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Application of Systems Theory in Social Work

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 5055 words Published: 19th Jul 2018

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Systems in Practice



The United Kingdom Children Act 1989 (HMSO, 1989) sets forth all childcare law as such relates to children that are being accommodated by a Local Authority. At the core of the Children Act are the beliefs that children are served best when they are in their own homes (Devon County Council, 2007a). Additionally, the core beliefs of the Act are that the child’s welfare is of the utmost importance, that the child’s parents should stay involved in any and all legal proceedings concerning them, and that such a course of action be avoided if possible (Devon County Council, 2007a). It, the Act, also holds that child welfare is to be promoted, and that children should stay within their families unless unavoidable (Devon County Council, 2007a). Lastly the needs of the child taking into account factors such as race, religion, culture as well as language represent critical facets. In those instances when a child comes under the care of a local authority, it is the responsibility of the local authority to see to the needs of children in these instances (Devon County Council, 2007b).

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The foregoing represents important background considerations with regard to the foster care, and the principles underlying such. These basics represent the foundations of any fostering care, placement, and related applications. This examination shall review a case study on social work placement to delve into the manner in which the application of theory, and ideas as they relate to group work on social work practice.

Hammond (2003, p. xi) indicates that the “concept of systems is a theoretical framework in the physical sciences, the life sciences, and the social sciences”. The systems theory is generally acknowledged to have begun with four people, “Bertalanffy, Boulding, Gerard, and Rapoport, who met in 1954 at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences” (Hammond, 2003, p. xiii). They founded the Society for General Systems Research, which has since become the International Society for the Systems Sciences (International Society for the Systems Sciences , 2007). The systems theory is “ the transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena”, in a context that is “independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence” (Principia Cybernetica Web, 2007). The systems theory “investigates both the principles common to all complex entities” as well as “models which can be used to describe them” (Principia Cybernetica Web, 2007). In the context of social work, the systems theory, in its broadest sense, represents the interdisciplinary study concerning human life, along with social organization as represented by systems (Principia Cybernetica Web, 2007).

The complexity, yet simiplicity of what the systems theory is, is represented by the following explanantion by Hammond (2003. p. 32) “Although developments in engineering and management fields are highlighted in the technocratic approach to systems, the emergence of organismic conceptions in biology, psychology, and sociology during the early twentieth century was more important for the evolution of general systems thought”. She continues “ Of course, biological concepts were interpreted in varying ways within different currents of systems thought, and were often appropriated to reinforce and legitimize managerial applications of systems concepts” (Hammond, 2003, p. 32). Ludwig von Beralanffy (1968, p. xxiii), provides his description of systems theory as “The humanistic concern of general system theory as I understand it makes a difference to mechanistically oriented system theorists speaking solely in terms of mathematics, feedback and technology, and so giving rise to the fear that system theory is indeed the ultimate step towards mechanization and devaluation of man and towards technocratic society”. The concept, while rather complex, does have a sense of simpliticity in that systems theory “really refers to “a way of thinking about” or “an approach to studying” complex systems” (Hammond, 2003. p. 104).

Harris (2002, p. 2) advises that von Beralanffy’s approach was “a more organismic approach to the study of complex systems, objecting to the narrow reductionism of classical science”. The systems theory, in terms of humans and the social sciences, as expressed by Harris (2002, p. 10) has “something to offer in the articulation and implementation of a more sustaining and sustainable vision of humanity’s future.”

In terms of social work, Harris (2002, p. 4) states, “Within this framework, the welfare state has provided the primary vehicle for the mediation of social work”. Harris (2002, p. 4) continues, “The institutional and organisational processes of the welfare state have been the source of social work’s legal and moral authority and have constituted the material conditions for its practice.” Pinderhughes (1997, p. 20) tells us that “Training practitioners for competence with diverse populations is high on the list of corrective initiatives to address … inadequacies” in social work practice”. Harris (2002, p. 4) indicates that social policy is influenced by social workers who “implement legislation on behalf of the state”, thus exercising considerable influence in their roles as professionals. Importantly, Harris (2002, p. 4) points out “The law sets out the rights, duties and responsibilities of social workers, on the one hand, and of service users, on the other, in those socially problematic areas which have been accorded official recognition. The law not only defines the ends of social work, but constitutes the source of social workers’ authority for the means by which they intervene in service users’ lives in the pursuit of statutory duties”. Johnson (1972, p. 77) interprets the preceding by stating that social work is not mediated by its context, rather, it is a mediated professions whereby the state decides the clientele as well as what should be provided on their behalf.

Harris (1999, pp. 915-937) tells us that social work represents the “operational embodiment of the welfare state’s intervention in individual citizens’ lives”. In understanding the context of social work in the United Kingdom, Briggs (1961, p. 228) defines the welfare state a “state in which organised power is deliberately used…to modify the play of market forces…first, by guaranteeing individuals and families a minimum income irrespective of the market value of their work or their property; second, by narrowing the extent of insecurity by enabling individuals and families to meet certain ‘ social contingencies’, for example, sickness, old age and unemployment which lead otherwise to individual and family crises; and third, by ensuring that all citizens without distinction of status or class are offered the best standard available in relation to a certain agreed range of social services”. The preceding is important in understanding the forces behind social work and how such impacts upon its application, usage and context on lives, as well as the conscious and unconscious view that the public has.

In helping to shape this picture further, Marshall’s (1963, p. 74) helps to color the palette further in explaining that the social element means “the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilised being according to the standards prevailing in the society” He continues that “The institutions most closely connected with it are the educational system and the social services” (Marshall, 1963, p. 74) In fact, social work plays an important part in linking the state to its populace as it represents the physical human link between government and what it does for the people that can be seen, felt and touched. Or in other words, used! State functions such as roads, infrastructure, sustainable communities, parks, airports, laws, police, and all of the others services that the state provides are there in a physical sense, such as roads, etc, or there for instances of danger, such as the police and armed forces. Social work is a helping, touchy arm of the state that reaches us in the same manner as health services. Wootton (1959, p. 298-299) offers a description in stating that “The social worker who does for the run of ordinary people what confidential secretaries and assistants do for the favoured few is putting a genuine professional skill at the disposal of those who may properly be called her clients and she is as essential to the functioning of a welfare state as is lubrication to the running of an engine. Without her the machinery would seize up”.

Marshall (1975, p. 205) illustrates the preceding by referring to social workers as the mechanics that apply “their expertise to the lubrication of the welfare state engine were professionals using their expertise in the delivery of social services”. The government, along with social work identify the segment of the population that requires assistance and thus through budgeting and policy, allocates the resources to meet those needs (Alaszewski and Manthorpe, 1990, p. 237). Interestingly, as the areas of accepted social work practice have come to be seen as the norm, and injustice was made less tolerable, historically, new services were thus clamoured for to feel other needs thus explaining the growing nature of the state and social care (Harris, 2002, p. 13)

Gertrude Wilson is generally acknowledged as being a key individual in the development of group work (Smith, 2004). Her first book “Case Work and Group Work” put forth the integrated approach to social work practice which is based in the theory that personal problems stem from both internal and external sources, and thus must be investigated and examined in tandem (Smith, 2004). Her definition of group work states that 1) it is developmental, in that it provides “for normal social growth, 2) is “protective or corrective, representing that it can “be offered to people without groups”, 3) and that it is “instrumental” in terms of “achieving socially desirable ends” (Smith, 2004). The last facet entails the understanding of each member’s personalities, the influence of the social worker in terms of their interaction on the group, and the process of participation (Smith, 2004). A key facet of this process represents the capability to “assist participants in dealing with conflict and in accepting ‘outsiders’” (McDermott, 2002, p. 14). She points to the preceding as essential in making the group work relationship become reciprocal (McDermott, 2002, p. 14). It is reciprocity that represents a key element in the process as it sets the foundation for give and take as well as fosters trust, cohesion within the group and this can thus be transferred to the outside world (McDermott, 2002, p. 14).

Trecker (1948, p. 7) advises, “social group work represents “one method on the profession of social work”. He indicates that “social case work and community organization work” represent the other methods”. Trecker (1948, p. 7) believes that a definition of social group work is easier to describe than define. He sees it as a method that is comprised of “an orderly, systematic, planned way of working with people in groups” (Trecker, 1948 pp. 7-8). Trecker goes on to add that the “method is a conscious procedure, a designed means of achieving a goal” (1948, pp. 8). Additionally, he adds that it is “a method is a way of doing something, but underneath the doing we always discover an integrated arrangement of knowledge, understanding and principles.” (Trecker, 1948 pp. 8).

Important to the understanding of group work in the context of social work placement is the family. Hartman and Laird (1983, p. 4) help to provide perspective in stating, “Human beings can be understood and helped only in the context of the intimate and powerful human systems of which they are a part, of which the family is one of the most important”. Smith (1995, p. 7) elaborates in stating, “there is no single, correct definition of family…. Rather, there are multiple definitions derived from particular theoretical perspectives.” She adds, “No one theory could satisfactorily represent the truth, but the many ways we look at families can help us to better understand them” (Smith, 1995, p. 7). Lastly, we shall take a look at Hartman and Laird (1983, p. 30), who tell us:

“A family becomes a family when two or more individuals have decided they are a family, that in the intimate, here-and-now environment in which they gather, there is a sharing of emotional needs for closeness, of living space which is deemed “home,” and of those roles and tasks necessary for meeting the biological, social and psychological requirements of the individuals involved.”

The preceding has been included to aid in rounding out the important external as well as internal elements that are factors in a case study concerning social work placement.

A Study

One of the most important, delicate, and critical functions carried on by social work is the placement of children in foster homes. As can be imagined, it represents an important as well as confidential process for the child as well as the placement team engaged in the process. Owing to that confidentiality, direct case files are not available, only synopsis of placement studies entailing the methodologies employed. Placement stories entail descriptions of external variables as indicated by basic placement overviews, but not the substance. The Bracknell Forest Borough Council (2005) provided an equitable resource in that it provides an outline of the procedures, and practice guidelines concerning foster placement arrangements made under private fostering regulations. Under the new regulations governing the placement of children, local authorities must be satisfied concerning the suitable nature of any proposed arrangement (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). If the foregoing is not the case, then said local authority must exercise its powers ether prohibit and or impose requirements prior to the child being fostered, along with any and all needed safeguards.

In understanding the nuances of social work placement, certain descriptions and definitions of a few terms will aid in the understanding of the process. A privately fostered child represents any child under the age of 16 years of age, 18 if disabled, that is “cared for and accommodated for 28 consecutive days” or longer by someone other that the child’s parent, relative or someone provided with parental responsibility as provided by the parent for said instance (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). The carers responsibility entails an individual “who does not have parental responsibility for a particular child”, however does have care of the child (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). The definition indicates that the carer “may do what is reasonable” in terms of any, and all circumstances to safeguard, and or promote the welfare of that child (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). In terms of the duties of the local authority, which represents an extremely important facet in the placement of a child, said local authority has a number of important duties to fulfill. These entail factors such as 1) publise advise and information, 2) ensure compliance with regulations, 3) carry out proper checks and visits, 4) ensure children under care is safeguarded in accordance to regulations, 5) ensure timely officer visits, 6) ensure visited children are seen alone and interviewed, 7) investigate al complaints, 8) inform parents or other authorized individuals of the child’s welfare, 9) ensure authority satisfaction with foster placement, 10) monitor compliance, 11) take appropriate action(s), 12) annual evaluations sent to Director of Children’s Services on placements and outcomes (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005).

The family placement social worker has the following responsibilities. First, they conduct the initial suitability evaluation of the proposed foster carers as well as all other household members (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). Next, the social work conducts an evaluation of the accommodations, and neighbourhood environment, and forms a close liaison with the social worker of the child concerning placement suitability and the potential of the placement in meeting the needs of the child as well as the likelihood of furthering the child’s welfare (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). With the preceding handled, the social worker then makes recommendations concerning the suitability of a meeting with all parties (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). If the foregoing steps have all concluded positively, the social worker’s ongoing responsibilities thus entail providing support, as well as assistance to the carer and others as appropriate and or necessary (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005).

The preceding board steps represent the outline of the procedures in child placement. In a actual case, the steps as well as details are more defined. In an actual placement, the fieldwork staff conducts contacts with the parent, if such is the case, and the proposed foster carers (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). After all the relevant steps under the preceding have been seen to, the assessment is forwarded to the placement social worker, provided the foregoing has met requirements, and the placement process begins.

The summary placement outline above brought into the equation the concept of social work from its broader perspective as brought forth by Harris (2002, p. 4) where he indicates that social policy is influenced by social workers who “implement legislation on behalf of the state”, thus exercising considerable influence in their roles as professionals”. The statement continues with “The law sets out the rights, duties and responsibilities of social workers, on the one hand, and of service users, on the other, in those socially problematic areas which have been accorded official recognition” (Harris, 2002, p.4). The preceding refers to the rules, procedures and requirements that must be adhered to by the placement agency, social workers and all other involved in the process.

The aspect of group work is evident throughout the entire process, even before it begins. The local authority, placement agency, field workers, placement social worker, and child social worker all are engaged under the same regulated procedural network, even if no cases, and or placements are being handled. The regulations call for consistent, and constant monitoring of outstanding placement, thus requiring and causing the varied teams, and individuals to maintain contact. That ongoing working relationship represents the group work theory in practice and application. Trecker (1948, p. 7) described group work as “an orderly, systematic, planned way of working with people in groups”. To the preceding Trecker (1948, p. 8) added the “method is a conscious procedure, a designed means of achieving a goal”. McDermoot (2002, p. 3) adds to the foregoing in stating “Social workers, psychologists, community workers, youth workers and other service providers in the human services field spend much of their time working with groups—as staff members, as colleagues—using groups as intervention strategies”.

The initial contact stage starts this collative group work process in the placement environment. The family placement social worker meets with the field social worker and discusses the proposed placement, obtaining a copy of the reports (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005). The trust and competence issues are strong in that each step in the process relies heavily on the steps that preceded it. As a result, the systems theory represents the underpinning that binds the entire process. It also represents the underlying framework that constitutes how the rules, regulations and processes were devised and set up, as well as their ongoing modification as information, expertise and experience warrants. To review, the systems theory “investigates both the principles common to all complex entities” as well as “ models which can be used to describe them” (Principia Cybernetica Web, 2007). Ludwig von Beralanffy explains that an important element of the systems theory “really refers to “a way of thinking about” (Hammond, 2003. p. 104). The systems theory’s interdisciplinary study concerning human life, along with social organization as represented by systems (Principia Cybernetica Web, 2007) represents the underpinning via which the described rules, procedures, regulations, follow up, monitoring, interview, research, and evaluation processes take place. The intial contacts as well as checks conducted by the placement social worker include interdepartmental checks on the proposed carer as well as information gleaned in the initial and follow up meetings and interviews (Bracknell Forest Borough Council, 2005).

All of these steps as well as the ones that follow are elements of the systems theory, foundations of social work and group theory. If one steps back from the process and reviews the overall steps again, the relevance of the systems theory begins to take shape. It, the systems theory is “ the transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena”, in a context that is “independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence” (Principia Cybernetica Web, 2007). The steps in the active procedure do take place in a temporal time frame. However, the functioning of the system of rules, regulations and procedures is always active, functioning and waiting to be utilized whether there is something engaging it or not. In this context, the foregoing precepts underpinning the systems theory gains clarity.

McDermott (2002, p. 14) aids in bringing the group work concept into the preceding placement situation in her discussion of reciprocity. She states that it is reciprocity that represents a key element in the process as it sets the foundation for give and take as well as fosters trust, and cohesion within the group and this can thus be transferred to the outside world (McDermott, 2002, p. 14). The foregoing aptly describes the internal working mechanism of the group which at the investigation stage centers upon the placement social worker, and later pulls in the child’s social worker to complete the process. This continues with the evaluation of suitability concerning the carers as well as other family and household members. Through the utilization of the systems theory, all contingencies are evaluated and considered as a part of the whole, and extended whole.

In reviewing the process in terms of the lessons learned, and potential for different application(s) in the future, is a prospect of evolution. Regardless of how correctly the system seems from the review of the procedural steps, there is always room for improvement as a result of the human factor, group work, systems theory and social work contexts. The potential for human error looms as the biggest failing point in that the entire procedural methodology is based, dependent and reliant upon human input, decisions, evaluation and observations. The central component in the process the placement social worker who makes the final determination based upon the salient inputs from all other quarters. And while it is true that the field work social worker as well as the child social worker could potential taint the input and results, it is the placement social worker that sorts and arrives at the determination. Thus, as the potential weak segment within the process, a phased step review whereby a second placement social worker, or supervisor briefed at every turn, periodically steps in at any stage in the live process and makes observations, suggestions, and or calls for additional information to shore up the potential for error, and or critical factors needing closer attention, and or review. In addition, computer modeling of the effectiveness of the group members as an evaluation projection, would serve to alert the supervisory personnel to the potential for weak points in one of the tam member profile as a signal for either an additional check, and or review.


The seemingly distant facets of systems theory, group work, and social work as a cohesive aspect of placement requires the long view in order to see the fit of these elements up close. At the heart of these theoretical and practical applications is a child, which is and remains the focus of these aspects. Thus, with the well being and welfare of a vulnerable human being at stake, the processes, systems, regulations, rules and procedures can never be too precise, careful or correct, as the cost of error is incalculable.

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McDermott (2002, p. 1) says, “You have to have done a bit (of group work) yourself to understand the process.” In terms of the context of this examination, McDermoot (2002, p. 3) advises that “Social workers, psychologists, community workers, youth workers and other service providers in the human services field spend much of their time working with groups—as staff members, as colleagues—using groups as intervention strategies”. She adds, “group work is about building bonds between people which depend on the establishment of trusting relationships” (McDermott, 2002, p. 14). She further elaborates, “It is also about helping to forge connections between people who may be different or unlike one another. This latter activity—finding common ground across differences—is the more difficult, and it is here that group workers and participants require knowledge and skills” (McDermott, 2002, p. 14).

The foregoing summarizes the interlinked aspects of the process that call for increased cohesion as well as improvement through modification, interpersonal relationships and skills, as well as understanding that the potential for error always exists, and can hide itself anywhere in the process. With that consideration uppermost in the minds of the participants, the occurrence is less likely to happen.


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