Secret Social Worker: on value

Lila Halliday on a social worker’s real worth

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We all learned about the tragic murder of PC Andrew Harper on 15 August. This was breaking news and as the story emerged the horrifying details of this man’s death and touching details of his life were reported on for all to learn what a tragedy this was.

Two days later social care worker Belinda Rose was stabbed to death during a home visit. Both professions are dangerous, both are there to protect people and both losses are terrible. People shouldn’t turn up to work never to return home. We work to contribute to society, to feed our families. The least we should expect is to come out alive.

A lot has been said in the social work community about the disparity in reactions from the press and the public on both stories. On the surface it would appear that police are more valued than social workers and maybe that’s true to a certain extent. Everyone needs the police but not everyone needs a social worker. Their value is more universal and more visible. And maybe, as some articles have suggested, it’s because Harper was young, newly married and male and as a society we value these things more.

My first reaction was to be enraged by the lack of care that was given to Belinda’s story and the stark comparison between the two. Social workers aren’t well liked and this was proof of a devalued profession. But the more I thought about it I realised there were a lot of things at play. Timing, for instance – the first tragedy is always louder. And we’re not good at PR in social work – we don’t band together and speak out. When PC Harper died the police ran social media campaigns and made sure the whole country knew about all the great work he did. Did we, as social workers, do the same for Belinda? Other than a ranting comparison of the two stories on Facebook, I know I didn’t. The British Association of Social Workers released a statement of a few lines expressing condolences but little more came from social care organisations or professionals.

There is no doubt that social work needs to be given better recognition. Our funding, office space (or lack of), our lack of protection out in the field all speak to our place in the pecking order of public services. It seems we have internalised the value that has been placed on us by others, accepted it and maybe even started to believe it.

What we do is important. We work with the same dangerous people the police do, without stab vests or handcuffs, just an ID badge and a phone. Social workers are attacked and harmed regularly and I don’t know a single social worker who hasn’t feared for their safety. This is not an occupational hazard. This is unacceptable and we should be supporting our staff to avoid harm and speaking out when it has been unavoidable.

Last month we lost two compassionate and dedicated public servants and no matter how much air time and print space each got, the loss to both professions and their communities was significant and comparable. The impact of a life cannot be measured by the reactions of others in death. It is seen through their actions in life and the memories of those left behind. As social workers we won’t forget Belinda and our thoughts are with her family. We will try to make our work safer for those who come after her.

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