even meeting him. Bill was a large man, very loud and appeared aggressive at first, I was a little concerned about the safety of Jane, myself and my colleague, in that first meeting. When writing my notes after the session, and analysing what went on, one of the questions I had of my practice was: What had Bill done to make me feel threatened? He did not verbally or physically attack me, or make any threats, after reflection, I felt it could have been because he was different. Bill was from a different culture of Pakistani Pataan descent, he was tall and a heavily build, and his way of communicating was to shout as that is how he got attention. If I were to work positively and constructively with Bill, I needed to act in an anti oppressive and anti discriminatory way, to ensure that he received the same respect that all clients have a right to, and that I treated him as a unique individual.
According to Egan (1990) respect means prizing the individuality of service users, supporting each service user in his or her search for self, and personalizing the helping process to the needs, capabilities, and resources of this client. Effective helpers do not try to make service users over in their own image and likeness. On the other hand, respect does not mean encouraging service users to develop or maintain a kind of individualism that is self destructive or destructive of others. Egan (1990 pp65)
Having recognised my own personal prejudices, I was able to identify more clearly the strengths Bill had and to build on them. This had quite an impact on future counselling sessions. Bill valued being listened to and respected, his voice level lowered and he stopped to listen to Jane which gave her the opportunity to tell him how she felt. As we progressed the counselling relationship became more of a partnership, we looked at the different ways they communicated, Bill began to ‘own’ the violence he had previously denied and Jane grew in confidence, and was able to express her own needs and expectations. We agreed to set tasks and goals each week that enabled them to check their progress, which further empowered them.
Empowerment is a term widely used, and often misunderstood as giving your power to someone else; there are several definitions but this one, I think, describes it well:
It is commonly assumed by many that empowerment involves taking away the worker’s power, However, if this is done, it will of course make him or her less effective and therefore of less value or use. Empowerment is a matter of helping people gain greater control over their lives, helping them to become better equipped to deal with the problems and challenges they face – especially those that involve seeking to counter or overcome discrimination and oppression. (Thompson, 1998b, p9)
To empower is to enable people to increase control of their lives, not to control others, Bill needed to recognise that by taking control of his life, he also needed to control his behaviour not to control others. Empowering is also helpful in letting clients see their problems in the wider socio-political context as in the case of Jane.
-for example, by helping a woman who has experienced violence at the hand of her partner to become aware of the broader social problem of domestic violence and it’s links with male power in society, so that she does not see her own situation as simply an unfortunate development or, worse still, something she has brought on herself (Mullender, 1996).
Through this experience Jane found the confidence to stand up to Bill, telling him she would only return to the marriage if things changed. Bill found a more constructive way of communicating, he became more open to looking at change, and I learnt a lot more about my own personal and professional values and their influence on practice.
There are a few theories that explain the development of our own attitudes and values. Thompson (1993) developed a “PCS model”. The P level is our thoughts, feelings, actions and attitudes although an individual can also be shaped by the culture we live in. The C level is showing the interests and influence of society as reflected in the values and norms we receive during socialisation. Finally the S level is basically the structure of society we live in. Even though we have individual thoughts and attitudes, the people we share our lives with shape them and they in turn are shaped by the norms and values passed to them by society.
As I have discussed, values have a major influence on Social work practice, the personal values we have affect the way we act from birth through to old age, and our values can change as we develop, both personally and professionally and they can conflict with each other. The core values set by CCETSW underpin the work and enables Social Workers to work in an anti oppressive and anti discriminatory way and these values have changed over time and I would suggest, will continue to change when necessary in the future. It is essential that Social Workers have and awareness and knowledge of these values as they have a significant affect on the vulnerable service users they work with.
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