Monday, 21 November 2011

Origins of the Masked AMHP 3: Social Work in the 1970’s

Social work was very different in the 1970’s -- even the concept of “social work” as a single profession was novel. The social work task certainly seemed more straightforward back then – generic social work implied that you could be equally competent to practise with all service users, whatever their problems.

Some processes were certainly much simpler than they are now. If you visited an elderly or disabled person and thought that they needed home care, all you had to do was talk to the “Home Help Organiser” in the team. She would then undertake her own assessment of need, decide how many hours and what sort of care was required, then arrange for an in-house “Home Help” to go in. The service user paid for this service, if necessary, by buying stamps from the local post office.

Is that really less cost effective than conducting an assessment for a personal budget (our local authority has 140 steps in the process of assessing and setting up personal budgets), then arranging for an account to be set up for an individual so that they could then hire their own carer – with the assistance of the (separate) independent living team?

There was undoubtedly a sense of optimism, especially among the hordes of new social workers who were appointed then (as well as a naivety that would be quickly dispelled). There was quite a lot of money going into social work – local authorities then, far from having to cut back year on year, were actually going through a period of immense budgetary growth.

New services were being created: “Intermediate Treatment” was being mooted as a way of tackling juvenile crime, social workers were getting involved in dealing with young offenders; family centres were being set up in their dozens, based on the philosophy of tackling the problem of teenage alienation by targeting early deprivation and working with families where children were considered to be at risk of future offending.

Some social problems were really rather rare, particularly out in the rural parts of the Charwood area; far from there being the extensive drug and alcohol problems, and associated services, that there are now, I can remember that in Charwood back then, the numbers of registered heroin addicts could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Other problems, however, especially in Charwood and its surrounding area, were very common. Isolation and difficulties accessing services were serious issues for the people in the outlying villages. Having said that, even the smallest hamlet had a post office; this was extremely important when trying to find “Dingley Cottage, Golden Corner, Hempland St Giles”, as comparatively few people had telephones and the local sub post master or mistress could always give you directions (“Oh, you’ll be wanting Edna Boggis – her arthritis has been playing her up terrible, you know.”)

Charwood itself contrasted markedly with the surrounding countryside, having a bizarre preponderance of inner city type problems. This was because of its status as a London Overspill town. People moving up from London brought their London problems with them as well as finding new problems when they arrived. It never ceased to amaze me how many Charwood people had been associates of the Krays; some of them, I suspected, were laying low in the town to avoid possible “unpleasantness”, and might even have had assumed names.

Many of those who moved to Charwood from London found it very difficult to adjust. While I was delighted that I could walk out of the back gate of my house on a GLC estate and immediately find myself walking down a path beside a river teeming with fish into the middle of a wood full of deer, woodpeckers, and edible fungi, many of the people I started to see could not get over the lack of any significant night life, the dearth of takeaways, and the absence of any leisure activities at all apart from bingo at the local cinema, not to mention the difficulty of finding public transport that would take you anywhere more cosmopolitan.

Our threshold for services was rather different then, and some of our social work tasks would seem completely alien now. One example was the arrangement we had with the public utilities companies (water, gas, electricity). If they were planning to disconnect someone and had reason to believe they were vulnerable, for example, if they had young children or a disability, they would write to us to give us notice. We would then go out to visit them, and if necessary would loan them a calor gas heater or cooker. We had a store room at the office full of such equipment.

We also used to get sent out on trivial errands – I can remember driving 10 or more miles simply to deliver a bendy straw or a non slip placemat to someone with a physical disability!

In those days one of the perks of being a social worker was that you were designated an “essential user” and therefore entitled to quick installation of a telephone. You have to remember that British Telecom back then hadn’t been privatised and had a monopoly for provision of phone lines and equipment. They were in short supply, and ordinary members of the public often had to wait 6 months to have a phone connected. As well as jumping the queue, you had your quarterly standing charge paid for.

There was no countywide out of hours emergency service; emergencies outside normal working hours were dealt with by the local area. This meant being on a duty rota for evenings and weekends. Your home phone number was put on the answer-phone message at the office, and police, doctors, or members of the public could ring you directly at home. Being on duty over the weekend meant that you could not be out of ear shot of your phone at any time over the entire 48 hour period.

Our filing system consisted of huge cabinets full of paper files, into which all our visits and contacts were recorded. We had a large typing pool whose job it was to type up our handwritten notes and insert them in the files.

It must have been an onerous job, although the typists never complained. Some social workers were into “process recording” – this entailed not just writing down the bare facts of a visit, but also including your thoughts and opinions, and even your speculation as to what the service user might be thinking.

I was particularly struck by the notes I found in one child’s file by the previous social worker.

“Little Lorna was nervous about meeting her new foster parents. She gazed up at me, her lip trembling, an apprehensive tear in her eye, and held my hand tightly as we walked up the flower bordered path towards the Jones’ front door. The green painted door opened as we approached, and Sally Jones knelt down on the doorstep, her arms held wide in welcome. Lorna looked up at me again, spotted the doll in Sally’s hand, and gingerly reached out to it... As I drove away, I looked into my rear view mirror, and saw Lorna waving with one hand, the doll clutched firmly under her arm. She will settle in well, here, I thought, and felt a lump in my throat.”

I decided that I would attempt to be more concise in my own recording.

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