Eleanor Roosevelt, 1958

'Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person... Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.' Eleanor Roosevelt, 1958

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Monday, 15 October 2012

Social work in the Other Europe

On my way out of the house I realised I had nothing to read for a long journey by rail and air.  I grabbed the first book that I could find that would fit in my bag.  My copy of The Case Worker, by György Konrád (1969) is a rather battered edition by Penguin, from a series called 'Writers from the Other Europe'.  It's no longer in print, although you can buy it for a penny on Amazon.  Of course, that Other Europe is long gone now, and Konrád's case worker has no precise parallel in the UK.  The closest analogy to a case worker in 1960's Budapest might be a social worker with a hefty measure of benefits administration thrown into the mix.   The book is based on Konrád's own experiences in such a role.  

I'm afraid all this travelling has left me barely capable of stringing sentences together, but it's fascinating to see the way that Konrád's case worker's role is so imbued with the political and economic logics of that particular time and place.  What is possible, and consequently what is acceptable, is defined by the alternatives on offer.  And the framing of the very purpose of the case worker's role - 'to protect children and safeguard the interests of the state' - sounds so similar, and yet so different, to how social work roles would be framed in the UK today.  The story of the Bandulas is shocking by contrast with the threshold conditions for child protection we operate in the UK today, but the case workers' decision has to be understood by comparison with the institutional alternatives on offer.  And yet, for all the differences, there is something recognisably familiar about Konrád's case worker; his recounting of the power dynamics between case worker and client, his human responses to suffering, and perhaps sometimes also elements of his despair at the system he works within.

My clients in the waiting room are making more and more of a hubbub.  They kick the standing ashtray, fiddle with the squeaking radiator valve, cough, clear their throats, speculate on the outcome of their visits.  Every day without fail they are here; if they could, they'd come on Sunday as well.  The faces change, the grievances are always pretty much the same.  If nothing else, they drive a certain perverse pleasure in having their complaints officially recorded.  How natural that they should come and demand attention.  As long as this building stands, clients will come here to take up some official's morning hours and entertain him with their problems.  Since a client has worries, he is defenseless.  By the time he reaches the inner office, the wait, his plight, and his sense of guild have shaken his confidence.  The bare gray walls, the dreary regulation furniture, the colorless faces of the office staff, the clack of typewriters filtering through from neighboring offices, and the mutterings of those behind him in the line bring him face to face with himself.  The official, on the other hand, has nothing to worry about.  Impassive, draped in condescending superiority, he has the client - that frail, flustered being who wants something or is afraid of something - admitted.  If the official had cares of his own, he himself would degenerate into a client in some other office, on the other side of just such a desk.  The standard desk is no more than a yard deep.  But the two persons facing each other across it are as far apart as convict and jailer on opposite sides of the bars.  There is no way around or across this desk; it stands between two faces, two enigmas, inert, but apportioning the roles as unmistakably as a whipping post or a guillotine.
Every institution makes for a specific state of mind.  At the circus my client laughs, at the public baths he day dreams, on the streetcar he states into space, at a boxing match he is aggressive, in the cemetery subdued, and so on.  To this room he brings a few samples of his sufferings and of frustrations that he handed on to his sons and daughters.  Quite possibly the image I get - the barest tip of the fragile molehill of his life - is deceptive. Yesterday he was kicked, today he gets apologies and tomorrow he may even come in for a caress of two, but all I see is his past.  Nevertheless, I trust the momentary image, though with some caution. I may not know the man himself, but I know his circumstances.  A diagram of his blunders superimposed on those of other people, brings out what is specific to him, showing that what is unpredictable in him is infinitesimal compared to what is predictable.  His circumstances are, let us say, straitened.  In my official capacity I am informed of hi job, habits, and previous blunders; this allows me to estimate how much freedom of action he has.  Of course, what I see isn't the man himself, but only the envelope in which he moves about.  Yet, reluctantly, I identify my client with all these odds and ends, and feel sorry for him because so many obstacles have impeded his development.  It would be commendable if his relations with his environment were somewhat more complex, if the rules he chose to live by were a little less conventional. But his system is depressingly lacking in complexity, his income wretched, his physical surroundings dreary, his vision blurred, his burden heavy.  His freedom of action is below average, his drives, which are without direction, conflict and sometimes collide head on.  When this happens, the traffic jams up and official intervention is needed to start it moving again.  Since my job is to protect children and safeguard the interests of the state, the most I can do is reconcile him with his circumstances and oppose his propensity for suffering.  I do what the law and my fumbling judgment permit; then I look on, mesmerized, as the system crushes him. 
For all his parents' efforts, the child could not learn to use the pot.  When he was three, his skin became allergic to rubber pants.  His thighs became inflamed, but without the pants his clothes got wet, which resulted in sore throats, pleurisy, and endless bladder trouble; he was constantly coughing, spitting, and vomiting.  After vainly consulting any number of doctors in an attempt to escape the vicious circle of rubber pants and chills, the Bandulas decided to raise the child as a savage.  It would either harden him or kill him.  At the height of summer they stripped him naked, and when autumn came they did not put his clothes back on again.  They bought no firewood, lest the changes in temperature prevent him from adapting to the cold.  They eliminated cooked food from his diet and gave him carrots, onions, and black radishes to munch all day, with an occasional portion of raw horsemeat, liver, and brains.  Feri grew stronger, his colds vanished, and a thick blond down spread over his whole body.
The other tenants and the neighbors suspected the parents, especially Bandula himself, the inventor of the cure, of wanting to murder their child.  They reported their suspicions to every conceivable government office, declaring that the former owner of the house ought to be in jail, while the unfortunate child would be better off in a home. Their wordy depositions converged in my office and after due investigations ended up in the filing department. And because of my inaction I was accused of aiding and abetting attempted murder disguised as a toughening-up cure. I did indeed leave the Bandulas in peace. From time to time I summoned them to my office; we talked, they signed a meaningless statement to the effect that they had been duly warned, and everything went on as before.  Life has an intrinsic value, I philosophized; no one is justified, on any grounds whatever, in disposing of a human life, however ill favored; but as I said this I was haunted by the memory of certain institutions, where fermenting lumps of flesh lie in baskets or cribs, breathing but giving no other sings of life, living because there is no one to murder them.  Nor should there be, I said to myself patiently and stupidly.  When the first denunciation came in, I went to see the Bandulas myself. 
Feri was stamping about in his crib on an excrement stained nylon sheet strewn with apple cores, cabbage stalks, carrot ends, a bare rib of mutton, and various unidentifiable scraps of meat... In a paroxysm of happiness the child rattled the bars of his crib, rubbed his muscular stomach up against them, and greeted me with a screech.  His eyes were full of a consuming expectancy... 
Those people were a thorn in my side, but now that they've killed themselves, I have to admit that no one will rub the woolly back of their child as good-naturedly as they did.  I'm a busy man, and their visits were definitely a nuisance, but I'd be glad to see them coming through the door right now.  They had their place in the world, even if it was no bigger than the bullet holes in the roughcast of our houses.


  1. In the BBC series 'Protecting Our Children' the team leader voiced her opinion, on a family who clearly had problems in raising a child to optimise its care and development, that 'Love is not enough' as they loved the child. The parents were inadequate / needed long term hands on child raising input.

    At he end the child was fostered out and of course, as social services do to justify their actions, reported he was developing much better for his age. We have no idea whether that was fact i.e. whether the development or well being was adequately measured or objectively determined. Judging by the many high profile failures one might suggest the social services might 'embellish' for the benefit of the public audience.

    This book highlights that the balance between how the parents perceive and act in their child's best interests may be dictated by ignorance and love and actually has nothing to do with harming/ intention to harm. That the child would never be loved to the same degree by others is something the more sensitive case worker recognised. The current UK system fails to consider this, so dysfunctional and unhappy adults from the system abound.

    In different societies in other countries child protection is not also about 'protecting the state' and families. however imperfect, are important.

    People report all sorts of things, including malicious allegations (social workers / NHS staff want to be protected from these) which social workers/ case workers are unskilled to unravel. I am not sure that children are protected in the UK from the very many, increasing, examples of failures in state as parent and the system as a whole.

  2. thanks for sharing.