Social work has figured frequently in the first two chapters. Here we propose to consider its background, its development and its present condition; we shall also make some cautious predictions about its future.
Is this effort justified? The answer is that social workers, particularly in the state sector are very important to children at risk and only a little less so to children in need. The forty or so official child abuse inquiries would presumably agree with the first statement although their interest has only arisen negatively when things went wrong. Nevertheless the Children Act 1989 reaffirms that local authorities through their social services departments will continue to play a central statutory role in child care.
Another reason for studying social work is that, in sociological terms it is an interesting phenomenon. Social workers form an occupational group which lies uneasily between the status quo, the establishment and the reformist left, a group which has relatively little professional influence, yet has often been criticized as if it wielded great power. These ambiguities are nowhere more clearly stated than in the Basic Code of Ethics (BASW, 1986). Here there is reference to professional aspirations, obligations to employers, realistic limitations and concern for global rights, work with individuals, groups and communities from counselling to social planning and action, to individual tolerance through to 'challenging' discrimination.
What the social worker's job is remains a matter of dispute. Howe (1991, p. 204) says:
I remain impressed with analyses which reveal social work to be largely
a state-sponsored, agency-based, organisationally tethered activity. It
is not wise to tackle any examination of social work without taking
note of this formidable context.