Catriona, a listener to the SWT podcast, raised a good question this week when she asked ‘How come adult social workers are overlooked?’. For those who listen in, they’ll hear Social Work Tutor turf this over to me near the end of the show, and then I fumble around haphazardly for an answer before we complete a short, neat summary and that chirpy music with the glockenspiel chimes in. Podcast over.
But, really, this question deserves a more thorough response – so here it is.
Controversial, I know. But most adult social work is with old people, and although we have an increasingly elderly population, we also have an increasingly ambivalent society when it comes to ageing. Check out TV adverts. With the exception of life insurance, funerals, and recliner chairs, companies are only interested in selling stuff to the young. We’re a youth orientated culture. Old people fade into the background – as do the people caring for them. That includes adult social workers.
On the rare occasions the public turns its mind to older people – or those with mental health difficulties or learning disabilities – the focus tends to fall on other professions. People automatically think of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, care assistants, care home managers, even domestic staff. But social workers? Don’t they just work with children…? Actually, social workers play a vital role in assessment, commissioning and coordinating care. Without them, pretty much nothing would happen. Hospitals would fill up and overflow, care homes would lie empty, vulnerable people would sit trapped at home with no-one coming to see them. You’d soon know if adult social workers stopped coming to work – but otherwise you’d barely know they were there.
Baby P, Victoria Climbie and Maria Colwell were all huge scandals with widespread coverage in the national press focusing on children’s services. Each forged an image of social work in the the public conscience. Rarely does the same happen when vulnerable adults die. Up to 1,200 vulnerable adults died in the mid-staffs scandal of the late 2000s, but the press coverage focused on the hospital. Likewise, with Winterbourne View and the maltreatment of adults with learning disabilities. The focus fell elsewhere – on multiple professions and institutions; not solely on adult social work. That means our profession isn’t brought so firmly into the public eye. Which might not actually be such a bad thing.
I’m an adult social worker through and through. When I tap away at my keyboard, I’m writing about my experiences as an adult social worker – the duff IT system, tick boxes, lack of desks, overbearing managers, paperwork streaming out of my ears. But because children’s workers experience much the same thing, those blogs, inspired by working with adults, become generic, and from there the casual reader assumes I must be writing about children’s services. Because isn’t that what everyone writes about?
At heart it’s simple. With 28,500 children’s social workers in the UK and only 18,700 in adult social care – there’s just more of them than us!
So there you have it. What can we do to raise the profile of adult social workers? Listen to the podcast and you’ll hear my half-baked answer. But nevertheless it’s one we plan to carry through – with more adult social work content written by social workers themselves. Submit your own blogs now and watch this space. Thanks for the question Catriona.
Matt Bee is a social worker and writer. He also co-hosts The Social Work Tutor podcast.