Today is World Social Work Day, a day where we come together to recognise the hard work, dedication and difference made by social workers worldwide.

We’d hoped today to be delivering the key note speech at Worcestershire Council’s Social Work Conference where we could thank social workers in person for the work that they do. We’d planned to share some of our, “The Difference it Makes” stories which we’ve gathered over years of working alongside social workers to embed a rights based approach.

With the conference cancelled and social isolation measures in place- we’ve decided to celebrate World Social Work Day in blog form instead.

Difficult Decisions

Did anyone recently watch Channel 4’s drama, “Kiri”? It spans a number of themes but the primary story line is about a social worker (Miriam), accused of making the wrong decision after a little girl, (Kiri), is abducted. Miriam’s decision had been to allow Kiri an unsupervised visit with her birth grandfather, prior to the completion of Kiri’s adoption process.

Over the four episodes (without giving away any spoilers!), we see Miriam and her decision demonized as reckless by the press, the public and by the local authority she works for who strive to depict Miriam as a bad apple, rather than risk being portrayed as an out of control public service.

We see Miriam’s life collapse as she deals with the internal turmoil of feeling responsible for the abduction of Kiri (a little girl she’d supported for 9 years). 

The show provides a lot to think about and there will be different takes on the messages within it. But what was completely clear throughout was that Miriam’s decision to allow Kiri an unsupervised visit was based on what she believed was the right thing to do. When she is met with press cameras at her front door, she shouts at them, “I did what was right for that little girl.”

How can we have a social work system (or any public service system) that puts the pressure on their staff to decide every time what is the right thing to do AND expects them to always get that right? No margin for error. We are all human and by the very nature of being human we all have different experiences and these experiences colour our perspectives on what to do in any given situation. Ask 5 people their view on Miriam’s decision and I guarantee you’ll get 5 different opinions. So, how can we have a system to protect children like Kiri which relies on and then in Miriam’s case vilifies- the moral compass of a person or group?  

The Human Rights Act

We can’t is the answer. And we don’t. We have a legal framework to ensure that public services respect, protect and fulfil human rights. It’s the Human Rights Act (HRA). But the problem is that many social workers (and public officials more generally) are not provided with training on their legal duties under the HRA. Without knowledge of the HRA, public officials are often not aware of the practical framework within the Act which exists to support them to make those incredibly difficult daily decisions about people’s human rights. Decisions about maintaining contact with family (Art 8, HRA); Decisions about where someone should live (Art 5, HRA); Decisions about someone’s capacity to make what might be considered an unwise choice (Art 8, HRA). All of these are governed by law.

The Three Stage Test

Had Miriam had Human Rights Act training or guidance she would have been able to weigh up her decision using this practical legal framework.

Kiri’s right to ongoing contact with her birth family is protected by Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, The right to Private, Family Life, Home and Correspondence. This right is a non-absolute human right and can therefore be restricted in certain circumstances. Miriam would then have worked through the 3 stage test for restricting non-absolute human rights;                                                                         

1. Is there a law that allows me to prevent family contact? (For example, under safeguarding)             

2. Is this restriction for a legitimate aim? (For example, is it to protect Kiri?)                                         

3. Are there less restrictive measures I can put in place? (For example, a supervised visit?)

A Legal Framework Not a Moral Compass

Crucially, in Kiri’s case, as with in real life, there’s a lot more that we didn’t know about both families. And, it’s not to say that this framework, if a public official doesn’t know about a risk would always protect people. There is never any way to completely eliminate risk. BUT what the Human Rights Act would do, is give Miriam the legal framework to make a rights respecting decision rather than the uncertainty of her own moral one. She could then have shouted at the press, not “I did what was right.” But “I did what was legal.” (Not as a catchy an end to a T.V drama right enough).

As a social worker who we worked with said:

“Using human rights has helped, in difficult times, to give us back our social work values in a meaningful way.”

We’ve supported a huge number of social workers over the years to embed the practical framework of the Human Rights Act into their practice, using it as a tool to create change. These changes may seem small but can be life altering, even life saving for the people involved. A social work involved in our Delivering Compassionate Care project told us:

As social workers, we are now challenging “do not resuscitate’ orders when they are made without following the proper legal safeguards to protect the right to life and the right to be involved in decisions affecting private life.” 

This project, and others, have been an absolute pleasure, social workers are always one of my favourite groups of people to work with. After all, people don’t go into social work for the money, they do it because they care and they want to make a difference to people’s lives, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said; A difference…

“In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person.”