Working with partners and other professionals could be a great step in professional development for social workers. There is a culture of making referrals to specialist services to address issues our clients face. Social work interventions have the potential for more depth than they have ever been allowed in its history here. In the last few years, local authorities are stepping up to give social workers with skills in systemic practice. The view is helping make interventions more robust so they have a greater impact, improving outcomes for family.
The focus of systemic practice is composed of two elements: working within a clearly identifiable process and retaining a focus on what is happening and why¹. I can see the validity in helping social workers understand these key issues but the development of social workers is not going to happen through one particular model, but that is for another day.
The referral culture in children’s social care limits the work social workers are doing with their clients. It puts clients in a place of having to regurgitate their stories repeatedly to professionals. There is a better way, a way that would help us create more defined and stronger relationships with our clients, reduce duplication of work and re-establish social work as experts in working with people. Consultation, on a larger scale, is the way forward.
A referral is an application to a specialist service to treat a specific issue. However, as we know from working with people, there are varying levels of need. In my view, referrals should be saved for the higher levels of need. Higher levels of need are where the issues are entrenched and need specialist treatment outside the scope of social care or remit of the organization. Issues such as clinically diagnosed mental health disorders, long-term substance misuse, dual diagnosis patients, etc.
CLIENT >>>> SOCIAL WORKER >>>>> SPECIALIST
In lower levels of need, I believe consultation would serve the purpose and still allow social workers to undertake the work of the remitting organization. Consultation is a discussion with a specialist about their area of expertise to get tools, techniques and guidance on how to work with a particular client exhibiting this issue. [Consultation with other professionals is also a way to understand if a referral would be appropriate to a particular service.] Consultation with lower levels of need is an opportunity for social workers to increase their working tool kit and develop further skills in working with people with complex issues. Consultations are more appropriate at the start of an issue when education and brief intervention may be enough or when there is an established relationship with a professional and their intervention is affected by the specialised issue but introducing another professional might damage the working relationship.
CLIENT <<<<<< —- >>>>>> SOCIAL WORKER <<<<<<< SPECIALIST
This is not comprehensive and again, having the consultation with a specialist service will be able to tell you if a referral or a consultation is most appropriate.
¹ Thompson, N. “Social Work with Adults” in Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, 2nd Edition (2002) chapter 25, pp. 292