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Social work with young people: the benefits of being more centrally informed by the views and experiences of service users.

Social work with young people: the benefits of being more centrally informed by the views and experiences of service users.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aoife Farrell. Originally submitted for Social Work Methods at University College Cork, with lecturer Hilary Jenkinson in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aoife Farrell. Originally submitted for Social Work Methods at University College Cork, with lecturer Hilary Jenkinson in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Discuss how social work with young people would benefit frombeing more centrally informed by the views and experiences of service users.
Contemporary social work discourse is placing more and more emphasis on listeningto and valuing the views of service users and including service user input in all stagesof the social work process. This is certainly true of social work with young peoplewhere strategies are being implemented which are geared towards increased serviceuser involvement (National Children’s Strategy, 2000). However, research has shownthat young people still feel their voices are not being heard (Centre for Social Action,2001; Young People in Foster Care, 2005). The purpose of this essay is to explore the benefits for social work of listening to and being more informed by the experiences of service users within the context of work with young people. Firstly, in an attempt tocontextualise the argument, young people as a service using group will be looked at.Characteristics of this particular life stage will be explored as well as attitudestowards young people on a broader societal level. Secondly, a background to user involvement in social work will be given. A discussion will follow analysing howsocial work with young people would benefit from being more informed by the viewsof service users with reference to relevant policy, research and literature on thesubject.
The ‘Problem’ of Youth?
Working with young people has long been considered challenging and, unfortunately,many social workers find engaging with and working effectively with teenagers quitedifficult (Jenkinson 1999). Adolescence is a life stage characterised by change –  psychological, physical and emotional and, as a result of trying to cope with rapidchanges, conflict may arise. This conflict often manifests itself in a range of issuessuch as family difficulties, anti-social behaviour, addiction issues, and so on whichresult in young people being constructed as ‘problematic’. A lack of understandingand willingness to listen contributes to this misconception which only serves toreinforce division between young people and the rest of society. As Freeman pointsout, ‘for too long children have been perceived as social problems or objects of concern, rather than as participants in social life or constructors of their own social1
 
world’ (1998; 51). As a result of prejudice, young people have not been allowedengage with social life and thus are without voice in society a lot of the time. Lister etal. point out how the perceived apathy and disengagement of young people causesthem to be represented as somehow ‘deficient citizens’ (2005; 33). Dalrymple usesthe term ‘adultism’ (1997; 82) to describe the oppression of young people by adults. Itis undeniable that there is a power imbalance between young people and adults and, interms of social work, young people’s voices are frequently unheard as a result. Inacknowledging this oppression and working in accordance with the principles of anti-discriminatory practice, social work can begin to engage with young people and benefit from being more centrally informed by their views.
User Involvement in Social Work:
Since the 1970s, the concept of user participation has been popular in social work discourse (Lee & Charm 2002). Traditionally, the professional has been regarded as‘expert’ but an increasingly social approach has led to the role of the user being heldin higher regard in recent years. One of the major influencing forces to this change inapproach was the disability movement of the late 1960s when people with disabilitiesset out to redefine disability in their own terms (Oliver 1990). Following on from that,the civil rights and women’s movements, among others, challenged traditionalideologies and helped to empower individuals and groups into becoming moreactively involved, vocal and participatory in their approaches.In contemporary terms, the concept of user involvement has been encouraged byrecent policy developments. Influenced by new political ideologies such as Third Way principles, user participation has been high on the political agenda of late. Policyinitiatives such as the White Paper Supporting Voluntary Activity 2000 and theHealth Strategy 2001 have stressed the importance of consultation with service users by organisations. The notion of active citizenship, the emphasis of which according toEtzioni, ‘is on participation in the decision-making process leading to empowermentof the citizen’ (1994; 76) has developed, challenging traditional, paternalistic viewsthat the professional knows best.2
 
Smith points out how, with the exception of the children’s rights perspective, most perspectives on welfare provision ‘share the view that someone other than thechild/young person knows best’ (2008; 51). This is not only unjust, but dangerous.There is a lot to be gained from active involvement and participation by young people, not just by the young people themselves but by social work and society as awhole.
What are the benefits for social work of being more centrallyinformed?
Social work with young people would benefit from being more centrally informed bythe views and experiences of service users because, by being more informed, it can become more responsive to their needs. There has been an abundance of researchcarried out into young people’s perspectives on how they are treated and,unfortunately, a lot of the feedback has been quite negative (Young People in Foster Care Consumer Panel 2005; Gilligan 2000). That is not to say that successful and positive experiences do not happen or are not documented (Hogan & Gilligan 1998),however, an overarching theme seems to be that young people do not feel listened toor consulted as part of the social work process. As a result of not being informed byyoung people’s views, social work is ill-equipped to respond to their needs. As noted by Thomas, ‘plans and decisions are better if they are based on the knowledge andopinions of those directly involved, and this surely applies where children areconcerned(2005; 27). Therefore, by involving children and young people andvaluing their experiences, better more informed decisions and plans can be maderesulting in more effective social work practice.In order to become centrally informed, social work needs to make meaningfulengagement with young people. Therefore, through the process of becoming moreinformed, social work can make and sustain good relationships with young people.The benefits of this are twofold; social workers can develop relationships with young people on an individual level as well as strengthening commitments to young peopleat a more systemic level. Firstly, on an individual basis, good relationships andeffective communication with a young service user make social work tasks easier.Assessment, for example would be made easier through participation from the young3

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