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Property has boundaries, social work has a perimeter fence – Opinion Piece by Allan Norman

Why do we need boundaries? In property law, boundaries divide up property. They don’t need to be clearly marked out – it is possible to have an invisible boundary going down the middle of a field or garden. Or a boundary stone. If neighbours erect something more akin to a perimeter fence, we ask questions: what on earth is going on inside that they don’t want people to know about? What on earth is going on outside that makes them feel so insecure? How have they fallen out so badly that they need this symbol of their division?

And so to social work!

In McLaughlin, K. (2007) ‘Regulation and Risk in Social Work’ British Journal of Social Work 37(7): 1263-1277, the author identifies and separates out three notions of risk: risk posed by service users, being the risk that social work is to manage (Codes of Practice at point 4); the risk to ourselves as professionals; and the risk that we as professionals pose to our service users.

It is really in response to the last of those that we have such activity and such a live debate about boundaries in social work. In short, some social workers are abusive of service users. And in short, as in so many other fields of life, the call goes up to the State, “Do something about it! Stop it happening again!” The state obliges, steps in, makes some rules. And we all feel that little bit safer. Until something else goes wrong, as it inevitably will, the cry goes up, and the circus begins again.

We have now reached a point in the process that George Orwell might have recognised as doublethink: we actually think these boundaries represent good social work practice, rather than that they were erected to protect from bad social work practice. The danger of that doublethink is that we think we are getting better and better at social work by erecting more boundaries, and don’t stop to question the possibility that the side effects of protecting from bad social work might be… a different kind of bad social work!

Which ties in with the other reason we need boundaries. It’s called a professionalisation project – see Weiss-Gal, I. et al (2008) ‘The professionalisation of social work: a cross-national exploration’ International Journal of Social Welfare 17: 281–290. It’s tied in with enhancing our status as a profession. We emphasise our difference from service users. By maintaining our professional distance, we increase our status.

This latter seems to arise because of our insecurity about social work’s status. It seems to me that the more secure a profession is about what it is about, the less it seems to need to say, “We’re not here to talk about me, we’re here to talk about you!”

You may know I am dual qualified and also a solicitor. Have you heard of solicitors having business lunches with their clients? Because they do! Did you know solicitors are allowed to practice from their own homes? Because they are! Have you checked out the guidance note on professional boundaries? Let me know where it is…

You may say, ah! but solicitors and their clients have more equal power relations. Not so, you’ve just bought into the myth that service users are intrinsically vulnerable and solicitors clients are not. Some solicitors clients are rich and powerful, others are among the most vulnerable in society. Some social work service users are among the most vulnerable in society, others are rich and powerful.

The real difference is that as a lawyer my regulator requires me to:

  • act with integrity;
  • not allow your independence to be compromised;
  • act in the best interests of each client;
  • provide a proper standard of service to your clients;
  • behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services;

…but does not prescribe exactly what that means. Thereby giving me greater freedom – professional responsibility even – to work it out for myself in each given situation, instead of having it worked out for me, chapter and verse.

Meanwhile, safe within its perimeter fence, social work, under siege, and out of contact with the service users on the other side – could die.

Allan Norman (@CelticKnotTweet) is a registered social worker and a solicitor at Celtic Knot – Solicitors and Social Workers.

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