Social work in the UK: The Professional debate in relation to values and managerialism-

With special reference to child protection work




What gives social work its identity? Is it values? Methods? Skills? Or is it now defined by regulations from government and agencies, and new formulations of managerialism, which it can be argued have negatively affected professionalism? It can be argued that professional practice and values based decision making have effectively been taken over by these latter areas from professional concerns as the primary force in determining what social work is, and what its concerns should be. Indeed, can issues of ‘values’ and professional ‘identity’ provide a focus and possibly a defense--for social work on an international basis in forming and keeping a professional identity and values, and aid social work to consider its place within current, nation-based social welfare formations? In addition, how should social work education respond to these challenges?


These are the matters that this article addresses,  in the context of an examination of key concerns and dilemmas within the debate about professional social work and its status within the UK. The general concerns are highlighted by Parton and O’Byrne:


“…[S]ocial work, particularly in the UK,  has lost its way. In particular, we (the authors) have become concerned that social work both in the way we think about it, and practice it, has become very defensive, overly proceduralised and narrowly concerned with assessing managing, insuring against risk...(this has become even more intense since the during the 1990s when we saw the introduction of sophisticated attempts to make social workers accountable for and subject their practice to ever more detailed reviews, inspections, audits and managerial oversight and prescription).” (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000).


They state that in the last 25 years there have been a range of criticisms of, public inquiries into, and media opprobrium of social work, which has placed both managers and practitioners--primarily in the statutory sectors--in the spotlight.


However, before we can consider these matters further, it is necessary to consider a very basic question: What is social work? The International Federation of Social Workers’ draft working definition is as follows:


“The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.” (


Given this working draft as a backdrop, it seems that UK social work may have a number of issues to consider from its current structures, which are in place for the management of workers in agencies, and how this relates to its value base.


Social Work Ethics, Values and Management Strategies

La Valle and Lyons  (1996) carried out in-depth interviews with social workers in England concerning their perceptions of changes in their organizations and the practice of social work. The most commonly mentioned perceived negative changes were the greater time spent on administration, less time on client contact, and the increase in control and policing functions. In child protection work, the idea of partnership could be problematic in some circumstances, and lack of resources has led to an emphasis on control rather than prevention.


In a further article deriving from this research, La Valle and Lyons (1996b) explore how the gap between managers and workers can be traced back to the changes emanating from the Seebohm report (which put into place in 1970 local authority services for all client groups, and gave them primacy of service provision), and that this now appears to be worse as the new managerialism has led to a greater gap between managers and practitioners. The former have been forced to adopt a management style more typical of the private sector and are less likely than ever before to be guided by ‘professional’ themes.  Many of the social workers they interviewed confirmed that they felt a deep sense of alienation from the new managerial culture. 


A good case example of this within the UK is the current state of, and preoccupations within, child protection work. As well as expecting to provide an empowering and individualized personal social service, social workers in child protection work are expected to carry out investigations and inquiries which attempt to determine if abuse has occurred, if so by whom, and to apportion responsibility for any abuse which may have occurred. Such requirements can lead to role conflict and ambiguity, and to increased stress and violence from service users against social workers (Littlechild, 2002). A Department of Health (the responsible central government department) analysis of problematic issues raised in child abuse death inquiries noted that such role ambiguity affects social work in this area, and specifically quotes several report findings in this area, including the following from the inquiry into the death of Jasmine Beckford:

‘Can a social worker fulfil a policing role, firmly and efficiently, if he has also to gain the family’s confidence, and to convey the personal warmth and genuineness necessary for him to provide the support which will enable them to become better parents?’ (London Borough of Brent and Brent Health Authority, 1985, pp. 14-15).


Role theory in relation to ‘burnout’ in child protection workers is explored by Harrison (1980) in the USA. Such ‘burnout’ can lead to workers’ disengagement from service users, dissatisfaction with their job, feelings of worthlessness, and physical and interpersonal problems. Harrison explored role theory in relation to this phenomenon, rather than the widely promulgated theory at that time that ‘burnout’ was a coping response to an overload of empathy and caring from the social worker towards their clients. Role theory views such behaviour as resulting from attempts to conform to expectations that are associated with that role. The theory suggests that roles need to:

  • be clearly set out;
  • be unambiguous and achievable;
  • have demands such that the various elements of the role are not in conflict with each other.

He found that role ambiguity was a significant feature in child protection work, which can occur because there is lack of clarity regarding the overall aim of the service. “It appears that workers need to be fairly clear about what is expected of them in fulfilling their role in order for them to carry out their work. When ambiguous messages about the job well done are sent or received, little in the way of …satisfaction and competence is to be expected”(Harrison, 1980, p. 41). How, then does this relate to current forms of child protection work?

Within the English context of the end of the 20th Century/beginning of the 21st, it can be argued that role conflict and ambiguity is more significant than ever before in child protection work.

There is a good deal of literature that explores role conflict and ambiguity for social workers (Littlechild, 1998; Littlechild, 2000; Bell, 1999; Parton, 1998; Parton and O’Byrne, 2000).  The nature of state-defined social work interventions in child care work within Social Services Departments in England and Wales changed significantly during the last decades of the 20th Century, with curtailment of social workers' opportunities to undertake preventive work, and increasing emphasis on investigative, accusatorial and risk assessment work within what frequently become situations of conflict (Parton, 1998). These interventions can impinge upon the power and control dynamics within the family situation which are often a feature of child abuse (O'Hagan and Dillenburger, 1995). Examples of the effects of challenging such power/control dynamics within families were given by managers in Littlechild’s (2002) research, which can be placed within a set of general concerns at non-reporting, accommodation of the aggression, the lack of appropriate responses by a number of individual workers, and agency procedures.


Beckett (2001) argues that despite many people’s hopes that the Children Act 1989--which was an all-encompassing piece of legislation for England and Wales in the field of child care and protection which replaced over 100 pieces of legislation in this field (apart from adoption)--represented a fundamental shift from the adversarial legal system to one where the new emphasis would be away from courts imposing solutions or orders and towards parents, relatives and local authorities working in partnership, with consensus not conflict.


This was not to be the case. After an initial drop in registrations on child protection registers and the number of court orders applied for, this trend soon reversed. Between 1992 and 1998, he describes ‘what can only be described as an explosion in the number of care order applications made’, whilst other applications held steady in terms of numbers applied for each year. The increase in applications for care orders between 1992 and 1998 was from 2,657 to 6,728, an increase of 2.5-fold. Beckett concludes that ‘individuals within the statutory child protection system were making different choices in 1998 to the choices that they were making in 1992’, unless there had been a vast increase in the types of abuse which required such interventions, which he suggests is very unlikely to be the case. After offering several possible reasons, Beckett proposes that the opposite outcomes from the stated intentions in relation to the Act were due to the checks, balances, and new frameworks accompanying the Act, which partly had the aim of curtailing the excessive use of control by social work agencies. These controls and checks had the effect of making social work more uncertain of its ability to use its discretion, and more uncertain of its mandate from wider society to assess and manage risk, ensuring that it resorts to the legal system in order to try to reduce its own risks in making such judgements. As Howe states, the  ‘welter of procedures and guidelines’ has led the social workers into the role of ‘investigator, reporter and “gatherer” of evidence. The analysis of information is no longer left to the discretion of the practitioner’ (Howe, 1992, p.502).


One comparative European study suggests that

‘The centralized, nationally regulated and procedurally administered character of the child protection system (in England) could not have emerged in any of the continental European states we studied.’ (Hetherington et al., 1997, p.38).


The result is that, in social work in general, less and less time is spent working directly with the users of services, and, in particular, listening to their concerns and talking with them about their situation.


Managerial attempts to try to make social work constantly more rational and predictable are having the consequence of deflecting social work from the essential elements which constitute its main strengths.  Traditional social work expertise has been built on the ability to establish relationships with a wide variety of people, survey the environment for resources and bring these together on behalf of the service user, to negotiate with various individuals, groups and organizations and to mobilize their energies, and to enter other worlds and meanings in order to offer help (Parton and O'Byrne, 2000).


It may be that one of the problems in the social construction of the management of social work and social care in the field of professional decision-making is that there is no recognition at present of the role-conflicts and difficulties with which social workers have to deal. The managerialist view is that social work (or indeed any activity) can be managed in a rational way, which does not take account of the emotional, social and power imbalance experiences of either workers or service users.

Managerialism and staff support

A review is given here of current developments in management styles which questions the lack of emphasis placed upon social workers' emotional lives, and on the importance of a professionalism which allows a large element of professional decision making, and values based work.


Harlow (2000) puts forward the argument that the new management styles are male-based and have discarded the skills which were formerly seen as important in social work and social work management. This she relates to the evidence from the work of Grimwood and Popplestone (1993), which demonstrated the over-representation of men in management, and the over-representation of women in practice areas. Harlow argues that these discarded areas concern the value of supervision in order to support difficult decisions, the emotional effects of making difficult decisions in child protection assessments and interventions, and the importance of informal work relationships, which have now been subsumed within a management culture where managers have to ensure the meeting of performance targets, goals and outcomes.


Harlow argues that the development of scientific rational managerialism has been in the ascendancy over social work's traditional concern with the depth and complexity of human emotion, along with the diminution of social work core values. The new managerialism, she argues, decries the old style of social work management that emphasized worker's emotions and informal work relationships and instead ‘emphasizes rationality as the means of most efficiently and effectively achieving the task’ (p. 76).


Harlow notes that a number of directors of social services departments are not now social work-trained and that the new managers are symbols of ‘competitively successful society’ (ibid, p. 78). She provides an analysis of deprofessionalisation in the face of the new managerialism, and argues that as employees in state structures, social workers can now be understood as bureau-professionals, and that this has implications for their assessment and decision-making processes, as well as their value base.


Hearn (2000) notes the importance of the development of managerialism and its effects on performance targets, quality assurance, inspection, inquiry findings, risk assessment and risk management.  He argues that this has affected how workers are supported, and the professional space that they have within which to make decisions in their work. It also affects the emotional and cultural environment of support--or otherwise--in which they work.


Lawler (2000) argues that the emphasis in the new managerialism does not relate to a concept of social workers as professional staff, but as employees within strict line management structures, leading to the tensions and the devaluing of professional status that we now see.  Lawler argues that social workers in the past have experienced professional supervision from senior professional social workers, but that now, in a managerial ethos, managers mainly relate to other demands on them from within the new culture. 


Harlow  (2000) also asks the question,  ‘who is the consumer?’.  She argues that service user choice is very limited within what she terms a ‘pseudo-market’. It is not the same as shopping in a store such as Marks and Spencer or TK-Max, where a customer chooses a piece of clothing, or alternatively goes to another store to buy one from there. The same options are not available on a local level for users’ choice of social services. This becomes a problem because if we have a pseudo-market--where it is assumed that consumers’ needs will be met within what essentially is a control function rather than a service function--there are problems because service users, particularly parents, can feel cheated, and this will affect how they relate to the social worker. Some very experienced social workers in Littlechild’s research (2000, 2002) have learned to deal with these situations, saying that what is important is being very careful about how they explain their role and powers to parent service users, and how they form a relationship with those parents based on a sound skills and value base.


Supervision is a key element in these processes, providing a key link between the previously mentioned themes of managerialism, and professional practice and values.  The importance of supervision in the support systems for social workers was highlighted by the research of Jones, Fletcher and Ibbetson (1991).


However, in recent years supervision in England has tended to consist of discussions that enable supervisors/managers to monitor their employees’ work and to ensure that performance indicators are being met. Bell (1999) identifies two important issues: the inherent conflicts now present in child protection work, as discussed in previous sections, and the importance of supervision. She found that there was a need for good supervision and supportive management. The findings from her research give cause for concern in that the reason cited by one-third of respondents for being unable to undertake a thorough investigation was not lack of time, but rather due to characteristics of the family which the social workers experienced as lack of co-operation. She found that the workers’ supervision did not focus on this, but instead consisted of management of the investigation and was aimed at dealing with particular problems concerning tasks.


Supervision now tends not be used for examining and untangling the complex difficulties workers face that are inherent in such work, nor from the stresses which arise from them (Gibbs, 2001). Gibbs argues that supervision is a vital element in workers’ ability to firstly maintain themselves whilst dealing with these stresses, and secondly in order to maintain the focus of their work. She states that a lack of attention and response to the often unconscious defence mechanisms adopted by individuals to survive in the face of high levels of anxiety and distress can become potentially dangerous to those individuals, as well as potentially harmful for the child and the families. In her study of anxiety in child protection workers in Australia, workers’ concerns about physical or verbal violence were mentioned as a major source of such stress. That these issues are also factors for workers in England is clearly demonstrated in research with child protection workers (Littlechild, 2000).


This case study of professional independence, managerialism and staff support in relation to child protection work then raises queries about how social work values and ethics fit within such formulations of the social work role, and how education and training can best prepare students to become effective workers in such environments.


Training and education in relation to professional/management matters

Consideration of these issues raises a number of important questions for social work and social work education. Is it possible to develop an education and training for social workers that can provide either a unified and/or a comparative perspective on social work ethics, values and management? Is there a unified European perspective? Is there a wider worldwide-unified perspective, particularly given the very specific nation-based differences as illustrated by the examination of child protection work and managerialism in the UK? If not, what does this mean for social work when its value base is such a key feature of its identity? Or do we accept, as in medicine, that there are different perspectives in, for example, Western and Eastern cultures (although this can change, as such cultures become Westernized and capitalised)? If the latter is the case, do we then accept that all viewpoints are equally valid, or not?


These questions lead us to consider whether social work and its educational functions should aim to develop a unified ethical and value base, or aim at comparative studies. If there are differences in the value base, what are the reasons for these? Should we seek to persuade students of one universal value base or provide a pluralistic education---a postmodern perspective, perhaps? Or does this avoid the inherent moral duties implied by a code of ethics? If we cannot devise a code which takes account of different nations’ welfare formulations and supersedes them by way of a code of ethics which is culturally sensitive worldwide and which defines and protects social work, will this not allow managerialism to hold sway?


In the UK, the issue of ethics and values has taken on a new focus following the creation of the central government’s General Social Care Council and its (2002) Codes of Conduct and Practice for social workers and their employers, which will require registered workers to abide by these codes. The practical implications of this are considered later in this article.


I would argue that the aim of social work education should be to enable students to explore the philosophical and professional bases of ethical judgements and actions within social work practice and managerial approaches, and from international and multi-cultural perspectives. Students should explore the philosophical underpinning of ethics and values in social work, the history of the development of ideas in ethics, and how to apply the sometimes competing demands within social work practice of ethical concepts and values such as ‘respect for the individual’, and balancing this with the needs and rights and of others, and their employing agencies--a particular issue in the UK, where there are key issues concerning the tensions arising from ideas and central government policy directives  of working in partnership with parents of abused children, and the rights of the children themselves (Littlechild, 1998).


Anti-oppressive and internationalist-based approaches

Social work and social work education also need to begin to examine how there may be very different value bases in different ethnic/religious groups which may be at odds with Western libertarian, individualistic social work values; this is true, for example, of Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist approaches to morality and ethics. These issues can be particularly contentious in relation to definitions of child abuse and how social workers work in culturally sensitive ways, without colluding with the dangers of cultural relativism (Dingwall et al. 1983; Corby, 2000).  It also needs to take account the political/policy factors, which can affect ethical decision making and may vary from country to country--again, a particular issue for child abuse work as noted by Hetherington et al. (1997). If not, we are avoiding issues that are crucial to the development of a worldwide perspective on social work values, assessments, and interventions.


Courses should provide learning on how individuals acting as professionals can approach decisions within agencies and as independent practitioners by utilizing ethical concepts and values, and the competing pressures on them which can affect ethical judgements, e.g. pressures from an employing agency, from ‘society’s expectations, or individual service users’ circumstances--which can obviously vary from one country/culture to another. Successful students from modules will typically have knowledge and understanding of the historical developments within ethical thinking as relevant to social work values and practice, the range of competing discourses in relation to ethics, and the effects of ethical considerations. They will also have an understanding of how to apply considerations of the issues involved in the application of, e.g., the Codes of Practice to different approaches to service users rights, and the rights of the families and communities in which they live, within a broader framework of values in different religions and cultures.


Clark (2000, p.89) states that the conventional content of social work ethics can be traced to three main currents of ideas in the Western religious and philosophical tradition: pastoral care and individual casework to the “afflicted”; social reform, from a sense of justice and liberation; and public accountability.


We need to acknowledge that values and ethics, and particularly cross-national and multi-cultural issues within them, have not been major features in social work education here or in other countries, and that a change in this approach may be vital for social work in response to the encroachment of managerialism. Sonnenberg (2003) notes how in Germany and England that whilst professionals and managers may believe that values are important, they think that their professional association’s codes of ethics have had little effect on professionals’ practice, and even less on agency policies.


This may, however, be about to change with the implementation of the UK General Social Care Councils’ Codes of Conduct and Practice in 2003.  It will now be possible to examine the implications of agency/ policy pressures in relation to the application of the Codes of Practice to accommodating children in public care where families are found to be intentionally homeless, or those of asylum seekers, which have been contentious and problematic matters for social workers in the UK in the last few years, given punitive government policies in relation to the latter group in particular.


Utilizing the concepts contained within a consideration of morality and ethical thought in their work with different service user groups and cultures in comparative studies is an important possible way forward to deal with these dilemmas, utilizing a set of criteria that take into consideration the place/effects of ethics/values on social work practice. Such ‘relative issues’ might comprise, as a form of comparison/analysis the following factors:

  • Political environment

  • Policy

  • Ethnicity

  • Religion

  • Codes of ethics/professional regulation

  • Management

Independence/agency issues

Alongside such considerations, another waymay be to consider similarities/differences by examining case studies, and how they would be dealt with in different cultures/countries (e.g. Hetherington et al., 1997, p.38), where the same situation is examined from different ethical and practice perspectives (see as an example of this in Hetherington et al. 1997). However, we need to beware of reductionism in such approaches--this then requires a framework as a guide by which to avoid this, such as these  ‘Relative issues’, from which to consider such comparisons. Such comparative issues are at present utilized by only a very few research studies--for one example of such an approach, see Walden et al. (1990)


Sonnenberg (2003) examines the differences between England and Germany in terms of how professionalism might be affected by the different welfare systems in the two countries. She analyses the quality of social work from two perspectives: ethical values, and the effects of the development of market values within social work. Efficiency, effectiveness and competitiveness are new criteria being applied to social work; their influence on social work quality and values in England and Germany is analysed in this piece of work. She found, for example, that anti-discriminatory practice is more of a key feature in the values and ethics approaches in England and Wales than in Germany.


In her comparison between England and Germany, Sonnenberg found that in England, Clark (2000) suggests a set of values that focus on respect for the individual, concerning uniqueness and intrinsic values; social justice; empowerment, and professional accountability. Sonnenberg’s analysis demonstrates that there are variations in approaches to values within one country, and demonstrates the potential for even greater differences that there may be between countries in relation to values.


MacDonald et al. (2003) argue that from their examination of social work in Australia, Britain, and the USA, they found that whilst these countries share some features, the idea of social work having a core essence needs to be tempered with a realistic assessment of the importance of contextually created difference. If such variations can be found between only three ‘westernised’ countries, the potential for profound differences between countries with much greater cultural, economic and religious differences would seem immense.


Interpreting values and ethics

The following section gives a brief set of examples of how a set of codes, as set out by the Code of  Practice for social care workers published by General Social Care Council for England 2002 ( can produce dilemmas for workers in how they apply them, and highlights, I am suggesting, an urgent need for social work and social work education to consider much more carefully how they respond to these challenges of learning and practice placed upon them by the pressures set out earlier in this article. 

The codes state that social care workers are responsible for ensuring that their conduct does not fall below the standard set out in the code, and that they must:

  • Safeguard the well-being of service users to the best of their ability;

  • Safeguard and promote the interests of service users;

  • Strive to maintain the trust and confidence of service users and carers;

  • Respect the independence of service users and protect them as far as possible from danger or harm; balance the rights of service users and carers up with the interests of society;

  • Take responsibility for their practice and learning;

  • Justify public trust and confidence in social care services.

How, then, do we then operationalise these?


One element within the codes covers human dignity and worth, where every human being has intrinsic value, and all persons have a right to well-being, to self-fulfillment and to as much control over their lives as is consistent with the rights of others. In a situation where a young person has sexually abused others, how do we balance this against the rights of others who might be at risk of being abused by him/her in the future if we allow unsupervised close contact with other children/young people?


What of victims of domestic violence, and the violent man, who we know will often have had abused his woman partner over many years, and used power/control strategies to keep her from seeking help and escape from the abuse she suffers (Smith, 1989)?  Do we ally ourselves with controlling and punitive measures to keep him from abusing her further, or do we support therapeutic or cognitive behavioural approaches which are voluntary on his part in the hope of the possibility of change for him to stop abusing her, and try to protect her in that way? Or is it a mix of the two, based on our knowledge of the abusive nature over time of certain such men, and abiding by the values set out in the codes?

  • Then there are situations where children have been abused, and social workers’ considerations of how they work with them, whilst at the same time also considering the rights of parents, within other elements in the codes covering the requirement to foster individual well-being and autonomy, subject to due respect for the rights of others.

Issues are raised here concerning child protection procedures, with the issue of rights of children versus the right of privacy within family life, as set out in the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998.

 The principles in the codes relative to this are:

  • That social workers have a duty to respect basic human rights (e.g. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)

  • That social workers have a duty to show respect for all persons, and respect service users beliefs, values, culture, goals, needs, preferences, and relationships.

How do we operationalise this within our sets of values and duties to individual clients and those in their immediate environment? For example, in relation to female circumcision (which is prescribed by law in the UK), there have been arguments put forward that as this is supposedly an important element of certain cultural practices in order to be accepted by that community, it is therefore in her overall best interests? Or should we view it as inherently sexist, abusive and violent in whatever culture in which it takes place? Equally, we need to examine the social construction of child abuse in different countries and cultures (Corby, 2000) So, for example, what does neglect and emotional abuse mean in different ethnic groups, religions, cultures, countries, and legal systems, and how do these relate to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to social work values? (See the special edition of Child Abuse Review, December 2002 11(6) that presents articles on these issues).


What of sexual relationships and sexual preferences for people with learning disabilities?  How do we determine whether the choice they make is informed and truly consensual, or whether someone is being targeted for gratuitous sexual satisfaction by predatory others--and what should social workers do about it if it is judged to be the latter?


Female circumcision has already been discussed, but what of a situation where a parent is Jehovah's Witnesses and his/her child is in need of blood transfusion to save their life, but the parent refuses on religious grounds?


The profession and values of social work have been subject to increasingly controlling elements from the state in the UK for nearly 20 years, with encroachment on individual workers’ capacity to carry out their assessments, interventions, and evaluations of their work. This has been particularly evident in the development of controlling, policing roles for social workers as developed by the state in relation to child protection work. The state has taken a stance that political policy directives are the way to ensure standardization, and quality, of services. Such an attitude is soon to be subject to a rather different agenda, with workers registered with their professional body having to abide by the state-agreed and defined value base. This article has examined some of the dilemmas that are inherent in providing such a set of values under a code of practice. These include dilemmas concerning advocacy for service users when this may be contrary to employing agencies’ interests, judging who is the service user and whose interests the worker is primarily representing when that individual’s interests may be in conflict with those of others the worker needs to take into account, and last, but certainly not least, the more basic difficulty that the value base is predicated upon white, eurocentric, westernised, liberal democratic traditions.


These issues pose significant areas for debate for the profession in the UK within the broader context of the effects of managerialism on the profession. In future, social workers in the U.K. will have to have a clearer and more confident set of answers to these problematic areas than they have in the past, both for their own professional standing, but also, vitally, for the rights of their service users. In addition, a necessary parallel development of education and training for social workers must begin to better prepare them for these challenges and dilemmas.




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Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice