Supervision In Social Work Essays

Misuse of Power: How can social worker use their power responsibility?

rodrigo | December 7, 2012

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This essay intends to demonstrate an understanding of professional authority and the decision making progress and how the social work profession utilises its power.   The essay will equally look at the meaning of power and responsibility in social work and will go on to discuss theories of power and of its misuse/abuse which will in turn demonstrate how and to whom power is shared.  It will show how this distribution of power applies to social work and the service users. Power and powerlessness go hand in hand as to have one the other must exist. There will always be inequalities both on personal and structural levels since the society is not equal.  In order to understand professional power and responsibility in social work, professionals need to understand the theoretical explanation of how power, privilege, prestige and powerlessness are distributed within the society such as class, poverty and social divisions (Thompson, 2007).

My placement is a statutory agency.   Children and Young Peoples Services (CYPS) and we are involved with pieces of work that have to do with children and families.  The agency is one of the 14 locality teams in Cambridgeshire covering the Bottisham, Burwell and Soham areas.  The focus of our work is to work with schools and health to identify problems at an early stage and work to resolve them as soon as possible using a range of approaches.  The team works with Bottisham and Soham Village Colleges and the 16 primaries that feed into them.  The team is made up of Children’s Centre staff, Youth Service, Connexions, Education Welfare Officer, Extended schools co-ordinator, Parent Support Advisor and in school secondary support/Officer.  The aim of the team is to ensure that all children aged 0 – 19 years are able to reach their potentials.  The team work very closely with other county council staff, also the voluntary and independent sector who provide services for children and young people, such as Social Workers, Education/Teachers, Psychologist, Special need Officers, Police, Youth Offending Service, Health/School Nurse and Health Visitor and Family Support services.

The fact that my agency operates under the statutory sector requires it to work under strict legislation and policy guidelines.  One of the most important frameworks of the agency is the code of ethics which all professionals should abide by.  It is our duty to treat service users with respect and dignity and also as individuals with rights as stipulated in the Human Right Act 1998 (DoH, 1998).  It is equally our duty to be anti-oppressive in our practice and as well as to uphold the rights of service users.

At my agency, there is a strict respect of the Data Protection Act 1998 regarding the confidentiality of information held on children and their families (DoH, 1998).  This information can only be accessed by staff that has access to OneVision where all information are stored and this can only be accessed by having a password.

Akister (1996) defines power as the ability to bring about change which can take many forms and be measured in many ways.  She added that power can be perceived as an ability to interpret within the given guidelines and responsibility, choosing between giving and not given, duties and approach and to have information and knowledge.       As a social worker it is important to understand different kinds of power, who has it, who doesn’t, and how those who doesn’t can have it.  According to Thompson, (2002) the social work profession possesses a lot of power thus making academics believed that the profession is conditioned by some existing inequalities resulting to a limited capacity on the part of the service users to make their own decision which is in contrast to those who have the capacity to make decisions about their own lives.  Northouse (2010) argues that those who actually possess power have the capability of affecting other people’s beliefs; attitudes and also their course of action and also the ability or possibility to influence.

Similarly, responsibility can be defined as the act of professionals being responsible, accountable, or answerable; to themselves, their colleagues and the service users to expose discrimination and oppression (Akister, 1996).

Theories of power and of its misuse/abuse

Akister (1996) suggests that there are many theories of power a social worker should know of and be able to apply to her practice such as French and Raven (1959), Max Webber (1974) and Rollo May (1976).  I will be using May (1976) theory of power to analyse my work with S and also be making references to French and Raven (1974) theory of power in the process.  I reflected on May (1976) power dynamics while working with S which Akister (1996) categorised in four different ways namely; power against, power over, power for and power with.  May (1976) considered Power against to be oppressive and damaging to service users which thus takes a form of a punishment.  Smith (2008) pointed out that this theory is similar to French and Raven’s coercive power which is always in a position to punish.  During my work with S I realised that my agency used power against by refusing S to attend the youth group activities stating that they want to minimise risk to himself and others.  I could challenge this concept by suggesting to my manager that I do appreciate the concern of risk and safety however, I think S should be given the opportunity to make his own decisions, that is, if he wants to attend the group activities or not.  I further said that his decision to attend the group activities should be his understanding of why he should attend and not being ‘forced’ or ‘turned down’.  I could challenge this concept constructively as it is against the social work ethics and values to work in discriminatory and oppressive manner.  The Human Right 1998 stipulates that service user’s right should be respected and professionals should avoid being discriminatory and oppressive (Brayne and Carr, 2008).

I proposed to my agency as emphasised my May (1976) ‘power with’ that alternative ways of treating S should considered (Akister, 1996).  May (1976) ‘power over’ was also considered as this power can be used to control individuals (Akister, 1996).  ‘Power over can also be oppressive as a professional, I had the power to discuss S’ behaviour with my agency as well as the outcome which was his exclusion from group activities.  This power is similar to French and Raven (1959) coercive power that places a professional in a position to punish which is also similar to their ‘Reward Power’ giving the capacity to reward or remove bad consequences (Akister, 1996).  During my work with S, I realised that I had to look at different options that could be beneficial to him such as proposing a referral to undergo CBT sessions ??to.  I made it clear to him that this was just a proposal and that he has the power to accept or reject it, to which he accepted.  This practice showed that I had empathy for S and was there to make sure that he is supported and treated with respect and dignity in addressing his behaviour rather than just punishing him.

May (1976) refer ‘power for’ as when social workers disempower service users by doing things for them.  This was not evident in my practice as I empowered S to speak to the psychologist with regards to his appointment for CBT sessions.  Even though S was of mixed parentage, he could speak English very well so there was no need to arrange for an interpreter.  I made sure that my practice was anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive.  I also made sure that I worked in partnership with him by not taking over all of the responsibilities.  May (1976) ‘Power With’ is referred as power which is shared through partnership service users.  This power was demonstrated while working with S’ mother when she had expressed her wish to move away from their present house.  She had told me to assist her by filling the application for a new house stating that their present house was uncomfortable and unsafe for her and the children.  S’s mother told me that she had previously made several applications to the housing association but nothing has been done.  I thought that it was my responsibility to assist her since I am accountable for my work and it is part of my professional identity to be competence, responsible and to respect the codes of ethics and values (Brayne and Carr, 2008).  I thought there was a misuse of here as I started filling the forms for her.  However, I stop and let her continue and could support her by explaining to some bits she did not understand.  If I had not stop filling the forms, it could have resulted in power not being shared and also not encouraging her to do things for herself or taking control over her life and this would have been disempowering and oppressive practice (Akister, 1996).  Power should be shared by involving service users as much as possible.

Power as argued by Burke and Harrison (2002) is a key theme of discrimination as long as long as discrimination is seen as a result of power-imbalance. It is thus important for social workers to recognise that oppression linked with discrimination can either be intentional or unintentional abuse of power with intention to act against service users.  For example, I could easily concluded that the case of S and his family is one of an intentional abuse since they have made several applications to the housing association and no action has been taken.  When I informed my manager about the situation, she advised me to use the law which I will discuss below to help the service users.

French and Raven (1959) ‘Legitimate Power’ was considered during my assessment with S.  This power comes from the official roles within the agency and requires social workers to take on certain task such as undertaking an assessment (Akister, 1996).  S’s assessment was carried out under Section 17 of the children act 1989.  By following and recognising the policies, procedures, guidance and also by respecting S’s human rights meant that ‘legitimate power was considered during the assessment to enable him and his family have all the services they deserve.

Misuse of power

So many people think that social workers are in the position to misuse their powers because they are not familiar with power theory, (Wilding, 1982 cited in Akister, 1996).  Wilding (1982) further suggested ways that power can be misused by professionals such as making excessive claims about services that can be provided which always occur during an assessment.  During my work with S, I made sure not to guarantee any services just to make him happy.  I explained to him that after the assessment, I will complete the assessment form and contact my manager and services will be provided based on the assessment.  In reflection, I noticed at my agency that the file of a service user went missing because a colleague forgot to put it back in the cupboard after using it.  We were due to meet with the service user as I was shadowing my colleague.  We were not able to get the service user’s historical information as a result of not reading his notes.  I thought this was misuse of power as the service user’s information and dignity was not respected.    Several Social workers judge power as an aberration of their intentions to empower service users and to make agencies more caring.   Akister (1996) argues that social workers must increase their power and their understanding of its dynamics and adopt a wider range of means of influence than they do at present.

Safeguards designed to prevent the misuse/ abuse of power

Understanding how power may be misused or abused was central to my practice with S and his family and it provided me with the basis of developing professional competence.  Freire (1970) pointed out that professionals require a moral and ethical attitude towards equality to enable them to empower service users.  He argued that if only people from oppressed groups can take on their responsibilities, there is little hope that professionals will ever achieve their vision (Freire, 1970).

Safeguards designed to prevent misuse/abuse of power used within my agency include; working together, agency’s policies and procedures, supervision and complains procedures.  In my agency, partnership working is one way of safeguarding against the abuse of power.  Most of our work requires working with other professionals, effective communication, sharing of information appropriately and ensuring that service users are involved in the assessment process (Adams et al, 2009).  While working with S, I made sure that I collaborated with other professionals and agencies appropriately and also that S was put centre of stage.  According to Akister (1996) policy is an authoritative statement that is produced by a body which guides the practice of social workers.  Policy acts as a safeguard to abuse of power because it legitimise, regulate and guide the practice of social workers during intervention in service user lives.

When I realised during my work with S that there was concern regarding substance misuse, my initial thought was to contact the social services since as a student substance misuse was quite new to me.  My lack of knowledge of substance misuse as a social work student only goes on to confirm Goodman (2007) who argues that social work profession have eventually ignored to acknowledge substance misuse which have created a gap.  However, bringing this up during supervision with my manager made me understand that I could have potentially misuse my by jumping into conclusion of wanting to contact the social services.  I realised that having supervision was very important as we were able to address the issue and I could learn from it.  Jumping into conclusion or making assumptions can be discriminatory which result in being oppressive in one’s practice.  Reflecting on this circumstance reminded me of my own personal beliefs towards service users who misuse drugs.  Beckett and Maynard (2005) pointed out that we consider our personal values and that of our agency when working service users.      However, I made sure that my practice did not add to the oppression the service users were already experiencing.  To avoid unfair and abusive practice in my work with the young person and his family, I needed to examine the body of my values, which guided me throughout my work and it enabled me to move towards a more cultured and involving approach as suggested by Freire (1970).

My agency works with other professional groups.  It is thus important to know that there can be conflict resulting from individuals that differ in attitudes, beliefs, values and needs.  Conflicts usually occur due to lack of effective communication, failure to share information appropriately, conflict of value and lack of effective leadership.  Conflict can be managed using the following five strategies; stepping aside, working together, co-operating, challenging and collaborating.

Using supervision to develop my practice

This section will look on supervision and how important it was for my practice and professional development.  Ford and Jones (1991) defines supervision as a planned and regular periods of time that the student and supervisor spend together to discuss and review the student’s work and progress whilst in placement.  Holloway (1997) added that supervision is a relationship where the supervisor shows knowledge of an expert who can make a decision on the worker’s performance and also acts as someone who upholds the profession.   Akister (1996) points out that supervision takes three different forms which are; accountability, learning, and support.  Kadushine (1992) model of supervision also brought a similar idea such as education, supportive and managerial or administrative supervision.  At my agency the manager takes a monthly supervision with staff members.

While I was on placement, I undertook supervisions sessions both my Practice Teacher and On-Site Supervisor fortnightly.   This was an opportunity for us to discuss my case load, reflective skills, professional development, relevant theories, and ethical dilemmas which are relevant to my practice.  During supervision, we also discuss challenging and complex issues that may interfere with my practice.  For instance, based on my assessment with S I identified the flowing concerns; substance misuse, truancy, aggressive behaviour and poor relationship with family members, I had to use the relevant theories such as attachment, person-centred and ecological theories to find out how S was doing emotionally, intellectually as well as behaviourally and how best my agency could support him and his family.  Throughout my placement supervision has been a reflective tool used to evaluate my professional development and practice.

Work in accordance with orders of the court or statutory requirements

Work in accordance with orders of the court or statutory requirements can have an impact upon the work of agencies and professionals who work with children, young people and their families/carers in both the statutory and voluntary sector. The aim of the court is to strike a balance between the rights of children to express their views on decisions made about their lives, the rights of parents to exercise their responsibilities towards the child and the duty of the state to intervene where the child’s welfare requires it (  Payne and Littlechild (2000) expressed their experience in court as gruelling and hair-raising but they confirmed other professionals may have different experiences.  Based on her experience as a professional witness and of her reading Payne and Littlechild (2000) questioned whether the present confrontation of the judicial system fosters the welfare of children which they conclude that there can be an abuse of power in social responsibility if the outcome of many court cases involving children is taken into consideration.

The managing and taking down of records and reports as required by my agency is very important when conducting an assessment with service users.  These records and reports are usually discussed with my manger and she often made recommendations and suggestions regarding my involvement with service users.  These records are also shared with other agencies with the concern of service users; all these put together create a kind of co-operation within the different multi-disciplinary teams and networks.  During my work S, I was able to record accurately all information received.  All visits and contacts made with S, his family, college and other professionals are recorded as soon as possible in order to be factual and also to enable other professionals who have access to this information to see it.  Social workers take on a large range of responsibility; the nature of the work is such that the demand of services can be endless.  It should thus be acknowledged that having to manage and prioritise workloads is very important in social work.  Whilst on placement, I was able discuss this situation with my manager and also managed to prioritised situations as effectively as possible (Thompson, 2005).


I will conclude by saying that it is important for social workers to increase their power and their understanding of its dynamics and adopt a wider range of means of influence as clearly stated by Akister (1996).  I have attempted during the essay to look at possible ways in which social workers can develop conceptual and practical frameworks for addressing the task of making sense of and reframing power relationships between the worker and service user.


Tags: abuse of power, decision making process, essay on social work, free essay, misuse of power, professional authority, social work, social work essay, social work profession

Category: Free Essays, Health

On this page you will find a number of electronic resources and links which we hope will support you in working with your student. These are grouped into the following categories:  

  •                 Pre-placement meeting
  •                 Induction
  •                 Learning Styles
  •                 Skills
  •                 Reflective Practice
  •                 Supervision
  •                 Values, Ethics, Power and Boundaries
  •                 Writing
  •                 Theory

If you have any queries about the information on this page or if you have developed any useful tools which you would be willing to share, please contact

Pre-placement meeting

During this meeting, you are exchanging information with the student - you will outline the learning opportunities the placement could offer and inform the student about any key requirements, and the student will give information about their learning needs, skills and strengths. You may begin to talk about specific terms and conditions, such as working hours, study days, dress code etc.

It can be helpful to have information about the placement to give to the student to take away and read. If you have completed a profile as part of Enabling Others, you can give this to the student too. There may be a short reading list, or list of useful websites you could direct the student to in order for them to prepare for the placement. If the student requires any reasonable adjustments these should be discussed.

Below is a sample agenda - you may wish to adapt this to make it more relevant for your particular setting.

Agenda for Pre-Placement Meeting


Below are two sets of questions you could ask a student to consider when carrying out shadowing visits as part of their induction.

These questions relate to the student shadowing colleagues and other professionals.

Induction visits reflection form shadowing

These questions relate to visits to other agencies.

Induction visits reflection form

The student is being asked to take in a lot of information during the induction. You might want to devise a quiz about your team or organisation to help them capture some of that information and for you to check out what they have picked up. It is helpful if the information required to complete the quiz can contribute to the Practice Learning Experience Summary in the portfolio.

An example is in included below, but you will probably need to adjust this to reflect your agency.

Induction Questionnaire

In a previous Practice Educators' Support Group we discussed what makes a good induction. A summary of the questions discussed and points raised can be downloaded below.

Review of induction questions

Review of induction notes

Learning Styles

There are different ways of analysing how we learn best. It is worth thinking about your own preferred learning styles and those of the student. If you approach learning in very different ways, this could potentially lead to misunderstandings. However, where you are aware of the different approaches, this can be recognised as helpful in complementing and learning from each other. Where your styles are very similar, it might be tempting to stick to the same patterns which you are both comfortable with and an awareness of this might prompt you to explore other ways of learning. A good aim would be to get the right balance of activities which match your preferred styles whilst continuing to develop your ability to learn in other ways.

The most frequently used way of categorising learning styles was developed by Honey and Mumford (see below) but there are other approaches, such as VARK (Visual / Aural / Read & Write / Kinaesthetic.) It may also be helpful to consider the concept of "Personality Drivers" which is derived from Transactional Analysis. So if you are an Activist (Honey and Mumford) with a preference for Kinaesthetic (VARK) learning, and have a strong "Hurry Up" driver, unless you are aware of this, you could be on an automatic collision course with a student who is a strong Reflector, with a Read / Write preference and a "Be Perfect" driver.

Learning styles questionnaire

This website includes an online questionnaire to establish your VARK style: (opens in a new window)

This website includes a downloadable questionnaire to identify your driver(s): (opens in a new window)

An alternative version can be found at: (opens in a new window)

This website takes an accessible and fairly light-hearted look at learning styles: (opens in a new window)


It is not uncommon for students to find it difficult to identify the skills they bring with them to placement, or to be specific about the skills they wish to develop.

You might wish to consider asking the student to complete this Skills Audit at the outset of the placement; the results may inform the Practice Learning Agreement. The student can then revisit it at the mid-way point and again at the end. This can help students trace their development with specific skills and inform their reflective account at the end of the placement.

Reflective Practice

Many students keep a reflective journal but there are other tools which can be used to support reflection and a range are included below. My advice is that the headings on the reflective tools are used as prompts don't insist that the student writes to every point under each heading as this could become laborious. Instead encourage them to come up with 2 or 3 key points in each section.

Where the models numerous headings, you could either look at one situation in depth or consider using 3 or 4 to discuss one situation, then focussing on different ones for the next situation.

PCF Discussion tool A

PCF Discussion tool B

Reflection on action

Reflective levels

Evaluation and critical analysis

For reflection specifically about an assessment, the following tool may be useful

Assessment reflection tool

This website has further information about reflective practice (opens in a new window)

This website has been developed for nursing students, but there is some useful information about reflective practice which is also relevant for Social Work: (opens in a new window)


It can be helpful to draw up a supervision contract with the student, setting out expectations around the supervisory process.

An example is included below. Feel free to amend this to reflect a different agenda for supervision or any other issues you feel need to be included.

Supervision contract

Sometimes students are unsure about how best to prepare for supervision.

A preparation checklist can be helpful; an example is available below. If you use this, encourage the student to make bullet point notes only as a reminder, rather than them writing a lot and then reading it all out in the session, which can alter the dynamics and flow of the session.

This is a checklist I devised as an offsite Practice Educator and therefore it does not have a section in explicitly about the workload, only on Learning from Practice. You might want to add in a further section around workload.

Preparation for supervision checklist

To record supervision, I use the template attached, to help bring out learning and issues around values. It may be that you complete the two left hand columns and ask the student to complete the two right hand columns.

Supervision template

Values, Ethics, Power and Boundaries

It can be useful to discuss boundaries with your student. If they have previously worked in a very different setting, they may have different boundaries to you and / or the rest of the team. Below is a sample boundaries exercise - sometimes this is good to do in a group with others as there may be a range of answers and it is good for the student to begin to get a feel for areas where there are very clear boundaries, and those where more of a judgement call depending on the situation, or personal preferences are involved.

Boundaries exercise

If you are asking a student to analyse power relationships in a situation, it may be a helpful starting point to talk about different types and sources of power.

The following link is to a website which sets out 5 forms of power as defined by French and Raven (1960) (opens in a new window)

For an analysis of power within organisations, it may also be helpful to direct the student to this list as defined by Morgan (1986) (opens in a new window)

For analyses of power and risk in social work practice, see (opens in a new window) and (opens in a new window)

The exercises below can be useful to open up a discussion about values and attitudes. These consist of statements which may be made by self, colleagues or members of the public. Ask the student to give a "gut reaction" as to whether they agree, disagree or whether it might depend on other factors. Then ask them to unpick the values behind the statement and see whether their response remains the same. If the student feels the statement is something they should address or challenge if expressed by others, explore with them how they might go about this.

The two examples below relate to working with older people or people with learning disabilities. You might want to create your own version which is more relevant to your setting.


Values LD version


If your student presents you with written work which contains the same type of errors repeatedly, or they identify themselves an area of concern, it might be helpful to ask them to draw up a checklist, to use when proof-reading work before handing it to you. This can reduce the amount of time you spend correcting work, or wondering if it is actually your job to be correcting work!

The Learning Matters book, Critical Thinking for Social Work, by Brown and Rutter (2nd ed, 2008) has a useful chapter on writing reflective assignments. Another useful resource might be the Learning Matters book, Studying for your Social Work Degree, by Hilary Walker (2008).

If the student appears to have difficulties with basic literacy, encourage them to seek support from the Centre for Academic Writing at the relevant University.

The following websites may be useful to consult as a starting point if working with a student with dyslexia. (opens in a new window)


The following resources may be useful:

Social work theory comparison table

Theory statements

Simplified critical analysis framework


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