This is the second of the Family Justice Narratives. You can find out what the Family Justice Narratives are all about and how to get involved here.
Narrative No 2 : ANONYMOUS SOCIAL WORKER
Tell us where you fit in (solicitor, barrister, social worker, guardian, judge, researcher, court staff, something else)
I’m a Social Worker (not that I admit that to everyone I meet!). I have been working in the child protection field for nearly 6 years and, perhaps unusually, I love my job – despite all the challenges it throws in my path.
Tell us about your typical week Tell us about where you're at this week (bad week, good week, rewarding week, soul destroying *headdesk* kind of week?)
One of the reasons that I love my job is that I never have a typical week – my main motto is to always expect the unexpected. My job covers such a range of roles and responsibilities that it is almost impossible to sum them up: I am expected to do everything from arranging financial support for families who have run out of money; to providing parenting advice; to being a shoulder to cry on for families, professionals and colleagues; through to making life changing decisions about where children should live; attending Court; and supervising contact. It is hard to do justice to the range of tasks that I undertake as a Social Worker – I frequently find myself laughing at the unusual things that I do – they certainly don’t warn you about most of them in the Social Work training. I often describe myself as a Jack of All Trades – if people aren’t sure who should be doing something, or even what they should be doing, then it usually falls to a Social Worker to do it or sort it out.
As for this week... Luckily it was only four days (although I could have done with 5!) It was a hectic, helter skelter kind of week – with too much to do and not enough time – and the predictable crisis or two before the long Bank Holiday weekend. But I got to the weekend in the end.
Tell us about the highs and lows and the reasons you do the job
I am passionate about my job as a Social Worker, although sadly this is increasingly unusual in my field. My job, and the reason that I do it, can be simply summarized – to ensure that children are safe and that their needs are being met. This doesn’t always make me popular with the families I work with, but I try to use an open and honest (some would say blunt) approach in my work with all families, making it clear what the concerns are about their children and what the parents or family members need to do to change. That is what gets me up and out the front door in the morning – the many children I have worked with, and will continue to work with.
The highest point of my job is definitely seeing children happy, safely cared for and having their basic needs met – whether this is with their parents, family members or with other carers. Unfortunately, striving for this also leads to the lowest point of my job, which is removing children from their parents. The process of removing children from their home, whatever the circumstances, is not a job I relish, although it is important and necessary for some of the children that I work with.
Tell us about what works well in the system and tell us about what does not work at all
As an experienced Social Worker, I am involved in a lot of Care Proceedings. The Court process seems to focus the minds of both families and professionals; it is often the first time that parents begin to try and engage with services that can (and do) improve their parenting or give them the psychological help that they need. Important assessments, which help professionals to work with families more effectively, are often only ordered within Care Proceedings, and only then because an independent expert is asked to complete them. Nevertheless, my overwhelming experience of Care Proceedings is one of frustration – at the delays, the lack of thoughtfulness, the loss of focus on the children and what they are experiencing, the lack of specialist support available to families and the lack of respect for the Social Work profession. The adversarial nature of Care Proceedings in England means that the Court room becomes a battle ground, often unnecessarily. As a Social Worker, this significantly complicates my role; whilst attending Court I can be attacked and criticised by the parents’ barristers, although I have to continue to work with the same parents outside Court, trying to help them facilitate change and access services.
Tell us about how you see the family justice system and how you think others see you and the system you work in • Tell us about an important influence on your work
On the whole, I find Care Proceedings a frustrating experience. As I have already said, I see my job as being focused on children and ensuring that they are as safe as possible. I feel that Care Proceedings in England can totally lose sight of children, frequently focussing on parents and their needs. This can lead to the Court ordering numerous assessments of parents, often repeatedly, whilst children remain in foster placements waiting for permanent decisions to be made about their future. I imagine it must be even more frustrating for parents, who wait for hours outside a Court while all the barristers sit in a room chatting; they then spend 10 minutes in front of a judge, where everything is agreed. Often parents understand little of what is going on.
As a Social Worker in Care Proceedings I often feel I am in a lose-lose situation. Judges and barristers often have no respect for the profession as a whole, although once you have worked in the same area for some time you can begin to establish an individual reputation. You are often ignored in discussions outside of Court; assessments are ordered by an independent professional that you are perfectly capable of completing, given the time. Parents feel that Social Workers are against them, looking for any iota of evidence to prove that they cannot parent.
Despite all of this, I continue to do my job and I continue to be passionate about the importance of what I do. Perhaps the greatest influence on my practice has been a Senior Social Worker from my first job. He had been in the profession for a long time and approached the job with a degree of professionalism, pragmatism and sensitivity that I continue to strive towards.
Tell us about how you combine your family with your work and how your experiences impact on your relationships and your parenting
At times, my work is all consuming – if there is a crisis, such as a child being removed from a family with the police, then I have to do the necessary work, regardless of any other commitments I may have. I work hard when I am in the office so that on the whole I don’t have to take work home with me; however, this means I often work from 8am to 8pm. This also doesn’t take account of the emotional impact of my work, both on me and my long-suffering husband, who has (and continues to) put up with a lot from me – a bad day at work often means a grumpy evening at home.
I don’t have children of my own (something that the families I work with occasionally ask me about). I am planning to start a family in the near future and I don’t anticipate it will be possible to carry on with my job once I have my own children, as it will become an impossible balancing act of competing priorities.
Tell us – would you choose this job in your next life? and will you be doing it in ten years time?
I’m not sure that I would ever recommend this job to anyone, even myself in another life! On a bad day, I contemplate that I could have chosen any career and probably made a success of it. Yet, I love my job and think it is the right one for me; much as I know I’m mad to even think it, I probably would choose this career again. As for will I be doing this job in ten years time, I think it’s unlikely. However, I hope to still be working in the Child Protection field.
And tell us your bright ideas for change and for dialogue
I have thought long and hard about this. It is easy to criticise the current system, although it is far more difficult to think of how to change the family law system so that it makes more sense and is more focused on children.
I think that dialogue is the key to the future of family law, both private and public. I think the idea of mediation could be transferred into public law so that the professionals and family take a more supportive approach at the start of Care Proceedings. I genuinely believe that the adversarial approach in the UK Courts leaves everyone feeling frustrated and as though they are losing, regardless of the decisions being made. I think that the drugs court that has been running in London has a lot of good ideas about a more collaborative approach to creating change in parents where possible, but quickly identifying where this will not be possible and then moving children on to permanence, with better timescales for the children.
As a Social Worker, I think that one of the most important aspects of change needs to be within our profession as a whole. We need to improve the standard of people in the profession, the training and qualifications that we undertake, and our interventions with families. In return, we need realistic workloads and proper supervision. Hopefully, this will lead to more respect within the Family Courts and a better quality of service from us to children. I can but dream...