Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive of the Scottish Social Services Council dispels the myth that it is somehow ‘against the rules’ for social service workers to comfort clients with a touch or a hug.
This article first appeared in Professional Social Work Scotland, November 2015
At its recent European conference in Edinburgh, IFSW’s President, Ruth Stark, asserted that social workers had “been regulated not to give hugs. We need to be empowered to do so.” Ruth was responding to Graeme Morgan from HUG speaking about his need to be held and comforted when he was “desperate and hurting” and Tony McDonald from Who Cares? Scotland recalling how workers were able to physically restrain him but not give him a cuddle. Both were powerful indictments of the system they relied on. Graeme’s comments related mainly to health services; perhaps the rules are different there. I hope that the recent developments around re-finding compassion and person-centredness in the NHS will change that. Tony’s experience was of residential childcare.
This debate troubled me and I felt it was an issue that needed exploration. I can’t speak for other parts of the UK, but I can tell you categorically that in Scotland there is no regulation that prevents you hugging someone. Indeed, I would be concerned if any social service worker didn’t comfort someone in distress or show warmth to a neglected child. When you are in care, you have no one else to offer warmth, comfort and affection. You also need the people working with you to show you what a normal human relationship feels like so you can go on to form those relationships in your own life. As a parent you would be more likely to hug your child than to physically restrain them; how does a care leaver learn how to be a parent if their experience is the reverse? I am reminded of a fantastic mini-drama by the Kibble Education and Care Centre transposing residential care language and behaviour into a family which illustrates the point beautifully that what young people in care experience as normal would be utterly surreal in a family home.
If you look at our Codes of Practice, you’ll find talk of empowerment, promoting independence, valuing diversity etc. You won’t find anything that restricts normal human behaviour. Of course there are times when it’s not appropriate to cuddle someone, and sexualised behaviour is always unacceptable in a registrant. But what kind of society have we become if we assume all cuddles are sexual? That all physical contact is dubious?
If a child, an elderly person, someone with mental health problems – pretty much anyone using social services – is distressed, sad, lonely and the thing they need most is a cuddle, why wouldn’t you? You will usually know whether that’s the right thing at the right time. A residential care home, whether for young people or older people, is just that – the residents’ home. If your home isn’t a place of affection, of attachment, of safety and warmth, is it really a home?
There has been much debate recently about the need for love in the care system. We all know that children need love, nurturing and affection to thrive. I believe this is also important to the elderly who may be confused or isolated from their families. The work being done just now with people with dementia shows that they are much calmer and happier if they have physical contact – even if that is from being able to stroke a cat or a dog. Love isn’t something you can put in a job description or an employment contract, but to offer comfort, assurance and affection is a natural human instinct and to deny it is inhumane.
And yet the sense of social workers and others not being “allowed” to offer physical comfort prevails. Perhaps there are employers who ban all physical contact between workers and service users “just in case”. Perhaps there are individual managers who err on the side of caution to avoid the possibility of allegations of inappropriate behaviour. No doubt there are many people who just absorb the widely held assumptions. And I can understand why people are cautious in a world where vexatious allegations go viral on social media and litigation feels like a sport. But that doesn’t come from regulation.
I know there are challenges facing workers and their employer about offering something as simple as human comfort, whether it’s holding someone’s hand, touching their shoulder or putting an arm round someone that needs it. It’s not something unique to social services; teachers, nurses and others have the same worries. We need to change that.
If readers have ideas about how we can shift the perceptions and create a climate where appropriate human contact is accepted, I’d be very glad to hear them.