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Women’s Aid tells Michael Gove: domestic violence is not a ‘life choice’

BASW denies that social workers are complicit in a victim culture

Women's Aid is challenging statements made by Michael Gove in a speech on reforms to social care which, it says, imply that domestic violence is a 'life choice' that women should take responsibility for. Women's Aid is highlighting that it is not 'ideology' or a lack of personal responsibility which makes women seek help from social workers to escape domestic violence, but a real fear for their safety.

The charity is highlighting that women escaping violence need specialist domestic and sexual violence services with the training, skills and know-how to enable and empower women to move forward with their lives and succeed after they have been abused and disempowered by a violent partner. Women's Aid states that already hard-pressed social workers do not need the extra pressure of expectations that they can 'treat' domestic violence without specialist support.

In his speech to the NSPCC, Michael Gove said:

"In too many cases, social work training involves idealistic students being told that the individuals with whom they will work have been disempowered by society. They will be encouraged to see these individuals as victims of social injustice whose fate is overwhelmingly decreed by the economic forces and inherent inequalities which scar our society.

"This analysis is, sadly, as widespread as it is pernicious. It robs individuals of the power of agency and breaks the link between an individual's actions and the consequences. It risks explaining away substance abuse, domestic violence and personal irresponsibility, rather than doing away with them.

"Social workers overly influenced by this analysis not only rob families of a proper sense of responsibility, they also abdicate their own. They see their job as securing the family's access to services provided by others, rather than helping them to change their own approach to life. Instead of working with individuals to get them to recognise harmful patterns of behaviour, and improve their own lives, some social workers acquiesce in or make excuses for these wrong choices."

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid said:

"Two women a week are killed through domestic violence in this country, and all the research we have shows that specialist domestic violence services are the best way to help women escape and rebuild. Good social workers are able to identify that domestic violence is not a 'life choice' that a woman needs to take responsibility for, it is an appalling situation she is trapped in by a perpetrator who manipulates, controls, threatens and harms her.

"We urge Gove to make clear that women experiencing domestic violence have a right to immediate safety and support and ensure social workers are fully trained to identify domestic violence and support women's access to the services they vitally need."

The British Association of Social Workers denied that social workers were complicit in the encouragement of a 'victim culture'. Bridget Robb, Chief Executive of the BASW, said:

"What social workers would appreciate .... is a better understanding of their daily practice and that far from being complicit in the 'victim' status of the people who use their services, they are the professionals who go furthest to challenge and push people to make very difficult changes in their lives.

"Social work isn't a cosy little job performed by warm and cuddly people who just want to placate recalcitrant parents and children, it's a career in which many people work long days in stressful situations trying against the odds to bring about real changes in people's lives – often making huge demands on reluctant people and not accepting it when the necessary.

"The Secretary of State has today challenged social work to show that it is a mature profession by taking on board criticism and recognising that change is needed.

"BASW, and social workers generally, don't automatically reject criticism but do expect a two-way dialogue about the changes that are needed.

"Just as social work can go further in driving up standards and entrenching professionalism, so too ministers must recognise the importance of enabling social workers to do real 'social work' and not merely assess people for services that fewer and fewer people are able to access as eligibility criteria rises inexorably upwards.

"And just as social workers need to consider new models of working and new training approaches so too it is important for ministers to acknowledge that social workers have found out over years of doing the job that understanding people's pasts is a key part of finding out how to help people to change their lives for the better – this is not the same as perceiving people to be 'victims'.

"BASW will work with any politician who genuinely wants to bring positive changes to the lives of people who need social work services and would welcome the chance to sit down with Mr Gove to discuss all sides of these important issues in more detail."

Michael Gove's speech can be read here.