Hands up who would willingly welcome a social worker into their home? Not me, and I am a social worker and I have been for over twenty years!
I was a kinship carer
I had the experience of being involved with social work for three years when I was a kinship carer for my nephew as he lived with me under a Compulsory Supervision Order. This meant regular social work meetings, children’s hearings and home visits. Three years later, we had endured enough of local authority “help” so I applied for a Residence Order to take him (and me if I am being truly honest) out of the care system.
Lesson 1 – Be careful what you say to families and how you say it
It all began when he had been with me for the weekend. He came after school on the Friday afternoon and by Sunday night it was very apparent that he would not be returning home. It’s amazing to see how your life can change so much in just 48 hours. I put him back into his P1 class on the Monday morning and then rushed off to an emergency social work meeting to discuss what we should do as a family. All I remember is sitting in the meeting and hearing the social worker saying that he was really grateful that my nephew could stay with me for a couple of weeks. What still shocks me was that he was not grateful and relieved that my nephew had somewhere loving and safe to stay, what he actually said was, “I am so grateful he can stay with you Debbie. As a social work student, you will know just how much paperwork I would have to fill in otherwise”. That was the first lesson I learned in my social work career; be careful what you say to families and how you say it; this is not about you as a worker, it is about them as a family. My life had just imploded, my nephew had lost his mum, and all he was worried about was filling in forms! That was 1998, and I still remember that with burning rage. I use that memory a lot in my professional role now to help me be a better practitioner.
Lesson 2 – Don’t judge people
My second and third lessons were when we were allocated a lovely new social worker who is now a service manager. She did have empathy and real compassion for our family situation. I liked her so much but I still felt really uneasy every time she visited. I remember her trying to get a purchase order to buy my nephew a bed and then having to come back to me and tell me that there was no budget. The best she could do was every fortnight give me a food line for £50 to use at the supermarket. I was a student and I could no longer have three part-time jobs as I had a child to look after; I was really skint! My first time using a food line was horrible. Of course, I managed to find the only till operator who didn’t know what the food line was as she had never seen one of these typed social worksheets. I tried to explain as the queue built behind me. She then held it up and shouted over to the next till operator, “what do I do with one of these social work things as this lass is using it to pay for her shopping?” I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. I felt so ashamed and judged. I wanted to scream at her that I was not a “social work client” and inform the world that I was a good person; a person who was trying to help my nephew. I did a great deal of self-reflecting that night and thought about my own value judgments. Before my life had changed so dramatically, would I be one of those people in the queue looking me up and down and judging? That was lesson number two.
Lesson 3 – Remember how you felt
Lesson number three was to remember the shame and stigma I felt and to try to ensure when working with families that I am not patronising or judgmental. Holding onto my own feeling of shame really helped me when working with birth families where their child was being placed for adoption. I worked so hard to treat them with respect and give them their place as the parent. Regardless of what card life had dealt them, they were still human beings who were having their children taken away from them. That is not always easy when you are being told where to go or having a chair chucked at you. However, empathy goes a long way. My proudest professional moment was when I was working with a mum for over a year and then had to tell her that a permanence order had been granted for her toddler and that we had to arrange her final contact. She was so devastated and angry but what she said will stick with me forever. She said “I ‘Bleeping’ hate you right now Debbie but you are the only social worker I have met in my whole life who has treated me like I am a real person, so thank you.” I thought that was such an upsetting statement for a young woman who had grown up in care. I know that there are many fine professionals in social work doing their very best. Ten years later I still think about her a lot and I still feel really sad. Given the horrendous life she had experienced as a child, she just was not capable of being a mum at that point. I think what it came down to, was that I held onto my lesson number one when working with her; I always thought of the impact on her of what I was going to say; my lesson number two about feeling shame; I understood her shame, and lesson number three about my own values. I was sitting there telling her that her child was being removed from her care forever, just like someone had said to my sister once upon a time.
Lesson 4 – Just be you
My final lesson of being on the other side of social work was to stop being paranoid. I remember that prior to every visit, I would tidy my flat but also spend ages also trying to ensure it looked “lived in.” My nephew’s bedroom would be tidy but with ample toys and books lying about, just to ensure that the social worker could see he was stimulated and that I was not a tidy freak. I did that for three whole years, knowing it was completely ridiculous but I could not help myself. Now the first thing I do when I meet a new family is to tell them I am not interested in whether or not there are fresh flowers, fresh baked cookies or plumped-up cushions, etc. We usually have a laugh and I hope that puts them at their ease.
Social workers are people just like everyone else
The message I would hope to get across is that social workers are just people. We come from all walks of life and have had all kinds of experiences (good and bad). Like me, many practitioners have also experienced social work interventions (as kids or adults). I know of several amazing workers who grew up in care. Like lots of other people, social workers can be experiencing fertility issues, divorces, abusive relationships, etc. As workers, we appreciate that an adoption assessment is daunting but we do not live our lives, having grown up in a bubble. We complete our adoption assessments, knowing that people have lived a life, and sometimes had no control over it. Please don’t be put off of applying to adopt or foster, just because you worry about social workers being in your lives. Yes, we are not perfect but no one is. I personally know of no social worker who owns a pointy hat, cauldron or a flying broom! We just want to find families for children. Every child deserves to grow up in a family where he/she is the centre of someone’s universe! If you are reading this, then that means that could be you.
If you would like to find out more about adopting or fostering a child through St Andrew’s Children’s Society please call 0131 454 3370 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Service Manager (Acting)