Discuss Anti-Oppressive Theory and how it would inform social work aimed at protecting vulnerable people

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) include in their definition of social work the promotion of “…social change…and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.” People from all social groups can suffer abuse or oppression of some kind or other (though some people are at greater risk) and I feel that the above definition suggests that a role of social work is to help protect vulnerable people against abuse. In this essay I will explore anti-oppressive and task-centred theories and ways in which these can be employed to counter abuse and discrimination. I will illustrate this with an example from my practice and take a closer look at the term “abuse” and some of the things we mean by it. Following this I intend to examine the role of the social worker in protecting vulnerable individuals and groups against abuse and oppression.

The terms “oppression” and “discrimination” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, Thompson (1997) defines discrimination as “…prejudicial behaviour acting against the interests of those people who characteristically belong to relatively powerless groups…it is a matter of social formation as well as individual/group behaviour…”. He states that oppression involves “…hardship and injustice brought about by the dominance of one group over another; the negative and demeaning exercise of power.”

Thompson proposed his PCS analysis in order to provide a framework enabling practitioners to examine issues of oppression and discrimination.

Diagram to illustrate PCS model (from Thompson 1997)

The central circle P represents the personal, psychological, practice and prejudice. Here we are considering the individual’s thoughts, feelings and actions. The way in which each practitioner interacts with each client and the “…inflexibility of mind which stands in the way of fair and non-judgemental practice.” The P level is embedded in the C level, as values and norms are internalised through socialisation. C refers to the cultural, sphere where people share “…ways of seeing, thinking and doing.” Commonailties and consensus about right and wrong and conformity to shared norms are found here. Social inequalities are thus legitimated through culture. Our culture is supported by structures such as the economy, society and the nation state. The C level is immersed in the S level. Discrimination is part of the fabric of society. Socio-political and social divisions describe the “…interlocking patterns of power and influence” (Thompson 1997).

Essentially the PCS model demonstrates that society operates on three different levels and highlights the interconnections between these levels. Payne (1997) points out that “…commonalities arising from cultural assumptions are…an important part of personal behaviour…”. Although individual incidents of discrimination might arise from personal prejudice, overall, discrimination “…arises from the fact that powerful groups in society maintain discrimination…as a way of preserving their power.”

It is important for social workers to remain aware of their internal prejudices and endeavour to avoid discriminating against clients belonging to “out groups” (relative to the individual worker). In addition to this social workers need to recognise prejudice in others; this might be in a client – e.g. negative self image due to internalised prejudice, or it might be in service providers – in which case we need to find ways of challenging it. Thompson (1997) points out that “[t]he further away one moves from the personal level, the less impact an individual can have…” which is why professionals need to challenge the “dominant discriminatory …ideology” in order to effect a change in the structure and culture which perpetuate oppression.

Dalrymple and Burke (1995) remind us that “…[w]hoever we are we have rights.” They assert that “…[o]ne element of anti-oppressive practice (AOP) is to ensure that people’s rights are not violated.” Other aspects of AOP include:

* Promoting positive images and involvement

* supporting, respecting and valuing participation

* encouraging links and other forms of support

* raising awareness of oppression and how to take positive steps to address it

* challenging oppressive attitudes and practices.

A recommended way to challenge oppression is awareness or consciousness raising. However, Ashrif (2001) challenges the assumption that awareness of a problem “…leads inevitably to the resolution of the difficulty.” The author goes on to argue that:

“The appeal of awareness/consciousness raising approaches by state, local government and institutions is that problems can apparently be solved with minimum disruption to capitalist exploitation and without bloodshed.”

Ashrif (2001) asks if being aware that one is oppressed confers any advantage on the oppressed group or individual and doubts that once aware of the oppression they cause, the oppressors will stop. This could be because we each derive “…varying amounts of penalty or privilege from…” our membership of various dominant and oppressed groups (Collins 1990). It is opined by Ashrif that the only way to bring about change is to encourage oppressed people to vote out all existing political parties. However given the structure of the system we have for electing members to parliament this is extremely unlikely. This supports points made earlier about the most powerful groups protecting themselves using the structure of our society.

The PCS analysis avoids putting various forms of oppression into any kind of hierarchy. The discriminations “…have a potentiating effect on one another…” (Payne 1997). An example of this can be seen in research done by Nazroo (1999) who found that “[g]ender combines with ethnicity and socio-economic position to shape people’s health”.

My fifty day placement was spent with a community project which provides information to, and advocates on behalf of older Asian people. Voluntary organisations like this one have developed in response to “…the racism of caring services…” (Hugman 1991). Groups like this, Hugman tells us, enable people from minority ethnic communities to identify and address their specific needs and to gain “…mutual support in combating racism.”. Mr AM is in his late seventies.

He lives with his wife, Mrs NJB (who is in her late forties) and their four dependant children in a four bedroom house owned by their oldest son who, along with his wife and baby, also lives in the property. This Bangladeshi Muslim family speak the Sylheti dialect. As my relationship with Mr. AM and his wife developed, it became apparent that the family required input relating to a host of issues, including: medical problems; mental health needs; suspected dementia; bullying and truancy; debt and low income.

Here I will concentrate on the actions the family and I took to overcome their problems with overcrowding and overpaid housing benefit. I made my first visit to Mr. AM accompanied by an interpreter. The initial assessment revealed that Mr. AM has a number of health problems, his wife, Mrs. NJB, is his full time carer. Nine people live in the four-bedroom property. I suggested to the family that they apply to be rehoused. Mr. NJB was in favour of this but stipulated that she wished to remain close to her eldest son’s home as he and his wife provided vital support to Mr. AM and Mrs. NJB.

After a housing officer and interpreter failed to arrive to assess Mr. AM’s housing needs as arranged, the family were sent a housing application form. I put the questions on the form to Mrs. NJB via an interpreter and filled out the application using her answers. In the application form and in additional letters to the housing department and housing benefits unit I conveyed Mrs. NJB’s anxiety to stay close to her extended family and her reasons for this.

The couple and the four younger children had lived in a neighbouring property for which they had received housing benefit. Following a decline in Mr. AM’s mobility and mental functioning, he, Mrs. NJB and the children had moved in with their eldest son. They paid rent to their son and contributed to bills etc.; the couple continued to claim housing benefit. I became involved with the family some time after they received a demand for over four-thousand pounds in over paid housing benefit. I sought assistance from Manchester Advice and was informed that they could not offer us any help as the matter was being investigated as a fraudulent claim.

Acting on advice from the area’s law centre, I wrote to the city treasury asking them to review the case and suspend any enforcement. I fed the information back to Mrs. NJB and suggested that I might seek further guidance from the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau. The CAB worker recommended that the family consult a solicitor. She offered the contact details of three local firms. I telephoned the practices and discovered that one of them was close to the family home, specialised in benefit and debt problems and had a Sylheti speaking solicitor. I relayed this to Mrs. NJB and Mr. AM, who were keen for me to make an appointment. I attended the initial consultation.

In my work with Mr AM and his family I employed both anti-oppressive and task-centred theories. Thompson states that empowerment is a “…central feature of ADP…”. Providing Black and Asian service users with information on the resources available is empowering and a step towards ADP. However, as the National Strategic Framework acknowledges, services are not equally accessible to all groups; people from minority ethnic groups and older people are at a disadvantage in terms of receiving services suitable for their needs.

This will require change at the S or structural level such as that proposed in the Housing green paper. Funding of black community groups goes some way to empowering non-white communities – i.e. has had an effect at the C or community level. Finally is the need to tackle prejudice at the P or personal level. This has been difficult as it has required me to examine racist ideas I have internalised and has caused me to scrutinise my own practice for racist actions or assumptions.

Task-centred practice concentrates on the worker and client working together to solve problems which the client considers important. It is a transparent approach which, with its partnership between professional and service user I consider to be empowering for the client. I believe that task-centred and anti-discriminatory theories can work well together to benefit the service user. Howe (1999) tells us that in task-centred work “…goals are set and mutually agreed …” and that these goals are achieved “…by way of small, sequential, manageable steps.” The steps between problem and goal are:

1. preparation.

2. exploring problems

3. agreeing goal and time limit

4. tasks

5. ending the work and evaluation.

These steps mirror those taken by Mrs. NJB, her husband and I when applying for them to be rehoused. We were not able to set an exact time limit due to the involvement of another agency. For the family the work is continuing with another student but Mrs. NJB evaluated as we went along, telling me about the things she found frustrating and the progress which pleased her. I too evaluated the work on an ongoing basis and have also reflected on my actions.

An advantage of task-centred practice is that it is very empowering for the service user. Although by the nature of the service user – social worker relationship there is an unequal distribution of power, the fact that we had set common goals resulted in partnership. The use of a task-centred approach rendered my practice transparent to the family. Mrs. NJB and her relatives were acknowledged to be the experts on their situation and I was honest about my own limitations – if I did not know something I would say so and outline ways I might find the information. I hope that this candid approach helped the clients to “…feel worked with and not worked on.” (Doel, 1994).

Task-centred work is not suited to all the situations one might work in, but Payne (1997) sees it as being appropriate to “problems with formal organisations” and “inadequate resources” – e.g. the problems examined here.

The Department of Health (DoH) defines a vulnerable person as someone:

“…who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself against significant harm or exploitation….”

or in other words, abuse. Abuse is described by the DoH (2000) as a “…violation of an individual’s human and civil rights by any other person or persons”. There are many forms of abuse including:

Physical abuse

E.g. pushing, kicking, slapping, hitting, inappropriate sanctions or misuse of medication.

Sexual abuse

Rape, sexual assault, sexual acts into which the vulnerable individual has been forced/coerced, has or could not consent.

Discriminatory abuse

This includes racist, sexist or ageist treatment or any harassment based upon a person’s sexuality, disability or faith, for example.

Neglect or acts of omission

Failure to facilitate access to health, social or educational services; ignoring medical or physical care needs; withholding necessities e.g. food, hear or medication.

Psychological abuse

Can include emotional abuse, threats, humiliation, isolation or intimidation.

Financial or material abuse

Theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in relation to benefits or financial transactions.

(Adapted from DoH 2000)

Guidance from Tameside Social Services states that everyone has the right to have their choices respected; not to be forced to do anything against their will; to be treated with dignity and to live a life free of fear. Children have relatively little control over their own lives and have a limited capacity to represent themselves making them vulnerable. Some children are particularly vulnerable due to e.g. poverty or disability. Vulnerability in adults can be accentuated by:

Age – many older people e.g. those without access to private pension funds can be vulnerable due to poverty. Some older people are vulnerable to abuse due to poor health or isolation.

Race – members of minority ethnic groups can be vulnerable due to direct/indirect discrimination. Language and cultural differences can add to this.

Communication difficulties – people who use forms of communications such as British Sign Language, Makaton or those whose first language is not English may also be at risk of abuse; as can people with communication disorders such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

People with physical or mental health needs and people with disabilities – are made vulnerable by society denying them access to mainstream resources and opportunities e.g. for employment. People are also, potentially, at increased risk if they have literacy problems, are out of work long-term or live in deprived inner city areas (HMSO 2000).

An example of people being placed at tremendous risk due to the personal, cultural and structural combining to work against them are those with a learning disability. A recent Mencap report highlights the fact that sexual abuse is four times more common amongst disabled people than amongst the non-disabled population. The report warns that “…sex offenders deliberately target vulnerable people with learning disabilities because detection and penalties are so much lower.” (Mencap 2002).

This is due to personal factors about the perpetrator, combined with the fact that in our culture people with learning disabilities are not valued and might not be listened to if they report abuse. The report recommends that it be made an offence for a care worker to have sex with a learning disabled person in their care; for anyone to have sex with someone who cannot give consent because of their learning disability and for anybody to have sex with a learning disabled person by threats or deception. The fact that these things are not already law seems to me to be structural discrimination against people who have learning disabilities.

Although we must not make assumptions about potential abusers there are some circumstances in which abuse is more likely to occur (George 2002). Abuse has been observed in residential settings where the staff work in isolation, have low morale, inadequate managerial support and are poorly trained, additionally in instances where the individual and carer have a poor long-term relationship; where the carer is not able to provide the level of care needed and is not adequately supported (e.g. by respite provision); relationships where the carer has mental or physical health needs which are unmet (action on Elder Abuse 2002).

The members of BASW adhere to a code of ethics which requires social workers to protect and promote the dignity, individuality, rights, responsibilities and identity of service users. We have already said that people have a right to live in safety and without fear, so social workers need to guard against the abuse of clients by ensuring “…the protection of service users, which may include setting appropriate limits and exercising authority, with the objective of safe-guarding them…”.

BASW also urge workers to move for change at an S level by challenging social structures “which perpetuate inequalities”, whilst acting at the P level by making sure not to act under the influence of prejudice against any person or group on any grounds. Social workers are obliged not to use their professional status/relationships to “… gain personal, material or financial advantage…”. I feel that maintaining scrutiny of one’s own and other’s conduct and constantly monitoring one’s values and attitudes is very difficult and draining and so workers need to have good managerial support (e.g. regular and constructive supervision) and membership of a mutually supportive team plus adequate co-operation and communication across disciplines.

I have endeavoured to give a brief description of Thompson’s PCS analysis of anti-oppressive theory, and a short account of some of the main features of task-centred theory. I have used a practice example to illustrate how these may be used to counter discrimination. Following this I have looked at the types of abuse suffered by children/young people and adults and have examined the social workers role in protecting vulnerable people from abuse.

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