In the field of social work and particularly with the protection of vulnerable people , we are presented almost daily with the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. No matter how small or insignificant this may appear to us, to our Service Users it could mean the world. Not just in Social Work but in Care, Nursing, Healthcare and Education among others, the job you have decided to take on is that of protecting the most vulnerable members of our society. I speak as a UK social worker, but this is the same across the world.
If only it was as simple as hiring people with a view to protect vulnerable people, to work in these positions, thus solving the problem of vulnerability by filing the gap and putting up a defense system for the person in question. The human race is endlessly complex and challenging and as such, those who protect can sometimes become the very opposite- using their powerful position to take advantage of those who cannot look after themselves.
In fact, recently it seems a rather large number of people have chosen a caring role for all of the wrong reasons. It is easy to see why these jobs and this field of work is appealing to those who- for reasons unknown to most of us- wish to cause harm, abuse and torment the disabled, the young, the old, the mentally handicapped. By becoming a Social Worker, a Carer, a Nurse, a Teacher or Assistant, you immediately gain access, often in a private setting, to the very people you wish harm upon.
How this can be avoided is not so simple. We obviously need to introduce barriers in regard to the protection of vulnerable people and checks to these positions to ensure nobody who has previously committed an offense relevant to the role is hired. However the problems arise when the person either has not been caught for an offense, or when it can be hidden. A DBS (UK Disclosure and Baring Service) check often exposes the majority of incidents, however it is still not 100% effective. People have been employed as teachers, only to reveal they are listed on the Sex Offenders Register. The system means well, but is far from perfect and leads to more questions about the protection of vulnerable people .
Mental Health Social Workers are on occasion working with the most vulnerable people of all and are carrying out safeguards towards the protection of vulnerable people . Just recently, a MH Social Worker was suspended for engaging in and encouraging a sexual relationship with his Service User. For a little over 6 months, Daniel James Bhim-Rao was assigned as her Social Worker yet during this time he pursued a relationship and continued to contact her via text message and calls until he was asked to stop. Prior to this, Bhim-Rao had a completely clean Professional Record and as such was only given a suspension by the GSCC.
Fortunately, the HCPC (Health and Care Professions Council) has proven that it is learning fast as a regulator in regards to unprofessional and damaging behaviour by staff. At a conduct meeting, they reviewed this case, agreeing that Bhim-Rao still posed a risk to the public. The longevity and the relationship he pursued given the time he actually knew the Service User was wholly unprofessional, and for this he neither attended nor engaged with the council at the final hearing. Again at the review he was not present, did not show remorse or provide any evidence to rebuild faith in his character. The HCPC gave him 4 months from the start of February to prove, with evidence, that he is fit to practice, or he will not be allowed to continue.
Of course, the Winterbourne incident and review has left everyone, including the general public, with a sense of dismay and distrust about those people employed to care for their loved ones. What if they are secretly hurting them, and they can’t explain? A recent survey carried out in the UK showed that an alarming number of people state they don’t wish to go into care when they are no longer capable of looking after themselves, the main reason being they were afraid of being abused or receiving inadequate care. Winterbourne is a stark example of what can be lost when power is given to the wrong people.
Another interesting perspective concerning the protection of vulnerable people is the difference between abuse and simply, inaction. What constitutes abuse? Is it only when a person comes under attack? Or can you abuse someone by not meeting their needs? Of course, abuse and inaction are the same. How many stories have the media picked up regarding a Social Worker who didn’t protect the child from the parents or guardians and whom subsequently died?
There are obvious grey areas, nothing is black and white, especially in our field and the protection of vulnerable people . But there are cases where Social Workers and carers, nurses and doctors, made a choice to restrict their actions or assistance. Is that as horrific as someone who physically attacks and maims a vulnerable person? Fortunately the courts decide on a case-to-case basis what level of crime has been committed. However, if you work in a caring position and cannot see abuse and inaction as essentially the same problem, then maybe you should consider a different career!
Restriction, restraint and inaction can all be used as part of a care plan, however these are important decisions concerning the protection of vulnerable people and you will need to be able to explain the use, and extent of use of these methods, to your colleagues and supervisors, and to the family and friends of the person who have made this decision for. It is sometimes difficult to know when you are acting on your personal feelings, within the law or for the Service Users feelings. Those who callously and deceitfully abuse vulnerable people will never be eradicated entirely from a filed where they can gain access. Being mindful of your own actions and being able to justify them at all times is very important for Social Work. We may not be able to protect everyone in a world that can sometimes be crooked, but we can do our bit and work hard to provide the best service for our clients.
Gradle Gardner Martin is a UK registered Social Worker, and the owner of Continuing Professional Development Social Work Training an online membership site for Locum Social Workers and Independent Social Workers.
She also runs an Online Direct Work Equipment Company called Elevate Elevatefor parents, foster carers and social workers to engage with children and adults.
She has been a qualified social work practitioner 27 years and has supervised and managed large areas of front line social work practice.