History of social work influences current professional practice In this essay I will outline the historical origins of social work in Ireland. I will examine how the profession emerged from charity work in the 19th century to evolve into the profession it is today. To begin with it is important to define the term social work. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines social work as ‘work of benefit to those in need of help, especially professional or voluntary service of a specialised nature concerned with community welfare and family or social problems arising mainly from poverty, mental or physical handicap, maladjustment, delinquency etc.’ According to Skehill (1999) social work in Ireland has evolved over for phases all of which will be discussed in this essay. The first of these was the emergence of social work in the 19th century through voluntary work carried out by various organisations, followed by the early 20th century when professional social work in Ireland began, the third phase as described by Skehill (1999) saw the growth in social work employment and training in Ireland.
The final phase in the history of social work brings us from the 1950’s up to the present day which has seen the evolution of social work into the profession it is today. According to Skehill (1999) social work in most cases around the world has emerged from voluntary philanthropy. This is true for the case of social work in Ireland. The history of social work in Ireland begins in the late 19th century, in which religion and charity played important roles. The beginning of social work can be related to charity work. In England work similar to that of social work today was carried out by the Charitable Organisation Society. In Ireland in 1902 G.W. Williams developed a register for all charities operating in Dublin. He found that there were four hundred and one charities in Dublin at that time. All of these charities were operating separately. Charity work and philanthropy during the 19th century in Ireland was organised by various charities, institutions and individuals, each of these worked individually to help the poor and those in need. Their work was in areas such as providing material resources, parenting skills and education.
The rational for this philanthropy included a humanitarian concern, a desire to regulate the poor and in particular to regulate women and a concern for maintaining social order and morality. This philanthropy work that was carried out in the 19th century can now be identified as various professions such as teaching, nursing and social work. Along with this work and in addition to it Catholic and Protestant religious orders were carrying out charity work such as home visits to the poor, visiting prisons, workhouses, setting up orphanages and schools and providing homes for unmarried mothers. The rivalry between the religions meant that in addition to providing for the poor they were also trying to promote their religion. As stated in Luddy (1995) the differences between the Catholic and Protestant charities was the way in which they carried out their work.
Catholic run charities tended to focus on providing a range of services, whereas Protestant charities tended to provided services on a specialist basis. Religious orders at the time were opposed to State intervention in relation to educational and residential services and also more broadly within the area of philanthropy in the community. This was based on the belief that charity could be best provided by voluntary services, who could distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Catholicism remained very strong and influential in Ireland and so Catholic values and principles became a central aspect to social work in Ireland up to the 1960’s (Skehill, 1999). The early 20th century brought change to social work in Ireland. In the early decades of the century, particularly until the 1930’s social work continued to be dominated by voluntary charity work and religious orders, who focused on providing relief for the poor and providing institutional care for children, women, the disabled, mentally ill and others in need. Much of the charity work carried out at this time was focused on providing help for the ‘deserving’ poor (Skehill, 1999).
The Catholic Church continued to be influential in the delivery of social work and it saw social work as a means of providing spiritual assistance to the poor. Those who were deemed ‘undeserving’ could avail of charity services if they would engage with the Catholic Church. As stated in Skehill (1999) An Annual Report in 1922 by the National Council of the Society of St Vincent de Paul explains how one man who was seen as being ‘undeserving’ was given charitable help when he agreed to return to his religion. However the 20th century was also the time when social work began to become more professionalised and emerged in Ireland as an occupation. In 1912 the first college course in Civic and Social Work was established in Alexandra College in Dublin. According to Skehill (1999) In 1919 the first social worker was employed in Ireland by the Adelaide Hospital, Dublin, Miss Alcock was employed to work with individuals and families.
Following the employed of the first social worker, during the 1930’s and the 1940’s a significant number of social workers were employed in hospitals. In these early years of social work education, there was a range of views on what was the best kind of social work teaching. Despite courses being offered by the Civic Institute of Ireland, most aspiring Irish social workers travelled to England or America for professional social work training. The 20th century saw the growth and evolution of social work in Ireland both in terms of a growing number of trained and employed social workers and also the expansion of the voluntary and charity social work, very little difference existed between voluntary and professional social workers at this time (Skehill, 1999). The third phase in the history of social work in Ireland according to Skehill (1999) included the traditional charity work carried out by the Catholic Church but also saw the evolution of social work as an occupation. The Catholic Church exerted much power over the Irish State and society, this meant that social services developed in such a way as so the Church and its voluntary organisations could maintain power and control over social services such as childcare, education, family support and working with unmarried mothers in order to enforce their ideas in relation to the family and morality.
From the mid 1960’s the Irish State began to develop a comprehensive welfare programme which saw much of the responsibility for social services shift from the Catholic Church to the State. The profession of social work began to make significant progress following the States creation of positions in the public service. Yet the expansion in social work occurred in an ad hoc nature based on the existing needs in areas such as health and probation with very little future planning. The major development in social work during the 1950’s and 1960’s was the expansion of training in Ireland. The first social science degree in Ireland was introduced in 1954 in University College Dublin. Following this Trinity College, Dublin introduced a social science degree in 1962, followed three years later by University College Cork. These social science degrees covered many social work topics and allowed graduates to work as social workers without being professional qualified. Although the number of social workers was still relatively low by the 1950’s the profession had expanded and social workers were now working in areas such as psychiatry, adoption and fostering (Skehill, 1999).
As already discussed the number of professional social workers in Ireland began to grow form the 1950’s, however the number of social workers in employment in the 1970’s remained significantly low. A report by the Irish Association of Social Workers in 1971 states that there were ninety seven social workers with post graduate training working in Ireland. The majority of these social workers were employed as medical social workers. In addition to this social workers were employed by voluntary organisations, in industrial services and as psychiatric social workers. Only one social worker, who had a post graduate qualification, was employed working with children (Skehill, 1999).Phase four in the history of social work in Ireland according to Skehill (1999) is defined by the expansion of the profession and increased training of social workers. From the 1990’s onwards there were increased employment opportunities. Much of this increased employment for social workers came from statutory agencies such as the Department of Health, Probation and Welfare services and Local Authorities. As stated in Christie (2005) by the end of the decade there were 1,390 social workers in Ireland, this number increased to just fewer than 2,000 by 2001. By 2001, the majority of social workers were working with children.
Much of this increase in social work with children can be attributed to the increased awareness of child abuse and the raise in reported child abuse cases (Ferguson and O’Reilly, 2001). From a legislative basis The Child Care Act 1991, The Children Act 1997 and the Children Act 2001 have all included for the employment of additional social workers (Irish Statute Book, 2013). As have reports such as The Ryan Report (Ireland. Department of Health and Children, 2009). In 1995 The National Validation Board on Social Work Qualifications and Training was set up. The aim of this organisation was to award the National Qualification of Social Work (NQSW) to professionally accredited social workers. The organisation has done much work to raise the profile of social work in Ireland and to expand the knowledge and information in relation to social work. From 2013 social workers who wish to work in Ireland must be registered with CORU. CORU was set up to promote high standards of conduct, education, training and competence for social workers and other health and social care professionals (CORU, 2013). In conclusion social work in Ireland has had an interesting history from its initial development as charity work by religious and secular organisations, through its educational development to its professional development. Social work has developed as a profession from its historical origins, where in 1919 there was just one employed social worker in the country, to today where there is over 2,000 social workers employed in Ireland (Trinity College Dublin, 2014).
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