As effective social workers, we work alongside people, building relationships with individuals and families to appreciate the context within which their worries and concerns exist , but also ensuring that as professionals, we understand how the care and support system might meet their needs and support them to live independently and as part of a community.
For those living with autism, learning disabilities and mental illness, social workers can make a real difference in promoting and safeguarding their human rights, ensuring their views will be listened to and supporting them to challenge decisions about their lives and their care.
‘No voice unheard, no right ignored’, is the Department of Health’s latest phase of engagement to strengthen the rights of people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health conditions.
It is really important that alongside people with disabilities and their families, social workers respond to this important consultation.
Long before ‘person-centred care’ became a buzz phrase, social workers have advocated for people to have control over the support they receive through co-producing care and support plans and making use of personal budgets. This consultation proposes that people must be able to expect that different health and local social care services will organize themselves around their needs and that people want to know that professionals are looking out for their physical as well as mental health needs.
Likewise, as I hope regular readers of this blog know, I believe strongly in the restorative and sustaining power of community – especially for those experiencing crises. Hospitals and care settings have a vital role to play of course – but being near home and family is where long term health and happiness should be sustained. It’s why I am very glad the consultation is seeking views on how to avoid a culture of ‘admission by default’ so that it becomes harder for people to be admitted to institutions when appropriate care in community settings are available. Social workers really can help make a reality of independent living for people with learning disabilities and autism – helping them avoid being institutionalised and supporting them to lead happy and fulfilling lives.
It is very heartening to see social work values and good practice at the heart of this exercise, building on the influence and contributions we have already made to the national Autism Strategy and the Mental Health Act Code of Practice. The consultation includes a question asking what more could be done to involve a person and their family or advocates in cases where they feel an approved mental health professional (AMHP) has not properly understood their wishes.
Significantly for social workers, the consultation proposes that a named social worker for a person with learning disabilities or autism would be responsible for ensuring their care plan is based on the least restrictive, least institutional setting possible, making sure every effort has been made to consider all community based options. Where someone is in an institutional setting, including hospitals, the named social worker would be responsible for reviewing the person’s care regularly to see if they can be cared for somewhere less restrictive. The social worker would also be responsible for informing the family and making sure they feel involved in decisions about care and support. People would have the right to choose someone else to carry out this role if they want to.
Of course, this consultation also serves as a powerful companion piece to the work already underway by DH, NHS England, the Local Government Association and a range of other organisations in the wake of Winterbourne View. Out of tragic circumstance has come greater understanding of inpatient settings and more robust inspections and assessments of learning disability services. We’re also seeing greater accountability from management and renewed efforts to employ only those with the right values - including a demonstrable ability to show respect and compassion. Quality and safety of care are paramount.
I hope social workers will contribute to this consultation as it is essential we offer practice insights and raise relevant issues and concerns to ensure the rights of people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health needs are protected and improved .