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Social workers, please learn from my experience in care

Posted on 5/08/2016 by

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A young graduate who had 13 different social workers in 11 years in the care system tells of the inspirational, the ineffective, and the plain patronising

Children in care are among the most vulnerable in our society and often social workers are the only person that a looked after child can turn to. Their role is monumental; they can turn a difficult situation into a positive experience, helping young people to form trusting relationships with others. Poor support can exacerbate feelings of fear, uncertainty and isolation, leading to disastrous outcomes.

Many looked after children struggle to open up to adults, yet some social workers focus solely on their agenda

I should know. In my 11 years in care I had 13 social workers, some of whom were engaging and effective – others I didn’t even meet.

Are you working for me, or are you working for you?

Before entering care, my experiences of adults were that they neglected me to serve their own purpose. I had seen alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence, so there was nothing more refreshing than meeting a social worker who centred conversations around me.

Many looked after children struggle to open up to adults, but if social workers make it clear they are there to help, then it is easier. One of my first social workers asked me a simple question every time we met: “What matters to you, right now?”. I looked forward to our meetings because of it.

Some social workers, however, would focus conversations solely on their agenda. Many seemed obsessed with completing a pathway plan which I found an unhelpful and bureaucratic tool. This always generated overly structured discussions at the expense of a natural chat. It was impossible to build rapport, even though developing trust with young people is key to openness and honesty. These social workers hit their targets but completely miss the point of their work.

Can you help me with what I need?

Sometimes I had social workers who adapted to the ranging and sporadic challenges that I faced. They helped me with housing or education. I will always remember my social worker when I was leaving London to study at university; she shared her own experience of leaving to study away from home. She guided me through what the first day would be like – rent arrangements, travel arrangements and applying for bursaries.

On another occasion, my social worker’s lack of systems knowledge nearly made me homeless. I had emailed her to introduce myself and tell her about accommodation arrangements, which needed to be in place in three months’ time. My emails and calls were ignored. With my rent deadline one week away, I had been threatened with eviction and started to panic. I escalated this situation to the team manager, and my social worker immediately replied: You are being paranoid, I have been really busy. I was going to reply next week. In case you are not aware I do only work part time”.

This was the first email I had received from this worker. I was angry. It seemed that this was an unfamiliar request for her, so she put it on the back burner, at my expense.

Less effective social workers are inconsistent, blame others for their lack of competence and treat young people strictly as work, but a valued social worker accepts them as complex individuals with a range of ambitions and needs.

Will you treat me with respect?

I was invited to an awards ceremony at the local authority where I grew up, and lots of my former social workers were there. The first social worker to greet me was senior in the local authority. With a big smile, she explained how she had been aware of me ever since I was 10. She asked me about my girlfriend, my job, my experience of studying at Edinburgh University and my dreams for the future. She told me about herself and her role. She had broken her thumb that day, but still came to the event because she wanted to celebrate with the other young people. She was a kind, inspirational person.

Later, I was delivering a speech about achieving through adversity. My social worker at the time introduced me as “Barry from Glasgow University” (my name is Jimmy and I went to Edinburgh). She then offered me, and other young people at the event, the most false, rehearsed praise that I had ever heard. “You are our special people!” she bellowed patronisingly, standing behind a banner titled Celebrating You. The evening was a metaphor for how brilliant, or how demoralising, social workers can be.



Source: The Guardian