Don’t blame the social worker

It’s all about the context in which you deliver your professional skills. Social work is all about how you treat people. The professional values that underpin social work , independence, choice, dignity, respect, are about how social workers go about providing practical assistance and emotional support to vulnerable people. Social workers don’t threaten their clients. Social workers don’t bully their clients. Social workers aim to develop mutual trust and respect. But you work within and for a larger organisation. One that over the years has dramatically changed the way it views those who use it services. One that shows no reluctance in threatening and intimidating, one that apparently makes no concessions for age, disability or vulnerability when it comes to money.
If you want an example of how the public sector has become as hard-faced and hard-hearted as the business sector look at how it goes about collecting debt. In particular look at how it goes about collecting debt from the most vulnerable members of society those it has a statutory duty to protect. This is not about unpaid parking fines and antisocial motorists or irresponsible householders reluctant to pay their community charges this is about frail elderly people receiving essential care services being threaten with debt collectors.
I know something about debt collection in social services as in a previous post I was responsible for the finance section in which the debt collection team was based. The philosophy was very different to today’s . Councillors were more concerned to be seen treating vulnerable people sensitively than hitting targets for debt collection. Debt was chased “sensitively” the courts were rarely used and then only as a last resort where people were considered able to pay but persistently refused to do so. The council were prepared to write off small scale debts if the prospect of collecting the full amount was slim and were prepared to accept the critism of the auditors rather than use baliffts or independent debt collects. Of course this was in part the desire to avoid the potential for some very bad publicity.
This contrasts sharply with my resent experience as a carer.
My frail, elderly, 89 year old mother in law who is receiving home care as a result of two strokes was distress to receive a letter from the council threatening her with external debt collectors if she did not pay a bill she had already paid.

Why is the council treating vulnerable people in this insensitive and inappropriate way? This is a rhetorical question we all know the answer is austerity, the budget pressures are such that local authorities feel they have to get aggressive about money they are owed. Debt collection is another area where LA’s must demonstration they are business like. Today councillors biggest concern is not to be accused of wast and inefficiency.
The aggressive pursuit of small amounts from social service clients is a dramatic shift in policy and approach. The trigger for this final demand ? It would appear that a missed payment automatically generated a standard letter threatening the use of independent debt collectors.
My mother in law received 2 invoices in the same letter. We were able to prove both invoices had been paid promptly but had her daughter not interceded she would have paid again as she was so distraught at the idea of bailiffs hammering at her door demanding money.

The social worker who put together the care package was not responsible for problems with the new invoicing system or the aggressive debt collection policy. The social worker did not threaten, bully or intimidate but if the organisation you work for does and the first person the anxious client or disgruntled carer rings is their social worker!
Blair Mcpherson ex social worker and former director of community services

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