Misuse of Power: How can social worker use their power responsibility?

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This essay intends to demonstrate an understanding of professional authority and the decision making progress and how the social work profession utilises its power.The essay will equally look at the meaning of power and responsibility in social work and will go on to discuss theories of power and of its misuse/abuse which will in turn demonstrate how and to whom power is shared. It will show how this distribution of power applies to social work and the service users. Power and powerlessness go hand in hand as to have one the other must exist. There will always be inequalities both on personal and structural levels since the society is not equal. In order to understand professional power and responsibility in social work, professionals need to understand the theoretical explanation of how power, privilege, prestige and powerlessness are distributed within the society such as class, poverty and social divisions (Thompson, 2007).

My placement is a statutory agency.Children and Young Peoples Services (CYPS) and we are involved with pieces of work that have to do with children and families. The agency is one of the 14 locality teams in Cambridgeshire covering the Bottisham, Burwell and Soham areas. The focus of our work is to work with schools and health to identify problems at an early stage and work to resolve them as soon as possible using a range of approaches. The team works with Bottisham and Soham Village Colleges and the 16 primaries that feed into them. The team is made up of Children’s Centre staff, Youth Service, Connexions, Education Welfare Officer, Extended schools co-ordinator, Parent Support Advisor and in school secondary support/Officer. The aim of the team is to ensure that all children aged 0 – 19 years are able to reach their potentials. The team work very closely with other county council staff, also the voluntary and independent sector who provide services for children and young people, such as Social Workers, Education/Teachers, Psychologist, Special need Officers, Police, Youth Offending Service, Health/School Nurse and Health Visitor and Family Support services.

The fact that my agency operates under the statutory sector requires it to work under strict legislation and policy guidelines. One of the most important frameworks of the agency is the code of ethics which all professionals should abide by. It is our duty to treat service users with respect and dignity and also as individuals with rights as stipulated in the Human Right Act 1998 (DoH, 1998). It is equally our duty to be anti-oppressive in our practice and as well as to uphold the rights of service users.

At my agency, there is a strict respect of the Data Protection Act 1998 regarding the confidentiality of information held on children and their families (DoH, 1998). This information can only be accessed by staff that has access to OneVision where all information are stored and this can only be accessed by having a password.

Akister (1996) defines power as the ability to bring about change which can take many forms and be measured in many ways. She added that power can be perceived as an ability to interpret within the given guidelines and responsibility, choosing between giving and not given, duties and approach and to have information and knowledge. As a social worker it is important to understand different kinds of power, who has it, who doesn’t, and how those who doesn’t can have it. According to Thompson, (2002) the social work profession possesses a lot of power thus making academics believed that the profession is conditioned by some existing inequalities resulting to a limited capacity on the part of the service users to make their own decision which is in contrast to those who have the capacity to make decisions about their own lives. Northouse (2010) argues that those who actually possess power have the capability of affecting other people’s beliefs; attitudes and also their course of action and also the ability or possibility to influence.

Similarly, responsibility can be defined as the act of professionals being responsible, accountable, or answerable; to themselves, their colleagues and the service users to expose discrimination and oppression (Akister, 1996).

Theories of power and of its misuse/abuse

Akister (1996) suggests that there are many theories of power a social worker should know of and be able to apply to her practice such as French and Raven (1959), Max Webber (1974) and Rollo May (1976). I will be using May (1976) theory of power to analyse my work with S and also be making references to French and Raven (1974) theory of power in the process. I reflected on May (1976) power dynamics while working with S which Akister (1996) categorised in four different ways namely; power against, power over, power for and power with. May (1976) considered Power against to be oppressive and damaging to service users which thus takes a form of a punishment. Smith (2008) pointed out that this theory is similar to French and Raven’s coercive power which is always in a position to punish. During my work with S I realised that my agency used power against by refusing S to attend the youth group activities stating that they want to minimise risk to himself and others. I could challenge this concept by suggesting to my manager that I do appreciate the concern of risk and safety however, I think S should be given the opportunity to make his own decisions, that is, if he wants to attend the group activities or not. I further said that his decision to attend the group activities should be his understanding of why he should attend and not being ‘forced’ or ‘turned down’. I could challenge this concept constructively as it is against the social work ethics and values to work in discriminatory and oppressive manner. The Human Right 1998 stipulates that service user’s right should be respected and professionals should avoid being discriminatory and oppressive (Brayne and Carr, 2008).

I proposed to my agency as emphasised my May (1976) ‘power with’ that alternative ways of treating S should considered (Akister, 1996). May (1976) ‘power over’ was also considered as this power can be used to control individuals (Akister, 1996). ‘Power over can also be oppressive as a professional, to discuss S’ behaviour with my agency as well as the outcome which was his exclusion from group activities. This power is similar to French and Raven (1959) coercive power that places a professional in a position to punish which is also similar to their ‘Reward Power’ giving the capacity to reward or remove bad consequences (Akister, 1996). During my work with S, I realised that I had to look at different options that could be beneficial to him such as proposing a referral to undergo CBT sessions ??to. I made it clear to him that this was just a proposal and that he has the power to accept or reject it, to which he accepted. This practice showed that I had empathy for S and was there to make sure that he is supported and treated with respect and dignity in addressing his behaviour rather than just punishing him.

May (1976) refer ‘power for’ as when social workers disempower service users by doing things for them. This was not evident in my practice as I empowered S to speak to the psychologist with regards to his appointment for CBT sessions. Even though S was of mixed parentage, he could speak English very well so there was no need to arrange for an interpreter. I made sure that my practice was anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive. I also made sure that I worked in partnership with him by not taking over all of the responsibilities. May (1976) ‘Power With’ is referred as power which is shared through partnership service users. This power was demonstrated while working with S’ mother when she had expressed her wish to move away from their present house. She had told me to assist her by filling the application for a new house stating that their present house was uncomfortable and unsafe for her and the children. S’s mother told me that she had previously made several applications to the housing association but nothing has been done. I thought that it was my responsibility to assist her since I am accountable for my work and it is part of my professional identity to be competence, responsible and to respect the codes of ethics and values (Brayne and Carr, 2008). I thought there was a misuse of here as I started filling the forms for her. However, I stop and let her continue and could support her by explaining to some bits she did not understand. If I had not stop filling the forms, it could have resulted in power not being shared and also not encouraging her to do things for herself or taking control over her life and this would have been disempowering and oppressive practice (Akister, 1996). Power should be shared by involving service users as much as possible.

Power as argued by Burke and Harrison (2002) is a key theme of discrimination as long as long as discrimination is seen as a result of power-imbalance. It is thus important for social workers to recognise that oppression linked with discrimination can either be intentional or unintentional abuse of power with intention to act against service users. For example, I could easily concluded that the case of S and his family is one of an intentional abuse since they have made several applications to the housing association and no action has been taken. When I informed my manager about the situation, she advised me to use the law which I will discuss below to help the service users.

French and Raven (1959) ‘Legitimate Power’ was considered during my assessment with S. This power comes from the official roles within the agency and requires social workers to take on certain task such as undertaking an assessment (Akister, 1996). S’s assessment was carried out under Section 17 of the children act 1989. By following and recognising the policies, procedures, guidance and also by respecting S’s human rights meant that ‘legitimate power was considered during the assessment to enable him and his family have all the services they deserve.

Misuse of power

So many people think that social workers are in the position to misuse their powers because they are not familiar with power theory, (Wilding, 1982 cited in Akister, 1996). Wilding (1982) further suggested ways that power can be misused by professionals such as making excessive claims about services that can be provided which always occur during an assessment. During my work with S, I made sure not to guarantee any services just to make him happy. I explained to him that after the assessment, I will complete the assessment form and contact my manager and services will be provided based on the assessment. In reflection, I noticed at my agency that the file of a service user went missing because a colleague forgot to put it back in the cupboard after using it. We were due to meet with the service user as I was shadowing my colleague. We were not able to get the service user’s historical information as a result of not reading his notes. I thought this was misuse of power as the service user’s information and dignity was not respected. Several Social workers judge power as an aberration of their intentions to empower service users and to make agencies more caring.Akister (1996) argues that social workers must increase their power and their understanding of its dynamics and adopt a wider range of means of influence than they do at present.

Safeguards designed to prevent the misuse/ abuse of power

Understanding how power may be misused or abused was central to my practice with S and his family and it provided me with the basis of developing professional competence. Freire (1970) pointed out that professionals require a moral and ethical attitude towards equality to enable them to empower service users. He argued that if only people from oppressed groups can take on their responsibilities, there is little hope that professionals will ever achieve their vision (Freire, 1970).

Safeguards designed to prevent misuse/abuse of power used within my agency include; working together, agency’s policies and procedures, supervision and complains procedures. In my agency, partnership working is one way of safeguarding against the abuse of power. Most of our work requires working with other professionals, effective communication, sharing of information appropriately and ensuring that service users are involved in the assessment process (Adams et al, 2009). While working with S, I made sure that I collaborated with other professionals and agencies appropriately and also that S was put centre of stage. According to Akister (1996) policy is an authoritative statement that is produced by a body which guides the practice of social workers. Policy acts as a safeguard to abuse of power because it legitimise, regulate and guide the practice of social workers during intervention in service user lives.

When I realised during my work with S that there was concern regarding substance misuse, my initial thought was to contact the social services since as a student substance misuse was quite new to me. My lack of knowledge of substance misuse as a social work student only goes on to confirm Goodman (2007) who argues that social work profession have eventually ignored to acknowledge substance misuse which have created a gap. However, bringing this up during supervision with my manager made me understand that I could have potentially misuse my by jumping into conclusion of wanting to contact the social services. I realised that having supervision was very important as we were able to address the issue and I could learn from it. Jumping into conclusion or making assumptions can be discriminatory which result in being oppressive in one’s practice. Reflecting on this circumstance reminded me of my own personal beliefs towards service users who misuse drugs. Beckett and Maynard (2005) pointed out that we consider our personal values and that of our agency when working service users.However, I made sure that my practice did not add to the oppression the service users were already experiencing. To avoid unfair and abusive practice in my work with the young person and his family, I needed to examine the body of my values, which guided me throughout my work and it enabled me to move towards a more cultured and involving approach as suggested by Freire (1970).

My agency works with other professional groups. It is thus important to know that there can be conflict resulting from individuals that differ in attitudes, beliefs, values and needs. Conflicts usually occur due to lack of effective communication, failure to share information appropriately, conflict of value and lack of effective leadership. Conflict can be managed using the following five strategies; stepping aside, working together, co-operating, challenging and collaborating.

Using supervision to develop my practice

This section will look on supervision and how important it was for my practice and professional development. Ford and Jones (1991) defines supervision as a planned and regular periods of time that the student and supervisor spend together to discuss and review the student’s work and progress whilst in placement. Holloway (1997) added that supervision is a relationship where the supervisor shows knowledge of an expert who can make a decision on the worker’s performance and also acts as someone who upholds the profession.Akister (1996) points out that supervision takes three different forms which are; accountability, learning, and support. Kadushine (1992) model of supervision also brought a similar idea such as education, supportive and managerial or administrative supervision. At my agency the manager takes a monthly supervision with staff members.

While I was on placement, I undertook supervisions sessions both my Practice Teacher and On-Site Supervisor fortnightly.This was an opportunity for us to discuss my case load, reflective skills, professional development, relevant theories, and ethical dilemmas which are relevant to my practice. During supervision, we also discuss challenging and complex issues that may interfere with my practice. For instance, based on my assessment with S I identified the flowing concerns; substance misuse, truancy, aggressive behaviour and poor relationship with family members, I had to use the relevant theories such as attachment, person-centred and ecological theories to find out how S was doing emotionally, intellectually as well as behaviourally and how best my agency could support him and his family. Throughout my placement supervision has been a reflective tool used to evaluate my professional development and practice.

Work in accordance with orders of the court or statutory requirements

Work in accordance with orders of the court or statutory requirements can have an impact upon the work of agencies and professionals who work with children, young people and their families/carers in both the statutory and voluntary sector. The aim of the court is to strike a balance between the rights of children to express their views on decisions made about their lives, the rights of parents to exercise their responsibilities towards the child and the duty of the state to intervene where the child’s welfare requires it (www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/co-volume1-court-orders-other-legal-issues.pdf). Payne and Littlechild (2000) expressed their experience in court as gruelling and hair-raising but they confirmed other professionals may have different experiences. Based on her experience as a professional witness and of her reading Payne and Littlechild (2000) questioned whether the present confrontation of the judicial system fosters the welfare of children which they conclude that there can be an abuse of power in social responsibility if the outcome of many court cases involving children is taken into consideration.

The managing and taking down of records and reports as required by my agency is very important when conducting an assessment with service users. These records and reports are usually discussed with my manger and she often made recommendations and suggestions regarding my involvement with service users. These records are also shared with other agencies with the concern of service users; all these put together create a kind of co-operation within the different multi-disciplinary teams and networks. During my work S, I was able to record accurately all information received. All visits and contacts made with S, his family, college and other professionals are recorded as soon as possible in order to be factual and also to enable other professionals who have access to this information to see it. Social workers take on a large range of responsibility; the nature of the work is such that the demand of services can be endless. It should thus be acknowledged that having to manage and prioritise workloads is very important in social work. Whilst on placement, I was able discuss this situation with my manager and also managed to prioritised situations as effectively as possible (Thompson, 2005).


I will conclude by saying that it is important for social workers to increase their power and their understanding of its dynamics and adopt a wider range of means of influence as clearly stated by Akister (1996). I have attempted during the essay to look at possible ways in which social workers can develop conceptual and practical frameworks for addressing the task of making sense of and reframing power relationships between the worker and service user.

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