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The secret life of a social worker: you just have to get used to letting people down

Posted on 15/12/2016 by

Social Grants

The poverty we encounter these days is the worst we’ve seen– it’s a race to persuade everyone to pull together to keep our families afloat

There is no humour quite like that found in a social work office. It is dark, inappropriate, and completely necessary in order to survive the grind. Our desk is awash with sugar, caffeine and good intentions. The long hours and fluctuating stress levels are a nightmare for eating regularly, and many people coast along on a diet of biscuits, fizzy drinks and an endless round of birthday cakes. It helps though after yet another urgent call-out, on top of a court appearance you didn’t expect that day, to know you can eat something from the filing cabinet and then decide conspiratorially with your workmates whether you’ll bother logging it on whatever weight management app is doing the rounds.

It is wise not to drink on a school night because you never know what the next morning will bring. On a typical day, this can involve an unannounced home visit to see if a violent ex-partner has moved back in, followed by a meeting to decide the next steps in supporting parents whose eight-year-old still isn’t in school. The afternoon could be spent working out what to do about a young client who has cancelled a meeting, presumably so they can see the person you fear is taking advantage of them, before driving across the city in rush-hour traffic to meet some prospective adopters and see if they might be the right match for a one-year-old who cant be rehabilitated home.

I chose social work because I wanted to do a job that meant I didn’t just skate on the surface of life. I had a good start myself with loving attentive parents, and I realised that my own strong foundation was the reason I could generally deal with life in all its seasons. Our families – because all social workers feel they are “ours” – often start out with no foundation to speak of, and it’s a race to fill the gaps somehow, with professionals, services, other family members and friends all trying to repair, bail water and pull together to keep them afloat.

When people find out what I do, they invariably respond by saying, “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” followed by a slightly longer than comfortable pause, and then a quick consolatory “but it must be very rewarding”. I have to admit to not conceding that last point very often because it’s said with such well-meaning hope. I just can’t bear to explain what rewarding actually means as a social worker. We don’t get to shout about the success stories, we have no right to broadcast those. Rewarding is a family doing OK, that’s it, and that is no one’s business but theirs.

The fear of missing something dogs you, day in and day out. It is the voice in your head at 3am

Social work is all about relationships – and your skill in navigating these will make or break your career. You have to get used to being let down by people, and to letting people down yourself, because it’s impossible to meet everyone’s needs.It’s like having multiple browser screens open constantly, day and night. Even when you do go home and attempt to shut off, you know that the children on your caseload keep living their reality, however horrendous, and that it can all fall apart at any time.

I’ve sat on excrement a fair few times. It’s never easy to point out to someone that their dog has left a deposit on the sofa, but all you can hope for is that they recognise why that it is not OK. But my lowest moment was probably breaking the news to a child that their mum had been caught shoplifting again, so they wouldn’t be going home with her as she had promised. High points tend to be when young people come out of their shell over time, eventually talking about what is going on in their lives; or the occasional epiphany when a parent realises what they can do to change.

When I first started out it was normal to help those who required a lower level of support, such as families needing help sorting out their finances and getting hold of basics like beds for their homes, but now it’s as if these cases have vanished. Of course, the families and the need are still there, but there’s no room to help them on our caseload, so they are left to other overstretched services whose budgets are being slashed. Colleagues who have been around longer than me say that this is the worst they’ve known it to be in terms of poverty. How can we expect people to start addressing behavioural issues when they can’t feed their kids or put shoes on their feet?

Drug-using parents are the cases I dread the most. Trying to help people in the grip of addiction while simultaneously assessing what the impact on their children may be is heartbreaking. When a child answers the door and you go inside and see in their parents’ eyes that they are using again, your heart sinks. We have lots of tools to try to help children come to terms with their parents’ addiction, but nothing can heal the sense of rejection when drugs are put first, drugs take all the money, drugs get all the love.

The decision to take a child away from their parents is made between social workers, their managers, in some areas a panel, and then ultimately a judge. It is simultaneously the worst decision you ever have to be a part of and one of the most rigorously considered. If a child needs to be removed in urgent circumstances, everything else stops until that child is safe. It can ultimately be a relief that they are out of harm’s way, but when we know that moving a child itself causes damage it is a very difficult decision.

The fear of missing something dogs you, day in and day out. It is the voice in your head at 3am, the thought that distracts you from your own children’s bath-time, the thing that rises up on a Friday evening when the weekend looms long yet you can’t help but wonder how that child is, what they are enduring away from the safety and observation of school.

My biggest regret is always when I move jobs and have to leave people behind. There is never a good time to leave a case and put them in a position of having to start from scratch with yet another social worker. But we are humans too, and sometimes have to move on.

Source: Community Care