A review of The Truth About Social Work, by Social Work Tutor
This post was intended to be a post about a book, but it's grown like Topsy. I have therefore split it into two posts, the first is about Social Work Tutor, the author of the book, and the second about the book itself. This is the first part.
Who is Social Work Tutor?
If you have an interest in the sorts of issues covered by this blog and don't know the answer you've evidently been hiding under a very large rock. Because Social Work Tutor (or SWT) is a phenomenon. He has 5000+ followers on twitter (though only follows 41) (actually he did before unexpectedly locking his account last month), and 400,000 "fans" on Facebook. And his about-to-be-released self styled "debut" book is by all accounts doing roaring pre-order sales. SWT is phenomenally popular with social workers here and abroad, particularly it seems those starting out in the profession. His memes speak to social workers, and the popularity of them (they are liked by thousand upon thousands of social workers as soon as published) tells us something about the need of the social work profession to feel valued and heard. A social worker spied my copy of SWT's book The Truth About Social Work in my handbag last week and said "Ooh I love him! He's such an advocate for social work!". She was surprised to hear that her view is not universally shared amongst social workers, just as not everyone likes marmite (see the Amazon reviews of SWT's book for the marmite effect in action).
Nothing in this blog is intended to dismiss that sense among the social work profession that they feel they are unfairly pilloried and not given the credit and respect that they deserve for doing a sometimes very tough job. Social work definitely needs advocates, and social workers are legitimately aggrieved at how they are sometimes portrayed and misunderstood. But to be effective their advocates must speak to and resonate with the wider world, not merely to social workers themselves.
So there is controversy about SWT. I've been watching from the wings for a while without really sticking my oar in, and it seems helpful to give some context to those who may encounter SWT or comment by or about him, as I offer a review of his book. This is not an attack blog, I just offer some observations and gather some perspectives together in one place. This blog will represent the honest view of someone who has taken care to try and see both sides of things, and it may be therefore that what I see is also seen by others.
SWT is anonymous - ish. I know who he is as do many others online. His name is relatively easy to work out using the internet, and once you know that there is a lot more to be found with the power of google. This is inevitable for someone with such a burgeoning social media presence, particularly so when the would-be-anonymous person has a notable past online which is recorded in the national press, and more so when the current anonymous activity of that professional and the influence on impressionable newbies is of concern to at least some of his colleagues. Whether one endorses all of SWTs output or not, it is obvious and inevitable that sooner or later the dots of his identity and past would begin to be joined with his online persona.
SWT has complained that circulation of the details of his background are a breach of his right to private life. I disagree - whilst it may be upsetting for him, I don't think that SWT has any legitimate expectation that material online published by or about him before becoming a social worker should not be linked to his current activities as a very public social worker, with an ever expanding commercial* sideline in training and public speaking and merchandising / book sales. It was naive for SWT to think that he would be able to remain anonymous in the long term, given the numerous parcels of information about him (many of which were placed there by himself at one time or another) that exist in various corners of the internet.
So. SWT's background is a matter of legitimate public interest that potentially informs the increasing debate about his conduct - but I'm not going to "out" SWT, not least because I don't want the more important aspects of this blog to be drowned out by distracting complaints about breach of privacy (and I won't let anyone out him on the comments either).
I think that the more important issue from a professional conduct point of view is the public conduct and social media output of SWT now, in his capacity as a social worker - it is true that what I have read of his past is probably likely to augment rather than allay concerns about that recent conduct for those who worry about it, but in itself it's not the be all and end all. There will be many fine professionals out there with some sort of past life, it doesn't necessarily mean they have not changed or are not fit to fulfil their function many years later. But I'm going to put the past to one side and work on the basis that what SWT says and does now is a pretty good place to start with assessing the concerns raised about him. It's clear from a look at his Facebook page that young, enthusiastic social workers are lapping up whatever SWT puts out there. So we had better hope that his wisdom is good stuff. Because by gum he has a fan base.
So what is it exactly that people are worried about?
SWT makes social workers feel good about what they do, and that is much needed. It's harmless isn't it? He's described it as gallows humour - lawyers will recognise this, it is something many who work in taxing environments resort to. But there is a time and a place. Social workers and lawyers provide a service to the vulnerable. Their clients deserve respect.
SWT publishes internet memes on his Facebook page and via twitter. Those memes are intended to give social workers a boost, to make them feel that there are others out there like them - stressed out and feeling under appreciated. But those same memes may well be seen by the families that social workers are working with or may be working with - and the black humour that may be acceptable to lighten the load in private may well be received very differently by that other audience.
SWT knows that his posts can be seen by the public, and by the families that social workers must build trust with - so it is no excuse to say that they are not the intended audience.
Some of his memes are funny, many of them will produce a sigh of weary recognition from many an overworked and under-appreciated professional (it ain't just social workers). But over time I have come to form the view that there is a tendency in the course of these memes for him to portray service users as tiresome, difficult or frightening, and to portray the social workers aim as being to get one over on the service user - to discover their secrets or find out things about them that can be used against them. I've politely asked SWT once or twice through comments or tweets what he thought service users might take from his memes, but have never received a response. SWT has many followers but rarely follows back and rarely responds. Instead he simply broadcasts (and as SWT has locked his twitter account for the last month or so it's now even more difficult to engage with him on these issues).
Some more detail
The first post that came to my attention was a post about Ben Butler, a father who murdered his daughter Ellie. I have no problem with anyone articulating how depraved that man must be, but I was really concerned that the post SWT wrote about that gave a strong sense of all parents as potentially murderous, frightening monsters. Fortunately monsters like Ben Butler are the exception, but for me this was not the message conveyed, particularly in the latter passage :
...The sad truth is that Ben Butler is not an isolated figure. There are parents like this up and down our country that Social Workers are having to deal with every day.
These are the terrors that we are trying to save the world from.
These are the parents who will tell the media that Social Workers are ‘stealing their children’ at the same time as living with the awful harm they have caused.
These are the monsters that we keep from children’s doors at night.
I found out subsequently that others were had similar concerns. The Child Protection Resource blog published what I thought at the time was a very fair blog from an anonymous social worker about this (here) - it sets out the original post (which SWT later deleted), and the comments contain his acknowledgment at the time that he had had a "bruised ego and petty childlike reaction to experiencing ...criticism". SWT acknowledges that he was emotional when he wrote the post, unaware of the detail of the case, and relied upon what he had read in the papers. He said :
Re-reading this post, I can see how I could have made more of an effort to clarify that I was specifically referring to murderers and it’s been a shock to see that some people may think I was referring to every parent who has involvement with children’s services. Although my reading of the post still sees that this was the point I was trying to make, the fact that the author pointed out a different perspective made me realise that my message may be unclear; hence the decision to remove the post when this was pointed out.
He goes on to talk about his feelings of hurt and the several days of low mood precipitated by criticism of this post and suggestions that had been made that it had wider significance. He finishes by apologising for his reaction to criticism. That was the summer of 2016. We all make mistakes.
However, since then there have been many more posts and memes, many of them inspiring and /or unobjectionable - but a few that have been very uncomfortable to read, if one considers that a client might see them. Recently we've had a meme about social workers digging up the past of families. That seems to have been deleted, as part of a general tidying up of SWTs timeline and posts that has coincided with him locking his account and removing most of the merchandise from the main page of his website, so I'll re-post the meme here for context :
Personally, I don't think that a picture suggesting that social workers are enthusiastic about digging up the past of the families they are working is likely to promote a trusting working relationship between those families who need and are expected to accept support and the social workers they are expected to work with, who are already perceived as offering support in order to create opportunities to gather evidence. My comment politely queried what service users might think of the post - it followed about 2,000 comments from social workers around the world who thought it was hilarious. Yes. That's practising social workers, often using their own names. Gleefully liking and joking about how funny the raking over of the painful past of a vulnerable person is. On a public page. Worrying isn't it?
Elsewhere on my Facebook feed I see posts on a daily basis from frightened parents asking others how they should respond to the recent intervention of social workers in their lives. I'm glad he's deleted it. I'm sorry he ever thought it was appropriate to publish. In my book, making social workers feel good comes second on the list to helping to build trust with vulnerable families.
Perhaps the realisation that it feels horrid to have someone digging up your past has helped SWT to see that this post will have made families as fearful as he has been that something long done and dusted will be used against them. I've seen no public acknowledgment that this post was inappropriate, and the apparent rowing back from the early apology about the Ben Butler monster parents post that I set out below does not give confidence.
Meanwhile, Social Work Tutor's influence grows daily. The pre-launch promotional material about The Truth About Social Work was pinging frequently into people's inboxes, and the launch event began to sound like the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Based on the cover picture - a silhouette of a person, presumably a social worker, in a grim, dangerous looking tunnel - one might think it is going to be grim, depressing reading. The theme of social work as a dirty, dangerous and frightening job is writ large.
So, there are some social workers who are worried about the pattern I've sketched above, the tone of some of what is said about the people being "social worked" - some of SWT's fellow professionals are concerned that it may tarnish their profession's reputation and make their work harder - just as claims about social workers and adoption targets make it more difficult for social workers to engage families.
All those who I have seen raising these concerns with SWT have done so politely, although with increasing insistence, and latterly through satire. Two twitter accounts in particular have sprung up : @realsocialworktutor and @socialworktudor, the latter an achingly accurate parody account. I've no idea who is behind these accounts, but they have not gone down well with SWT. Alongside those two accounts are a chorus of tweeted worry from a number of well respected social work professionals, parents and others. I've not seen any that are abusive, but many are challenging. Of course there may be material I've not noted.
In late September SWT published some very portentous tweets explaining he was going to post a series of posts "naming and shaming" those who had criticised him. He tweeted in a series of tweets (of which I have screenshots, but it's easier to read if I string them together in sequence) :
Shame it has had to come to this... but I'm releasing a series of blogs today that show the level of online harassment that 8 people.../Have subjected me to over the past month. I simply can't believe that fellow social workers would treat people like this and believe that...other people need to see exactly how our profession can act towards one another. I know this will likely cause issue for people as I will.../ be naming them and sharing clear public tweets/images, but I feel I have been left with no other choice given the continued and constant.../abuse I've experienced. I will be reaching out over next hour for commentary by said individuals prior to series of blogs going out.../live. Again, really sorry it has come to this but I genuinely believe that this level of harassment must be exposed.
The subsequent posts are here : I HAVE HAD TO HIDE THE WAY THAT OTHER SOCIAL WORKERS BULLY ME and here : IF THE SOCIAL WORK TUTOR GOES FOREVER, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHY.
In the first, there is no naming and shaming, although there are hints about who is being talked about. There is a lot of "woe is me" before we get to the point - the harassment that SWT has been complaining of.
...last summer, things changed when I blocked two fellow social workers from my page for trying to defend the actions of a man called Ben Butler who had killed his 7-year old daughter. I called this man a monster and two social workers said this was wrong because there were reasons why he might have done these things.
I’m sorry, but for me there is never any reason why anyone should ever kill their own child. I didn’t want to tolerate such awful views on my page and swiftly blocked these people.
SWT goes on to make it pretty plain that one of these blocked social workers was the social worker who criticised him on the CPR blog (link above).
With too much time on her hands and a chip on her shoulder, she approached her friend who allowed her to post a terribly mean-spirited blog on her website...that blog heralded the start of 14 months of daily harassment, stalking and bullying.
He doesn't link to that blog so that people can form their own view about whether it is mean spirited or not, but it can hardly be another blog post on the same topic. He seems to have forgotten his apology for his own overreaction to what he then acknowledged as legitimate criticism.
SWT goes on to allege that people (unnamed) have
- promoted lies regarding HCPC referrals about him that have never been made
- stalked his baby daughter online and gleefully point out that they had been looking at her
- tracked his wife to her place of work.
Those are REALLY serious allegations and the blog contains NO evidence in support of them. I have seen concerned chatter on social media about whether or not the promulgation of some of SWT's memes may amount to a breach of the HCPC code for social workers. This is not harassment, it is debate - and in my view if you hold yourself out as a public service and a leader of your profession you must either be able to suck it up or engage with it. That conversation is one which SWT as far as I can tell refuses to participate in. It is clear from the post that SWT's response to these perceived acts of harassment has been to threaten defamation proceedings and complain of a breach of his private life, and occasionally to threaten to leave social media. I may have missed some inappropriate comments, but although SWT promised screenshots he has not included any that would plug this gap in my knowledge.
In fact, in February SWT published a very similar threat to leave social media : IF THE SOCIAL WORK TUTOR GOES TOMORROW, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHY. It's not immediately clear what prompted that post at that time, since the post was again referring back to the blog on the CPR site in the summer of 2016, and since he says in that post he had subsequently worked things out with the anonymous social worker in question. In the February post SWT tells us his initial reaction to the publication of the CPR post was to worry he would lose his house and his job. He wrote :
With haste, I contacted the person who owned the blog and, feeling I had to go in hard, threatened them with defamation. My rudimentary understanding of defamation was it concerned an attack on someone’s character. With questions to my ethics, my views on the people I work so hard to support and a public declaration of a planned HCPC referral, I couldn’t see how that blog was anything but an attack on my character.
The owner of the site refused to take it down as I hadn’t, in her opinion, asked kindly enough. But she did see the error in the HCPC point and removed this accordingly.
It may be that SWT has been stalked and harassed in ways I have not seen, but his February post helpfully sets out a communication that appears to be the basis of the stalking allegation :
Everyone has worked out who you are now and you might want to do something about some of your privacy settings… your wife’s page has a lot of pictures of all of you and no privacy settings, so you might want to change that. Your FB page doesn’t have much on it, but the pictures of your baby are public and you might want to change that
One interpretation of this is that someone has attempted to point out that SWT's private life is not as private as he might wish or think it to be, and helpfully suggested he might like to change his privacy settings - and he has overreacted and gone in with a sledgehammer to crack a nut (I also note that since SWT wrote these posts in September he held a widely publicised launch event in the course of which he posed for selfies, and autographed books so if he ever could complain about his public identification his argument now must surely be even weaker).
Back to the September iteration of the IF THE SOCIAL WORK TUTOR GOES TOMORROW, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHY post. It ends on a dramatic cliff hanger "you won't believe what other social workers started doing to me next...". Two days later the second installment arrived :
Far easier to try and defame me for what I’m saying, and how I’m saying it, than actually try to make a difference in the world.
“SWT made a meme saying social workers find shit out, he hates service users”
“SWT made a meme joking about social workers digging up the past, he’s bringing the profession into disrepute”
“SWT told someone that using the term ‘SS’ is offensive as it has anti-Semitic connotations, he’s bullying people”
“SWT raises an issue with a social work union charging £539 upfront to join, he is bashing us”
It goes on and on… but you get the idea about the kind of things I have to face every single day. I face these things from people who see me as some sort of persona non-grata because I give an honest view about what it means to be a social worker and try to bring a little bit of humour into bad days by making silly memes about the job we do.
What is the price I pay for doing this?
I’ve had the patron of [social work organisation] publicly accuse me of lying and stating that I’m damaging the profession.
I’ve had a [social work organisation] committee member boycott a BASW student event because I was due to speak there.
I’ve had the [person in senior position in social work] promoting anonymous twitter accounts set up with the sole intention of causing me harm.
I’ve had the head of a social work university department tell me “there is no way I would want you near our students”, without giving me any justification for barring me from her campus.
I’ve had a small social work publisher sharing content from anonymous accounts that violate my personal life and right to privacy.
I’ve had the owner of an online social work website make up fake news stories about me because I didn’t want to go into business with him.
I’ve had an independent social worker share content linked to accounts that reveal my name and details about things I did in 2005, well before I even thought about becoming a social worker. A total violation of my right to a private life.
I’ve had three social work academics subject me to daily abuse and harassment online for months on end.
[NB I've edited out some potentially identifying information here because some of the remarks above seem to me to be potentially defamatory if untrue]
Not once does SWT stop to ask himself whether the range of people voicing concern about him might be a good reason to reflect on his own behaviour (for example, might anything I've published inadvertently create an impression I have a low or negative view of service users?). Perhaps he is just very unlucky. Perhaps he is doing something to make a lot of people worried and vocal.
Spectacularly missing the point that the common feature is concern about his public professional conduct, he complains that "In all of this, not one of these people has ever shown any compassion or empathy for how their attacks make me feel." Here SWT posts a picture of a wounded teddy bear and goes on to catastrophise about the possibility of people turning up at his home and threatening him and his family. Neither blog post provides screen shots of any abusive tweets or communication, neither names or shames anyone. Nowhere does he ask about how others might legitimately feel about what he publishes.
Subsequently SWT published some more portentous tweets. This time he said :
I've got a story to release tomorrow that is going to be massive and shows the extent of corruption that is rife within social work...I've given those involved until 5pm to comment on the information I've been presented with. Will put it out at around 7pm.
And shortly thereafter SWT's account was locked and has remained locked now for about a month. He hasn't published the promised post. An educated guess as to what may have happened in the intervening period is that SWT may have found out just how upsetting it is to receive a threat of defamation proceedings (I know too, I've been there).
So. No naming and shaming. No real detail of harassment. No screen grabs. And a whole lot about how bad SWT is feeling. I have limited sympathy for this. Any professional who sets out to create a social media presence has to understand that people will criticise you, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not. But that they will be more likely to criticise you if you are reckless and stupid about what you choose to publish. In this respect social media is no different than the "real" world. You create a brand based on your values as a person - expect people to scrutinise you as a person. Including your past. SWT seems to find this almost unbearable, and I don't doubt it is horrible at times - I have had some of it myself.
As a consequence I've thought long and hard about writing this post and I've nursed it for a long time to be sure I was being fair and accurate. I hope I've got it right, but if I haven't doubtless someone will blast me and I will have to decide whether to defend myself or to admit I was wrong.
The pattern here, when one tries to piece it together, seems to be to overreact and to threaten those who criticise - a reaction style which SWT has partially acknowledged but then been unable to change - and then to back down and back off. If SWT REALLY has evidence to show he has been harassed and threatened he has failed to produce it. The CPR anonymous social worker blog post he sets up as the lynchpin from which the whole campaign against him has flowed is as polite a piece of criticism as you could hope to see, has been edited at his request - and SWTs recent treatment of it is highly edited to airbrush out his own contemporaneous climbdown.
All this leaves an impression that SWT may be mistaking legitimate challenge on a public forum for harassment. Those who I have seen criticising SWT have been explicitly and repeatedly asking for a dialogue, not setting out to attack. They seem mainly now though to have reached a point where they are despairing of the prospect of such dialogue and are ventilating concern about how they can stop further damage to the profession in possibly less constructive ways.
The problem with SWT is that it has become a brand that tends to place the social worker at the heart of everything social work, when it should be the families they are helping at the centre of everything they do. Social workers are often telling my clients to try a spot of mind mindedness - to place themselves in the shoes of their child. SWT might wish to reflect on what his clients might think if he knocked on their door wearing a "You can't scare me I'm a social worker" t-shirt, and if they knew he was the social worker who has written that people like them are "monsters" and "terrors" like Ben Butler... Would you open the door?
I think SWT is well intentioned. But to me it does appear that some of the criticism of how he operates is justified. This post has been sent in draft to SWT and he has been offered a right of reply. He has not responded.
Disclosure : I am a colleague and friend of the author of the CPR site. I have not discussed this blog post with her, and have written it of my own volition because it seemed to be me to be an important debate that is not going away and that is difficult to navigate for anyone happening upon it.
* I say commercial because, although SWT Facebook page is described as "public service", other information online suggests that there is a company trading for profit (although none of the SWT online presence mentions it, so it is unclear if the commercial activities of social work tutor are run through the limited company I've found).