The recent high-profile child death in which the Division of Social Services had prior contact with the families have intensified scrutiny and stoked doubts that the agency cannot fulfill its mission: to keep kids safe. Our children are being abused and maltreated not only by their parents but by the system and government that is set up to protect them.
At the same time, children removed from their homes are being placed in homes that are more abusive to their emotional well-being. The state in the past seven years scrambled together an emergency center in Cas En Bas called the “‘Transit home” that has had a number of children pass through in its first two years of it door opening up, while many other children are placed in foster care and forgotten by social workers who are overworked, understaffed and in need of specialised training especially in care and protection and foster care placement and residential social work.
There is need for social workers to be made accountable for bad practice. But also there is need to ensure that those social workers are getting professional supervision on the case load they are given.
Supervision is an essential component of social work. There are numerous definitions of supervision. For the purposes of these supervision standards, professional supervision is defined as the relationship between supervisor and supervisee in which the responsibility and accountability for the development of competence, attitude, demeanor, and ethical practice take place. The supervisor is responsible for providing direction to the supervisee, who applies social work theory, standardized knowledge, skills, competency, and applicable ethical content in the practice setting.
The supervisor and the supervisee both share responsibility for carrying out their role in this collaborative process. Supervision encompasses several interrelated functions and responsibilities. Each of these interrelated functions contributes to a larger responsibility or outcome that ensures clients are protected and that clients receive competent and ethical services from professional social workers.
During supervision services received by the client are evaluated and adjusted, as needed, to increase the benefit to the client. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that the supervisee provides competent, appropriate, and ethical services to the client. There are many models of supervision described in the literature, ranging from traditional, authoritarian models to more collaborative models. Different models of supervision place emphasis, in varying degrees, on the client, the supervisor, the supervisee or the context in which the supervision takes place. Ideally, the supervisor and the supervisee use a collaborative.
Why is an awareness of accountability important in social work practice? We must understand that Social workers interact most frequently with the most vulnerable in society. Their clients are often those who, for a number of reasons, do not have a voice or who cannot make their voice heard. They are disadvantaged and frequently experience discrimination.
They are oppressed and at risk of being overlooked and denied services. Many of the clients of social workers are the members of society who are least likely to hold the providers of services to account. Social work values of openness, partnership and empowerment are crucial factors in ensuring accountability to service users, as is an awareness of the inequality of power within the relationship between service users and service providers.
The rights discourse which emerged strongly in the 1990s, culminating in the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998 in the international countries, and has contributed to the increasing significance of accountability in all the public services. If individuals have rights, then there needs to be a clear understanding of how these rights will be guaranteed, and a discernible system which can deal with infringements and breaches of these rights. Such a system requires that there be transparency at all levels. Only when there is such transparency can there be identification of possible areas where things have gone wrong and, consequently, the opportunity for challenge to take place and change to commence.
Accountability within social work is complex. It involves the social worker being accountable to a number of individuals, groups, agencies and institutions. It encompasses public accountability to the state and to society. It embraces legal accountability in terms of the mandate to practice and the duties imposed by statute. It also requires accountability to professional bodies something that we don’t have in Saint Lucia for social workers. There can often be tensions between the different demands made by all of these and it behooves social workers to be clear about where and to whom the accountability for their practice lies.
The complexity of the task faced by workers is evident in the fact that workers can find themselves faced with a range of different responsibilities which may, at times, conflict with one another. Workers often find themselves working within families or other groups where there are conflicts of interest and opinions. Being clear to whom one owes allegiance can be problematic and the role of the worker can appear to be somewhat ambiguous. Social workers could, therefore, find themselves having to manage the tension between their duties to their agency and to their personal and professional values.
Legal accountability to Division of Human Services derives from their mandate to deliver services from statutory duties and responsibilities and these in turn are delegated to their employees. The social worker undertaking this community care assessment will, therefore, need to work within the appropriate legislative framework and may be held accountable for a failure to carry out duties. In this case there will be duties under the Children and Young Persons Act to undertake an assessment of needs.
Failure to carry out duties could lead to legal challenge by the service user. This could be by way of a judicial review which is a process which can be pursued through the court and can be raised where there are allegations that a decision taken was illegal, procedurally unfair or irrational.
Alternatively,the Human Rights Act can be used by the service user who could allege that her Convention rights have been breached. Public accountability: public scrutiny of social work practice needs to be much more rigorous. The provision of social work services in the area of community care as in other areas must now be monitored through a national system of monitoring and inspection. There is need to establish the a National Care Standards that will ensure that the provision of services will meet identified standards and will enable the public to know what those standards are. The public will then be able to hold the authorities to account if they fall below the required standards in any way.
There is also need for a Saint Lucia Council for the Regulation of Care, which can be set up by the Bureau of Standards and can be known as the Care Commission, who will have a responsibility for the registration and inspection of care provision. For example if toddler “I” was removed from the care and control of his biological mother and placed in care of a maternal or paternal relative or if his biological mother was offered a package of care to sustain her in her own home where she can care for her children with supervision and parental counselling, then not only will the standards for her child care be established but there would be regular inspection to ensure that these standards are met. If they were not, then the agency will be held to account for its failure.
And in addition, there is need to establish a Public Services Ombudsman in Saint Lucia dealing with community care in general. The Public Services Ombudsman would establish a one-stop shop to deal with complaints which relate to the public sector. While a full list of such authorities would be set out in the Act, which would have relevance to social work in particular include all Saint Lucia public authorities, health boards, the Home of the Elderly, Boys Training Centre, Transit Home, the schools etc. Any agency working with children and families that are vulnerable.
Toddler “I”, mother as her son’s authorised representative, could make a complaint about any maladministration in respect of her case to the ombudsman. She could also complain to the Care Commission which would have a procedure whereby a person or someone acting on a person’s behalf might make a complaint in relation to a care service. The description of what constitutes a care service is widely defined and covers almost all local authority services to children, support and day care, residential care, fostering and adoption.
To service users: the ethos of empowerment which underpins social workers must ‘maintain public trust and confidence in social services’. A new structures for accountability would have to be put into place by the Saint Lucia Ministry of Justice which may help to reinforce this trust and confidence. There is need for a Saint Lucia Social Services Council (SLSC) to ensure the publication of Social Workers that will also ensure the procedures for registration and licensing of every social worker on the island. Registration has to begin immediately. This will share light into what training needs that’s has to be done by the worker would enable them to give best practice.
We must also understand that the Council will also be responsible for the training and education of the workforce and proposals for the reform in social work education/training.
Accountability forms one of the Standards in Social Work Education, namely to ‘manage and be accountable, with supervision and support, for their own social work practice within their organization’. Should a Care Commission be formed it can then begin its work and if a Public Services Ombudsman has been appointed in addition to the Bills that are before the Saint Lucia Parliament for revision for example the Children and Young Persons Act, the Status of the Child and Juvenile Justice Act which has been gathering dust on the Minister of Justice shelves. Why don’t the Minister appoint a children’s commissioner that is transparent, and appoint persons who have been in the profession who is now retired to sit on this board. At no time should persons who are employed in the service presently have any power to be placed on the Board because it would be conflict of interest.
Please note that all of these structures will only work if there is openness towards all the stakeholders who have an interest in the delivery of social services, and, in particular, there is real commitment towards ensuring that accountability to service users is not in the final analysis empty rhetoric.
And as we wait for justice for this child we as a society has again failed all the children in Saint Lucia.