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is essay will discuss why social exclusion and anti-oppressive practice are so closely linked. It will discuss how social exclusion can affect an individual and community, taking away their right to choices afforded to others in society. It will demonstrate how through anti-oppressive practices, processes such as decisio
n making and managing risk can be done in an ethical manner to help promote independence and empower a service user enabling them to work in partnership with the service provider.
It will also discuss, how a managerial style of social work threatens to remove the decision making process from social workers in order to maximise efficiency, meet targets and minimise risk. With growing media coverage calling for social work decision to be more transparent, increasing pieces of legislation, policies and procedures are taking away the decision making skills and professional judgement from the role.
From the very beginning, the role of a social worker has been to help those marginalised and discriminated against by main stream society. The Poor Laws of 1536 saw for the first time, money being collected from local people and redistributed to those deemed worthy of support (Horner, 2009). These humble beginnings are in stark contrast to the complex role of social work today. Banks (2006) discusses the role and the attitude towards social work as ever changing, one which is impacted by the opinions of main stream society and the political agenda, era and environment within which it works.
The underpinning values of social work have remained largely unchanged throughout its history and can be identified in the modern role today; respect, confidentiality, acceptance of individualism, being non-judgemental and a belief in the ability to change, as described by Parrott (2011). These values have defined the role of a social worker as being one that “promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.” (International Federation of Social Work, 2011).
Values and ethics are a strong theme which dominates all aspects of social work. Values are ideals or beliefs which are important to an individual or organisation and can be viewed as being either positive or negative. Ethics are ways in which a person or organisation behaves in relation to their values, again either positively or negatively. Values define what is right and wrong whereas ethics is the act of doing right or wrong. (Banks, 2006).
The General Social Care Council (General Social Care Council, 2002) has developed a code of practice which social workers must adhere to, these include; promoting independence, to protect individuals from harm, respecting the rights of a service user to make their own choices and be accountable for their own actions. The aim of these codes of practice is to provide a unified value base which will allow social workers to act ethically within their role. The codes of practise as set out by the GSCC provide a tangible set of values for the social work profession and by following these values should result in ethical practice. Social Work is not only governed by its codes of practice and their values but also by government legislation.
Dalrymple and Burke (2006) and Banks (2006) discuss how the vast amount of social care legislation can be seen to both help and hinder the role of a social worker. Targets and guidelines were introduced into the workplace with each new piece of legislation, turning the focus from how an individual is treated to the end result; how quickly they arrived at this point and what resource have been used to achieve it. The ethical question here is how the legislation is used; often as a means to justify an action rather than to assist it and the legislation should be used to confirm what powers a social worker holds not when they should enact them. When placing a child into local authority care, the decision of removing the child lies with the social worker, the legislation merely gives them the power to do so.
To some extent, Banks (2006) argues that the process of ethical decision making has been removed from the role of social work in order for them to meet targets as can be seen in the role of assessments of service user’s needs. Assessments increasingly use the system of tick boxes forms to assess the need for services; those not meeting the threshold are denied the sought after service. Lack of resources and pressing targets may mean the course of action taken may not always be the most ethical.
According to Parrott (2006), one reason for this shift towards a more business style approach to social work is down to the increasing media coverage when things go wrong, calling for the social work profession to be more accountable in the eyes of the general public. Banks (2006) supports this argument citing Franklin’s (1989, cited in Banks, 2006) view that social workers are often vilified for acting too hastily or not acting soon enough. High profile cases such as Baby P and Victoria Climbie (Parrott 2006) have called for the social work profession to be more accountable for their actions, introducing set policies and guidelines into the workplace, negating the need for individual social workers to make their own decisions.
Dalrymple and Burke (2006) suggest another reason for the move towards a more managerialist style of social work in the decreasing financial resources available to the sector. Most of the financial resources are spent providing an adequate service across the board or on high risk areas such as child protection.
Birmingham City Council faced High Court action in 2011 (BBC, 2011) when it attempted to cut its provision of social care for disabled adults. In the increasing difficult financial economy, there are 122 councils in the UK which now only provide care for those with substantial or critical care needs. (BBC, 2011).
Wilson et al. (2008) describes this move towards a more managerial style of social work as not being all inherently bad, the intention being to standardise the decisions making process in the hopes of lessen risk for all across the board, however the decisions being made in some cases are not the best they could be; the best outcome in a few cases has been overlooked for a good outcome in the majority of cases.
In 1997, the UK underwent a change in government; from the long reigning Conservative Party to New Labour (Labour Party, 2011) and with it the introduction of the term ‘social exclusion’.
The circumstances of social exclusion have been recognisable since before the social work role existed, however this new phrase encompassed not only the issues people faced, but how it affected them. Betts and Gaynor (Department of International Development, 2005) describes social exclusion as a process which systematically disadvantages certain groups within society and by doing so does not permit them the same opportunities and rights given to their peers. This can be done on the basis of; age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, health, physical/mental and emotional ability or even the area in which they live. By not affording these groups of people the same opportunities as others, this impacts on education and employment prospects resulting in low education, poor employment opportunities and substandard housing.
It is often found that people living in poorer housing estates, compared to those in better off areas, have basic levels of education resulting in high levels of unemployment, poorer employment prospects and more health issues due to poor housing. This often results in the resources available being of poorer quality. According to Oxaal (1997) school attendance is often lower in economically deprived areas as it is seen as having little or no value, believing that the individual will be faced with a life on benefits despite their academic achievements. Schools in these areas are more likely to be less well funded and able to provide the same opportunities as other schools, often focusing on the basics such as reading and writing and less on personal development. (Giddens, 2009).
Giddens (2009) describes how social exclusion is not always imposed by society but sometimes by the individual themselves; turning down employment or not continuing in education are choices made by the individual and the consequences of which may lead to or maintain the state of social exclusion.
One of the main impacts of social exclusion is poverty. Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer (2008) describes how social workers are more likely to work with people from an impoverished background than any other; citing that ‘children living in poverty are 700 times more likely to be the subject of local authority care’. Giddens (2009) agrees with this arguing that children of poorer families are far more likely to become poor adults, perpetuating the cycle and increasing the need for intervention at some point during their lives. Despite it being perceived as the biggest driving factor, Ward (2009) argues that social exclusion is about more than just a lack of income. Both Giddens (2009) and Ward (2009) agree that those facing poverty are often children, the elderly, women and ethnic minorities but Ward goes on to describe that it is the accumulation of factors such as these that keep people in social exclusion. A young unemployed white man is more likely to improve their circumstances than an elderly Asian lady living on a pension.
It is this multi-dimensional nature of social exclusion that makes it difficult to tackle. A social worker needs to understand whether the exclusion a person faces is imposed by society or the individual themselves as well as the nature of the exclusion and be able to identify the aspects which contribute to the exclusion faced by the individual. It is this understanding which will ultimately lead to an effective course of action to help empower people and enable them to improve their standard of life.
One of the roles of social work is to fight social injustice. Social exclusion on the basis of such qualities as age, race and gender are often tackled on an organisational level by legislation, acts such as the Race Relations Act 2000 and the Disability and Equality Act 2010 (The National Archive, (2000) and Directgov (2010)) prohibit discrimination against certain groups of people. Other pieces of legislation, such as the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 encourage a change in behaviour to redistribute the power balance between a service provider and its user. This act made it a legislative duty for Local Authorities to consult service users when planning and delivering services (The National Archive, 2000). It is this change in delivery and implementation of service provision that has led to the introduction of anti-oppressive practice in social work.
Parrott (2011) discusses two distinct aspects of anti-oppressive practice; firstly on the basis that it should work against oppression and secondly that social work practice should seek to empower service users, seek to work in partnership with them with a minimal level of intervention. Wilson et al. (2008) and Dalrymple and Burke (2006) agree with the view of Parrott (2011) on anti-oppressive practice seeing it as a view to achieve social justice for service users. Anti-oppressive practice as a behaviour should, as outlined above, seek to promote three things, empowerment, partnership and minimal intervention.
Empowerment, as described by Parrott (2006), can only be done when the social worker understands the context of the viewpoint of the service user within their situation. Although the facts and information obtained during this process can be verified, they should be taken as a clarification of how the service user sees themselves and should not be changed or corrected. People from the travelling community do not place a high importance on children attending school once they have gained a basic education, understanding how and why they hold this viewpoint will enable a social work to gain a better understanding of the values and priorities of the traveling community on educational matters.
Control should be given to the service user to allow them to define their own situation, allowing them to do so without judgement and correction can empower them to take ownership of their situation. This control can enable a service user to take power over their situation, providing them with the confidence and self-belief that they are able to learn new skills and develop existing ones to improve their circumstances. (Parrott (2006), Clifford and Burke (2009))
Working in partnership with service users is an important aspect of anti-oppressive practice. Any course of action taken by a social worker should be done with the consent of the service user. Parrott (2006) explains that this may not always be possible; some decisions such as removing children from the family home or admitting someone into hospital following a breakdown are choices outside the service user control; however some choices, like where the child is placed, may still be subject to discussion.
The act of listening to and taking into consideration the wishes and thoughts of a service user in such situations can also be seen as working in partnership. The nature of the partnership should include qualities such as listening to others point of view, providing information to all parties and being honest. These qualities will enable the partnership to remain even in the event that a decision is made the service user does not agree with.
An opportune time for partnership to be developed is during the assessment, planning, intervention and review (APIR) cycle. The assessment of the situation faced by the service user should always be done in collaboration with them, checking their requirements for assistance and understanding of the circumstances. During the assessment process, particular focus should be given to highlight the strengths of the service user, reinforcing the first stage of empowerment. Areas of development should also be identified and agreed upon.
When deciding upon a plan, it is more likely to be effective if it is done with the consent of the service user and where possible, utilises their strengths. Planning can be a difficult step in the APIR process, balancing the needs of the service user with the resources available may not always be possible. It may also be that the wishes of the service user are in conflict with what they need, an elderly person may wish to remain in their own home but the level of care required may not make it financially feasible.
The coalition government in power in the UK today has put forward the ideal of a ‘Big Society’ (The Cabinet Office, 2010); the idea being that families and communities work together to meet their own needs, taking back the power and the responsibility for improving their own situations. It is hoped that if a community takes responsibility for improving the area for its local residence, it’s more likely that everyone will become involved and work for the benefit of all without reliance on central government.
Any intervention should be reviewed on a regular basis and should take into account the feedback by all involved parties. The discussion should include what has been successful and what is still left to be achieved. If more action is required, the APIR cycle can start again to deal with the remaining issues. Not all remaining issues may be negative, it may be appropriate to continue with more positive aspects such as enrolling on course to aid self-improvement; this will give the service user more confidence and empower them further making it more likely that the positive outcome agreed upon is more likely to be successful.
The third aspect of anti-oppressive practice is minimal intervention. Parrott (2006) has split this into three levels of intervention; firstly at a primary level. This level of intervention should provide minimal support and usually takes the form of education and support, preventing the need for further assistance. Schemes such as Sure Start run by the government supports pregnant mothers until the child reaches school age and is designed to provide help and support to those from poorer backgrounds with the aim of tackling issues before they arise, (Directgov, 2011). The second level of intervention is done thorough early intervention with the intention of involvement being brief. The third level of intervention is usually enacted when something has gone wrong. According to anti-oppressive practice, the purpose of the intervention should be to reduce the consequences of the event. Taking away the risk of the incident reoccurring without changing the situation would be the ultimate goal, it is accepted that this may not always be possible. (Parrott 2006).
Wilson’s et al. (2008) view on anti-oppressive practice is largely the same as Parrott (2006) in that she sees the introduction of direct payment’s and individual budgets for service user a positive thing. Wilson et al. (2008) also describe the service user as having ‘self-determination’ in that they are an entity able to make their own choices and decisions and should be encouraged to do so. Wilson et al. (2008) also discussed the over use of advocacy with social workers often assuming the service user requires someone to speak on their behalf. If a social worker is to truly empower the service user then they must acknowledge their right to make their own decisions.
Under government legislation, the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (The National Archives 2005) which came into force in 2007 gives every adult the capacity to make their own decisions unless it is proved they are unable to do so. The act also protects ‘unwise’ decisions, where a professional may not make the same decision in a given situation; it does not mean the service user lacks capacity to make it, protecting their right to make their own choices. When a service user is deemed incapable of making their own choices, an advocate may be appointed to assist with the process. In instances where an ‘unwise’ decision is made, a social worker should weight up the right of the service user to make the choice and the risk involved in doing so. If the risk involved in making the decision puts the individual or the community at risk, then further consultation should be taken to discuss the point further. Although a social worker should not force a service user to change their opinion on a matter, they should provide a balanced view of the situation and highlight the possible effects and consequences of the choices available in the hopes that a more positive decision will be made.
Mental capacity to make a decision is not a blanket issue; someone may have the capacity to make some decisions and not others. Elderly people with illnesses such as dementia may lack the capacity to make decisions one day but able to do so the next.
Advocacy is most often thought of as acting on behalf of someone who is unable to do so for themselves, however acting as an advocate can also mean empowering someone by giving them the information, ability and opportunity to make their own decisions, (Parrott 2006). The ‘Big Society’ is an example of collective self-advocacy in which a group a people with similar interests are encouraged get together to form one unified voice. Encouraging the formation of such groups often lessens the feeling of isolation in people facing social exclusion. Collectively it also gives them a stronger voice and the ability to request change to services and resources which have historically been withheld or are inaccessible on an individual level.
Decision making in social work comes with the element of risk management. As discussed previously, it is good practice to for service users to make their own informed decisions provided they understand the consequences of their choice as well as having the capacity to do so. Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) describe how the term ‘risk’ was historically used to describe the likelihood of something happening, with neither a positive or negative connotation. In modern society, risk is viewed as the likelihood of a negative outcome occurring, the term ‘chance’ is used when something is deemed to have a more positive outcome, however both words mean the same thing; the likelihood of an event occurring.
Much like Parrott (2006) and Banks (2006), Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) have noticed a change in the way social workers perform in relation to risk, describing the profession as becoming ‘risk adverse’. The policies and procedures put in place for social worker to work within have minimised risk to such an extent that the option of choice has been greatly reduced.
When carrying out assessments, Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) highlight how reports and case notes focus on the risk of a situation rather than the needs of the service user, taking away the understanding of what has caused the situation to focusing instead on who is to blame and minimising the risk of it reoccurring. Cases with a higher level of risk to either the individual or the community are often afforded more resources than those with lower risk levels.
Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) also view risk positively in that the outcome could be beneficial to a service user. By understanding the risk, what other options are available and taking steps to minimise any negative effects, the outcome of the risk taking may be highly beneficial to the individual. This is often the case when people with mental illnesses return to live in the community from hospital care. Whilst taking medication, the service user may pose a very minimal risk to the community; however the perceived risk may be much larger. Provided steps have been taken to acknowledge and minimise the risk and plans have been agreed in the event of a crisis situation, then the right of the service user to reside in the community should outweigh the requirement to keep them in institutional care.
Risk is a factor which can be minimised but not eradicated; the nature of social work is surrounded by risk on a daily basis. Even by following policies, codes of conducts and planning for all perceived eventualities, the outcome may still be an unwanted one. Hothersall and Maas-Lowith (2010) perceive this to be inevitable in the field of social work and it is learning from these cases that will improve professional judgement.
My first placement as a social work student was with a homeless charity working with young adults. The impact of social exclusion was evident in every aspect of the job. Many of the young people who visited the centre had a poor level of education, often had a criminal record, had spent time in care, were unemployed and many had learning difficulties. Although I had academic understanding of social exclusion, the reality was far different from what I had expected.
One of the service users I was asked to work with was a young woman who had spent a larger proportion of her childhood in care. She had recently suffered a mental breakdown and lost custody of her young child to its father. Living in poverty, being a single mother and suffering with mental illness are all forms of social exclusion. I was asked to assist the service user with organising medical appointments and attending meetings. Working together, we made good progress in a relatively short time. On reflection, the work carried out was not done in terms of anti-oppressive practice. More emphasis should have been placed on allowing and encouraging the service user to act for themselves rather than having things done for them. Although this can be effective in the short term, in the long run it could form a sense of dependency for the service user.
The risk of the choices made by the service user should have been taken into consideration, and had it done so, it would have lessened the level of intervention. The child had been placed out of harm and the extent of the mental illness did not put the service user or the community at any immediate risk. Rather than daily support, it would have been more appropriate to invite the service user to discuss the situation they faced, the options available to them and the consequences of the choices available to them.
Anti-oppressive practice is about empowering people, promoting their right to make choices and working in partnership to reach an agreed outcome with the aim of improving their situation. People who are subject to the constraints of social exclusion are often denied these rights. Social workers are required by their code of practice to help service users take control over their own lives, promote independence and recognise that service user have a right to take risks. The nature of social exclusion makes it more likely that these individuals will, at some point in their lives, require intervention in the form of social care. By working with anti-oppressive practices, the effects of social worker intervention should leave a positive effect upon the service user.
In an ideal world their financial restraints would not affect the choices available to a service user, time and resources would be available to plan, consider and minimise risky situations making a wider range of services available. In the ever restricting financial climate, social worker are not afforded the luxury of such budgets and so must look at ways in which service user are still empowered and given as much choice as possible in how their situation is dealt with. As a profession, social workers should be moving more towards a ‘risk-taking’ approach and away from ‘risk aversion’.
Service users who live with social exclusion deserve to be given the tools and opportunity to improve their own situation; it is with tools such as anti-oppressive practice and a strong set of values and ethics that social workers can empower them to fight the social injustice they face.
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