Of all the public sector occupations that suffer from institutional racism, social work does not immediately spring to mind. The problem is that even in the many local authorities and voluntary organisations that reflect the communities they serve, the majority of black and Asian social staff tend to be clustered in the front line and lower management roles. Even today, only one director of social services in the whole country is black.
Jabeer Butt, deputy director of the Race Equality Unit, says: "It's not as if ethnic minorities aren't attracted into social work. In some senses, it has always been a profession of choice for minority communities. But we see a higher turnover of ethnic minority staff than their white counterparts and when people leave, they seem to leave the profession entirely rather than moving to another department."
Ethnic minorities often report being excluded from the better-paid, more sought-after areas of social work, such as child protection and family support, he explains. It is also well-known that many are treated as experts on ethnic minority clients, which can both put them under enormous pressure and cause them to lose out when it comes to career progression. "When you are treated as the specialist in the team, you don't always get opportunities for promotion in the same way that others do," says Butt.
He adds that those who are on the receiving end of racism from other staff members or service users are not always given enough support. "Not surprisingly, all these factors add up to people becoming disenchanted over time."
To make matters worse, it is widely felt that, following the Victoria Climbie case, many ethnic minorities have been put off joining the profession in the first place. Lisa Arthurworrey, the junior social worker who was sacked after the murder of Victoria Climbie, has recently had the ban overturned on stopping her working with children. She insisted she had been badly let down by Haringey council, which had employed her, and said she had never been a danger to children. Nevertheless, it's been a long and uphill fight for her, leaving some people to seriously question whether it is a profession they want to enter if failure means public condemnation.
Black and Asian males are particularly unlikely to join the profession, research has shown. Social work has attracted greater numbers of women across the board in the past, largely due to the fact that its roles are perceived as "caring" and salaries have not been as high as in other careers. Nick Crick, a social work manager in Brent, says: "I am very much in the minority as a black male and I wish that situation would change. One of the reasons I think it's important is that there are certain stereotypes around black males in society and as a social worker, you can combat these views. You can stand up and be counted."
Butt believes the issues of recruitment and retention of ethnic minorities need to be addressed urgently. "It has been identified that black and Asian people can bring added value, and not just in their work with ethnic minorities," he says. "One study in the 1990s found that all parents, regardless of their ethnicity, who came into contact with black social workers were more likely to say they were 'engaged' with social services and that they felt more informed. It seemed to be something about the way these ethnic minority social workers were working with the parents. There are other examples of the value of their skills and experiences that are well documented."
Nushra Mapstone, professional officer for England at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), points out that social workers often work with people who don't have a voice in society. "If you are an ethnic minority social worker, there's a good chance you'll be able to relate to that kind of exclusion, so you'll have a greater understanding of it," she says.
She believes social work should be ahead of the game in terms of equal opportunities. "We should be setting the example, given that we claim to be the profession that fights against inequality."
She says that many employers merely pay lip service to race strategies. "When I ask social workers if they are aware of race strategies that have just been launched by a local authority, they often say no. In order to work, surely they should be felt through the whole authority, including by those on the front line." She adds that a perception of tokenism still exists. "We've heard social workers say that their colleagues think they're only there because of their ethnicity. So they are not valued on their own merits."
Far from accepting this, however, black and Asian people within social work are increasingly taking action, paving the way for an equal and fairer profession in the future. BASW's Anti-Racist Professional Development Support Network is already making progress. "The network is for social workers or those undergoing social work training and is open to BASW members and non-members alike," says Mapstone.
Following the Victoria Climbie case, the National Assembly for Black Social Care Professionals was established, and many individual local authorities are also introducing their own networks and initiatives.
In Tower Hamlets, the Positive Action Scheme provides a dedicated route for people from its Bangladeshi and Somali communities to enter social care and progress once they're in. Devised in 1997, the scheme has just earned the council Beacon status. "Others are setting up similar schemes now, learning from us," says Ian Wilson, director of social services.
Social worker Abul Khayar Ali says: "The scheme meant I received a training allowance and all tuition expenses were paid for me." Since qualifying in 2001, he has enjoyed rewarding positions working with young offenders and young Bangladeshi men, and he is now undertaking further social work qualifications.
Among the reasons that ethnic minority social workers are so valuable, he says, is language. "Any social services department has to start with the needs of the service user. If some of them don't speak English, or they are less articulate in English than another language, an assessment of services that's done in English won't be as effective as it could be. It stands to reason that assessments and provision of ongoing services should be done by people who speak community languages and who have insights into religious beliefs and cultural norms."
In order to attract more ethnic minorities, including men, Tower Hamlets is currently going into local secondary schools to promote the profession as an increasingly respected and stimulating career given its new entry requirements – a social work degree.
And for those black and Asian staff already in a social work career, the director of social services in Brent, Jenny Goodhall, says mentoring is working wonders for their career progression. "We have just had an Asian woman move into a more senior management position," she says.
So keen is the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) on mentoring that it has been running a formal nationwide scheme for some time. Daphne Obang, chair of inclusivity at the ADSS, says: "We've had some really impressive people coming out of these programmes, doing really well."
Roy Taylor, director of social services in Kingston-Upon-Thames, points to another effective measure. "We have just set up a scheme whereby, if a black worker is mistreated in the community, they can gain support from a colleague from a similar culture in another team. It was a student's idea – they pointed out that if you come back to an all-white team, you don't always gain full understanding."
Jennie Clarke, a family placement social worker in Milton Keynes, adds: "As a black social worker, you face discrimination on a daily basis. Having a supportive team manager, who takes the issue seriously, is crucial – and fortunately I do."
She believes her experiences of a different culture to her white counterparts are important. "I can look at things from a different perspective and challenge some of the stereotypical views they may hold. It may be, for instance, that they see black male carers are aggressive or confrontational when in fact, that may be more to do with cultural norms. I am also able to highlight the need for more foster carers from minority ethnic backgrounds."
'I wanted to bring about the social justice Martin Luther King talked about'
With a long-standing and varied career in social work behind him, Rohan Burke, 42, is currently the acting chief officer for the Greater London Post- qualifying Consortium
Like many black men of my generation, my teachers tried to dissuade me from a career in social work when I was at school. Philosophically, I became interested in the work of Martin Luther King when I was about 14 years old and I felt that working in social care would be a good way to help bring about the kind of social justice he was talking about. But my teachers were adamant that I wouldn't be suitable academically and when it came to work experience, I was allocated to a photographic processing outlet.
But I was persistent and my mother was strong-willed. She had a fiery meeting with the deputy headmaster and as a consequence, I got some experience in a residential unit for people with cerebral palsy, which strengthened my interest in social work even more. After a three years in the civil service – which I had to do because at that time, you couldn't work in social care at the age I was – I got a job in a day centre in Lambeth. My career took off from there.
We desperately need more black men in social work. This profession, more than many others, engages with a very diverse population, so we need to reflect the people we serve. Black social workers can also bring different cultural, political and social perspectives, which are invaluable in the work we do.
I was lucky enough in my first job in social care to have a very supportive manager, who believed I could qualify to become a social worker and she and I pushed to ensure that I got that training. I qualified in 1988 and worked for a number of social services departments in local authorities, the first of which was Camden, where I worked in a hospital social work team. I moved through the ranks, working as a senior practitioner, a team manager and a service manager in a range of settings.
One role that stands out in my work for local authorities was my work with people who have sickle cell and thalassemia – genetic disorders that affect certain cultural groups. It was rewarding because it involved bringing into these people's lives a social work perspective that had previously been ignored. It's one thing managing the condition medically, but it's quite another to manage it practically. It's hard to hold down a job, for example, and my role was to support them in terms of access to education, employment and benefits.
In the late Nineties I became self-employed and did some locum work as a social worker. I also did some work teaching and assessing trainee social workers who were on practical placements.
More recently, I worked on behalf of universities and local authorities to support qualified social workers in gaining their post-qualifying award. That led neatly onto my current job, which involves ensuring that the changes currently happening in the post-qualifying framework happen as smoothly as possible.
My advice to young black males who think they might be interested in social work is to try it out, via some work experience. It's a fantastic job and is so rewarding when you manage to do something to improve someone's life.
I won't pretend there's no chance of discrimination, but the good news is that there are many more support networks than there were in the past and their backing really does help.