Mark Denton: 3 minute read

Is it ever acceptable for a Social Worker to ignore their clients?

Being ignored is never nice. Whether it is by your friends, family or your partner, it doesn’t matter, it hurts. There is no nice way to be ignored.

How is this viewed when it is contained in a professional environment?
A recent BBC article posed this question after a Social Worker in America ignored one of her clients on the streets. Her client, a homeless man, was rooting through the rubbish, looking for cans when he saw her walk past with her family. She failed to acknowledge him and when questioned about it, said that she was in her ‘private space’.

The original post from the popular, Humans of New York Instagram account;

“Last week I was picking through the trash, looking for bottles and cans to recycle, and my social worker walked by with her family. She walked just a few feet from me. And I know she saw me. But she didn’t say a thing. Not even ‘hello.’ I asked her about it during our next meeting, and at first she denied seeing me. But then she told me that she had been in her ‘private space.’ That really put a stake in my heart. Why can’t you say ‘hello’ to me in your private space?”

Is this acceptable?
Now the example here is from the America and social work will run off of a different set of rules there but the principles will remain the same. The underlying question here being, was the Social Worker correct to ignore the man in question when she was ‘off duty’. Whilst it is based around an American context, the case could still happen in the UK and raises a good deal of moral questions.

A great deal of discussion emerged following this post, with thousands of comments being left. Ranging from human rights discussions to simple morality, the incident has proved to be a divisive one. With every angle covered, the common consensus is that the Social Worker was in the wrong to at least some degree.

Regardless of whether or not the Social Worker should have stopped to say hi, it is agreed that she should have explained herself better. The simple sentence, ‘I was in my private space’ causing a multitude of hurt for the gentleman in question.

Imagine if a child said hi to their Social Worker in the street and was then promptly ignored. Add to this the possibility that the child in question was living in a vulnerable situation and had real trust issues. It would harm the trust between them and then if the Social Worker simply said, ‘I was in my quiet space’, after being asked about the incident, then you would easily be able to see how the trust could be eroded.

The man in New York was understandably hurt by the interaction and his trust in the system must be broken from this. Any subsequent Social Worker that is assigned this case will need to repair the damage caused here.

With estimates placing the amount of time (80%) that a Social Worker spends on administration, it can be easy to forget that there are people behind the notes. The notes only provide a snapshot of that individual. You cannot get to know a person through reading their notes.

Trust is something that takes years to build and minutes to break
Being homeless and on the streets is a reality for many across the globe. In 2005 (the last time a survey like this was attempted) the United Nations conducted a survey into the number of homeless people across the world. It found that 100 million people worldwide were deemed as being homeless.

Habitat for humanity went on to estimate that in 2015 1.6 billion people live in inadequate shelter. This is nearly 20% of the population of the earth. It is an issue that affects all of society and ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Ignoring it as the Social Worker did here is damaging.

To later deny the incident and then say that you are in your ‘private space’ is not conducive to creating that human connection.

Person-centred care revolves around placing the individual first. Their needs are paramount and should be involved in their on-going support, with this being seen through the introduction of personal budgets. Robots are on their way, in the form of automation and simplification. They are here to help and assist but they cannot replace heart and soul.

The man in question is now writing a letter to express his feelings as to the incident. He is understandably hurt and frustrated, his faith in the ‘system’ potentially shattered for the future.

What could the Social Worker have done?
It sounds obvious but she could have spoken to him. This simple act of saying hello could have stopped the situation in its tracks. It would have derailed all of this momentum and given the man in question hope that there was someone there for him. If the entire purpose of Social Work is to create human connections, then this Social Worker has failed.

If her professional code prevents her from acknowledging the man in question as one user suggested, then she should have acknowledged it at their next meeting. She could have apologised and explained the situation, not made excuses. This for us is the part that cannot be explained away. This action was not taken in the interests of making a difference to anyone other than the Social Worker.

For those working to make a difference, we salute you and will work diligently to find you extra time. Extra time to spend with clients and not to avoid them, to acknowledge them as human. We are OLM and we work with you to create a lasting difference.