Secret Social Worker: language

Lila Halliday stresses the importance of the way social workers write

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I read an assessment recently that referred to a mother, a formerly looked after child, as a “former prostitute”. This was in reference to her being a victim of child sexual exploitation in her early teens. There is no such thing as a child prostitute – that implies consent and remuneration, not sexual abuse and exploitation, which is what is actually happening to the child.

Language is powerful. It has sway with the reader and can dictate outcomes and how a person views themselves and their personal history. Although the language above is rare (and the person who used it hasn’t been around lately) I have sat with many young adults and read through their social care records and felt a massive sense of shame. We write in the moment, with the information we have, and use language that is sometimes callous and falls short of providing the information that the child needs in order to heal in later life.

The issues young adults have in reading their files usually fall into three categories: how long it takes to get the file; missing information; and the use of language.

Compiling a social care record and redacting all confidential information pertaining to other people is a lengthy process. I have no doubt it could be processed quicker but it’s out of my control so falls into the it-is-what-it-is pile. Social work top tip: you can’t fix everything!

Someone who has a confusing and traumatic childhood is often looking for a chronicle of their life to make sense and fill in gaps. Children are often told dishonest accounts by family members who are trying to absolve themselves or sugar the pill and much of the history of a child’s life is often lost in the care system.

Our records are a poor substitute. We only record what we are present for or are informed of and usually only things that we are concerned about or intend to act on. It is an excellent social worker with a small caseload who records anecdotes of childhood and the minutiae of events. In addition to this are recording systems, which are improving, but the further back you go the more sparse information gets. I have been accused of hiding things from people when going through files because of big gaps – it’s distressing for the person, shameful for you and just not good enough.

The final issue is the language we use – jargon at best, pejorative at worst. I quite often read assessments and think, if that landed on my doorstep, I’d slam the door in their faces on their next visit.

We write what we do to provide evidence of why we’re nosing in people’s lives. Our end goal is to reduce risk and facilitate change but you can’t empower families to do that by slagging them off in an assessment. Using phrases like “failure to attend”, “putting themselves at risk” and “failure to engage” is not helpful.

We should record with two key things in mind. Firstly, to provide the evidence of why we’re involved, stating clearly and understandably what we’re intending to do and achieve in a positive way that supports that process. Secondly, we should record for posterity. A child can access their records and read everything you’ve written about them. Write like that child sitting next to you. Write it with compassion, honesty and love.

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