Practice into Research

Katie Graham, who recently joined the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London, reflects on practice, research and the recent Department of Health conference on Adult Safeguarding.

The connections between practice and research seem pretty obvious in theory given the emphasis in social work training upon becoming ‘research-minded practitioners’. But they are often difficult to realize, with increasing workloads and the pressure of daily practice pressures of risky, even worrying, situations. I started working at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at the beginning of April after having been a social worker in a specialist adult safeguarding team in a local council.

My transition between practice and research has been a fairly smooth one – particularly once I’d overcome the urge to case note each conversation I had! I am working on the ‘Models of Safeguarding’ project, so this research is directly connected to my recent practice. Last week I attended a Department of Health organised conference ‘Adult Safeguarding: A Return to Practice’ which further helped to ease my transition as it was a conference specifically designed to make research available to practitioners. The event was an interesting mix of policy discussion related to the Care and Support Bill and practice guidance from ADASS. There was a discussion of the neglected role of housing in adult safeguarding and practice innovations in the prevention in adult safeguarding. Of great relevance to the Unit was a discussion by representatives from SENSE about the complexity of safeguarding alerts with adults who may be perceived to be ‘at risk’ but where no intentional harm is evident. The speakers from SENSE described their approach to safeguarding when working with deafblind people who communicate through touch. I will be talking more to the Unit’s Phd student, Peter Simcock, about this – since this topic is the focus of his doctoral research. A final presentation from Dr David Orr related to his research around self-neglect.

Mike Briggs from ADASS (2013) outlined its new ‘top tips’ for adult safeguarding. His presentation contained vital information for any practitioner and researcher in this area. However, what was striking was how policy statements hide the complexity of daily work in social care, whether working as a social worker, personal assistant (independently for an employer) or support worker in a large organisation. The potential to place adult safeguarding on a firmer statutory footing with the Care and Support Bill (2012) is welcome, however it will be its eventual guidance that will likely be most useful to social workers’ daily decision-making. Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, has said of adult safeguarding that councils have been “ticking the box, but missing the point” (in ADASS 2013: 3) suggesting an over-reliance on processes rather than outcomes for people.  Rigid constructions of ‘abuse’ and ‘harm’ and a person ‘at risk’ may be as damaging as inaction but, as a recent article by Angie Ash (in the British Journal of Social Work) suggests, social workers often do not take action.

The conference emphasized that adult safeguarding is ‘everybody’s business’. However, from my own perspective finding my feet in a research environment, it is also clear to me that research and practice are not (and should not be) far apart in this area of work. It is through dialogues (and the potential of action research –  see Joan Rapaport’s earlier blog), including the experiences of people perceived to be ‘at risk of harm’, that we can develop interventions and gain the skills and confidence to effectively minimise the risk of harm. Social workers have a strong tradition of respecting people’s rights to self-determination but also their rights to protection. The Models of Safeguarding project, investigating how different councils organise their safeguarding adults responsibilities, is engaging with these complexities.  I think that this resonates with everyday social work practice.

Katie Graham is Research Associate at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit.