Social work that makes a difference:
All of us in the world of social work came to make a positive difference to the lives of children or adults that are vulnerable, at risk or in need. So often the media shouts about the cases that didn’t go well. We have all heard of them – where despite umpteen visits and interventions, a child tragically died, or was abused. We have heard of the reviews such as Baby P, Rochdale or Rotherham.
Negative media image
These examples tend to depress the public image of social work and discourage practitioners. This is especially so when we hear the same lessons continually again and again in the subsequent learning review . We know what these are – the lack of information sharing between agencies, the missed voice of the child, missed signs of abuse, excessive case loads etc.
When young people come back and say thank you
But, we also all know amazing cases where social work made a huge and critical difference. These cases sometimes saved lives, prevented harm, and sometimes helped young people leave care as successful young adults. I have always said that a good social worker is worth their weight in gold. But this is also true of good foster carers and good managers. They matter and they make a real difference.
I remember the emotion welling up when, at a social work gathering of 200 frontline staff, a care leaver gave a speech. She thanked us as a profession for our collective work in her life. She recounted how as a young child she had watched the social workers coming to her house and facing her father who was a very intimidating and aggressive man. Eventually she came into care. She knew how intimidating her father was, and she saw the courage that it took for young social workers to face him. This reminded me of those many many times I had knocked on doors and faced aggression, intimidation and threats of violence from parents whilst their children watched silently. Children often have no voice in abusing households. So this was the first time anyone had actually said thank you on their behalf.
Inspiring cases – making a difference
We all have the memories of those children where we made a difference. I remember one young girl of 7 living with a violent father of a northern white working class family subject to a child protection plan. I went around to speak to see the family and I found his wife. She told me about the drinking and violence that she had experienced from him in the past and was still experiencing. I made an appointment to see him the next week, and we talked about it. He wasn’t too pleased, to say the least, but as I talked about the impact on his child, he started to listen.
Then he remembered the NSPCC TV adverts. He then started to tell me how he had grown up with extremely violent parents, and how his whole family were abused. He knew how it felt. The next time I went around he had invited his sister there, and together they poured out their childhood experiences to me. Over several sessions this man began to process his own abuse and put them into context with his own actions as a husband and father. The violence stopped, the fights stopped, his drinking calmed right down and this man changed. Within 6 months her name came off the child protection plan and as far as I know it never went back on.
I remember working with a vulnerable mother with little children who had started a relationship with a registered sex offender, straight out from prison. He had convinced her that the convictions were all fabricated and that he posed no threat. After a series of sessions with them both nothing appeared to change. So I then spent several sessions with her working on understanding her relationships, boundaries and vulnerability. This time she started to talk about herself and her own child hood abuse, her first violent marriage, and her subsequent relationships. She talked for hours, as though no-one had ever listened to her story before.
I told her that she was one of the the most vulnerable women I had ever worked with as a social worker. That made her think. As she reflected she began to see how her past abuse had disabled her emotionally and how this guy had used her vulnerability for his own ends. She finished up by quitting the sex offender, building up her self esteem, putting down boundaries with men and going back to college to get qualified to get a job for herself. Her children came off the child protection plan and she finished up by successfully raising these children by herself. Her children were safe and thriving.
We all know cases where we made a difference. We need to celebrate these more as a profession, and spend less time beating ourselves up for failings. The media focuses almost exclusively on the failings in social work, but we don’t do enough to promote the positive work we do .