Professional writing in social work

The students I teach are preparing for a task way beyond anything I could ever think of taking on. I respect the task fully, and admire those who are willing to take it on. Social workers can make real change in real people’s lives, using the knowledge, the skills and the organizational resources their schooling and their profession gives them. As for me and the rest of us teachers, we stay calmly behind our desks, hoping the education and formation we provide will help our students and their future clients thrive.

Right now I am trying to to figure out what kind of literacy and writing skills are required to produce an enquiry securing the legal rights for all involved. In the Swedish social work system, these investigations are not only a way to gather information regarding individuals and families, they are actually legal documents much in the same way police investigations are – with a few important differences to which I will return. The key difference, though, is that those investigated in social work can’t have their defending lawyer with them through the process, and much of the collected information consists of professional assessments made by social workers using theories from psychology, sociology and social work practice.

We can find piles and hills and mountains of terribly bad social work inquiries, leading to wrong and harmful decisions. And we know of just as much – hopefully more? – life saving social work where children and adults have been helped from harmful circumstances beyond their own control. Unfortunately those who survived or got their lives improved thanks to social work are often reluctant to tell the rest of us about their experiences because the circumstances and the social work process are often painful experiences while they last, and many just want to forget about it when it’s over. And maybe the best social workers weren’t the guardian angels and heroes that we tell stories about, but quite ordinary people quietly helping people see what they need to change in their lives, and secretly providing the means for self-help.

But let’s not forget the terrible ones. There are so many faults to be wary of. The way the investigating social worker interacts with the objects of investigation, the way s/he asks questions, what hypotheses s/he seeks to investigate, whether s/he seeks for indices for and against a hypothesis with equal energy and so on. There is heaps of thorough reviews of this kind of inquiry reports in this list: Bo Edvarsson publications (mainly Swedish but also in English), so I don’t have to go into details here. Unfortunately his books are only available in Swedish, but for those of us OK with that I would like to recommend the handbook På saklig grund, written with Lotta Valne Westerhäll.

The writing skills needed for these inquiries are deeper than spelling and using the right synonym. The ability to structure a text to make it logical and easily understood for the intended readers are equally relevant writing skills. Skills regarding collection of information are part of professional or scientific writing, and thorough critical thinking is crucial during the whole process. As I wrote above – an impressive and extensive task!

What’s so special with social work investigations? 

If we would compare these inquiries with two neighboring kinds of texts: police investigations and scientific reports, I would like to point out a few things:

Compared with scientific reports, a social work investigation needs to 

  • be faster: most likely those involved need the right thing to be done right now
  • be specific to a situation rather than contribute to a broader field of knowledge: everything relevant to the problem at hand needs to be regarded, no theoretical or methodological delineations allowed, no generalizability required
  • communicate specifically rather than generally: Even though the methods and theories used in the process needs to be equally thorough, they need to be understood rather than read. No chapter of “theory” or “method” needed, but the reader has to understand the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of the analysis

Compared with police investigations, a social work enquiry

  • is a process just as much as a document. A police investigation intends to find out the circumstances surrounding an event – if these people did or did not break the law. When this is certified or dismissed, the investigated are punished or deasserted from suspicion. Even though this is an ideal rather than what is often the case, the connection between action and personal capacities in social work is much stronger than in the case of a police investigation. A situation like emotional neglect is not a punishable crime but a sign of weak parenting, that can be balanced with other kinds of attention to the needs of the child, and can also be restored with parenting school or psychotherapy  for example.
  • seeks to asses the future more than the past. Since the main purpose of the investigation is to assess the risks of harm to those involved (children or adults exposed to social danger), it is not enough to find out what has happened, but more importantly what is going to happen and what resources those involved have to (handle the past and) improve the future. As important as it may be to find out whether Billy did or did not beat Jenny, it may be more important to find out why the violence occurred and if it is likely to happen again – in order to understand the level of parenting skills of Billy and the best caring option for Jenny.
  • needs to remain in secrecy: since very close personal accounts are involved, only the investigated and his/her lawyer can read it. This also means investigation process can remain hidden, much to the harm of those investigated if they feel mistreated or misunderstood. Organizational pride can cause serious abuse of power over people already in a resource- and powerless situation.

Theory of science

One thing we rarely consider, is the fact that social workers operate in a different ontology and epistemology than law professionals. When law professionals such as police officers, lawyers and judges need to decide if somebody did cause this or that harm, if they were on site or absent and so on, they operate within a positivistic frame of thought. The IF is primary, the HOW and WHY can sometimes be secondary – as in was the death caused “intentionally” (how do we define intention?) and should thus regarded as murder, or “unintentionally” and thus manslaughter. Definitions are stipulated in the legal and/or administrative process, and lower courts will follow (or quest) these.

In social work, the ontology has to be focused on capacities for change, or on how a certain action was perceived or a lot more “fluid” or “relative” ways to see the world. If an act of violence is part of a BDSM-relationship, if using a particular substance is a social ritual, if sleeping in the park is camping – all is due to circumstance, and things are not always as they seem. And still, you can’t just ask the parents if they meant harm or correction when they locked their 15-year old up in his room, nor can you ask the teenager. To assess the consequences for the child, and the skills of the parents, we need to understand a bigger picture.

One researcher who has dealt with this question in another setting is Hanna Wikström, who has dealt with difficulties in migration law in her article Genuineness Assessment. Parameters and Logic in Asylum Cases Concerning Religious Faith and Sexual Orientation

The lawyer and judge do not need to consider the possibilities for change for the violator: the act is compared to other acts to decide the time in jail. For social work, assessing the outcome for those investigated needs to consider how all of the investigated will understand themselves and the problem at hand. In social work, an individual with a drug habit will have to deal with his/her family that s/he has let down numerously, maybe with old drinking/smoking friends and so on. An abused child may want to keep relations to his/her parents. The change will have to occur within individuals and within relations.

And so, the social worker will not only have to find out about the situation and help finding a solution – s/he will have to install hope that people have some of the means to help themselves.

I can’t imagine a bigger and more demanding task.


One Comment Add yours

  1. patomella says:

    Many interesting thoughts Susanna on Social work


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