What inspired you to become a social worker?
Initially it was because I wanted to understand my own journey and why certain things happened or had not happened in respect of the measures taken to ensure I was safe and my needs were met, and to better understand the processes that go on behind being on the receiving end of it. I always said I'd never work with children or families in fostering as it felt too close to my own story, so I went to work with adults who have disabilities. Because I'd always worked in caring roles and have a disability myself, it was an area I felt comfortable with.
However, it didn't escape me that even within this role that there would be engagement with children and families social care because people with disabilities have children too, so I had to get over the fact that I had come from a place of having an intense disliking of children's social workers. This was for various reasons. The social workers allocated to me hadn't been available people who I could turn to speak to, trust, or rely on. They had been judgemental, unreliable, and inconsistent. My friend had an amazing social worker: she was a person you could build a relationship with and was friendly without trying to be my mate. This is a big thing because young people want boundaries even though they push against them. Boundaries keep them safe, and it shows them that you care.
Being in disability social work I learnt another side of practice. However, when the assessment eligibility thresholds moved to critical care only and we were told that we could only allocate fifteen-minute personal care calls in our support planning, I realised this was in contention with everything I had known from working with people delivering their care. I decided that I wanted to look for something else because this wasn't why I came into social work. A lot of the values I hold weren't being demonstrated in practice, which became really budget focused and all about gatekeeping finances rather than about individual's needs. At the time, the opportunity came up to work in a fostering agency.
I was a bit reticent about going into this after being a looked after young person. But then I thought maybe I can offer a different perspective because I've been the person whose referral has been sent out and nobody takes it because it's been framed in such a way that makes the child seem unmanageable. There were little things where I thought, maybe I could be the difference here and offer a different view.
I worked in an independent fostering agency for five years. As you might expect lots of different challenges come up, especially when there's a lot of people involved in children and young people's lives. Often though, I found that complexities came from the adults’ relationships with each other and how the team around the child functions and works together rather than the child.
You've touched on this a little bit already, but what was your perception of social workers whilst you were in care?
I found it really hard to communicate with social workers because they always wanted me to be a certain way. I had to toe the line and try to understand what was going on, and when I didn't, I was seen as a badly-behaved child. Now, we've got much more of an appreciation of trauma, brain development and why a child at fourteen may not necessarily be making rational and logical decisions even when you've told them that's what they should be doing.
When I tried to speak to social workers about issues that were going on I immediately lost control. Everything was taken out of my hands, and I didn't have much choice in what was going to happen next, or any conversation about it. This was especially the case when I went over to the leaving care team, and they put me on a preparation for independence course for six weeks. I didn't understand how one night a week for six weeks was going to teach me everything I needed to know about living on my own, but it wasn't really a conversation. At the time I was living in supported accommodation, so I didn't have foster parents getting me involved in all the household tasks and teaching me all the things that you don't know as a young person, like where your stopcock is or how to isolate your gas. One week we did a bit of cooking, which wasn't us actually cooking, but them showing and telling us about it. There was no nurturing of our self-determination to achieve and succeed. It was prescriptive, weighted towards the system rather than weighted towards what we needed as young people, and being the kind of young person I was, I wasn't afraid to open my mouth. This didn't really put me in a good position with social workers because I got seen as divisive, argumentative, and aggressive. This is a label that's stuck with me into my adult life because I will assert my opinion if I feel like injustice is happening. Sometimes this doesn't make you flavour of the month, whether you're a child in care or a social worker in an office.
How did your experience in care influence your practice as a social worker?
I don't know if you're aware of the book that's just been published by Siobhan Maclean which is called Insiders Outsiders: Hidden Narratives of Care Experienced Social Workers. I've contributed two poems to that book, and there's lots of narratives from care experienced social workers that shine a light onto this thread of experience that we all hold.
As a care experienced social worker, I've been told that there were concerns that I might over empathise with the children and young people. If I'm not empathising with them, then who is? Someone's got to be thinking about how it feels to be on the other side, so I think one of the benefits of being a care experienced social worker is not to positively discriminate - but have an awareness about how the young person might feel. Systems and processes change, but what doesn't change are feelings and that as humans we have them. What I felt as a young person going through the care system are the same kind of feelings that children and young people are feeling today: abandonment, loss, rejection, isolation, and a lack of control over their lives. It's so beneficial to be a care experienced social worker because you can forward think, explore, hypothesise, analyse, and reflect upon the things that could have harmful or helpful outcomes before making decisions.
Another benefit that comes from lived experience is making sure their voice is at the heart of everything we're doing, so they don't feel that their wishes and feelings have been gathered to sit on a computer somewhere. Sometimes it's the small stuff, like the young people she works alongside. It was a very honest chat about her difficulties being in care, what that meant to her, and how she felt other people viewed her as a person. This conversation wasn't happening with this young person before my training. There have been a lot of difficulties with that young person, and hopefully this is just the start of letting her know that her voice is valued. We want to know how you're feeling. We want to know how this is impacting on you, and if we can make it a bit more comfortable, we will do everything we are able to do so.
Can you take us behind the scenes? What sort of things don't people see in the day to day of being a social worker?
It's a really varied role, with a whole range of tasks that you could be engaging with. We look at the referrals coming in, if there are foster parents who have got vacancies, and where children would potentially be a good match, liaising with local authorities, children's social workers and planning, preparing, and placing them in households. Then there's the Duty System where you get phone calls coming in out of hours about enquiries, information
We've started a project called TLC, which stands for Threads of Love in Care. We've begun to gather people who knit, stitch, sew and crochet to make gifts for children, young people, and care experienced adults.
making sure the delegated authority forms are filled out so they can go on a school trip with their friends and not feel like the odd one out. Small things like that make a positive difference, because young people don't want to feel different to their peers, so it's about trying to normalise their experience as much as you can within the confines and constraints of the system, the legislation, policies, procedures, and time available to us. Often, when we talk about the system, we're faced with the negatives. We haven't got enough time or resource, but it's about being creative with the time and resources that we do have.
I delivered a training session recently to some newly qualified social workers about conversations with children and young people and how we often do them a disservice because we keep stuff from them. Sometimes this is to protect ourselves because we might be worried that we're going to say something wrong or get an emotional response that we can't manage. A lot of this is about our own fears. When I speak to young people, most of the time they just want us to be honest with them - in an age-appropriate way - and making sure that we've got continuous narrative and feedback loop. For example, "I've spoken to this person, but I haven't had an answer yet. I got a message from one of the social workers who managed to have a difficult conversation with one of sharing, conversations about difficulties, challenges, complexities that might have arisen over the evening or weekend. We also have certain reporting duties to OFSTED and schedule 7 reporting, for instance if children have gone missing or get chicken pox - there are a range of different categories for reporting.
Before you've even started your day, you'll speak to whoever was on Duty to get a feeling for what has been going on out of hours. You might have got emails from foster parents, the school, or the children's social worker (if you're the foster parent's social worker) so you're phoning around dealing with different bits and pieces to do with education, PEP meetings, Looked After Children's Review Meetings and attending those. There's general supervision of foster parents and monthly supervision, and anything that arises in between. We look at what training and development is needed, making sure mandatory training is completed, and that things are put in place if there are particular training and development needs within the fostering cohort.
Our fostering agency was quite small so we knew all of the children quite well, so we celebrated all of their positives and achievements. If there were things coming up locally in the com-munity we'd share it with the relevant fostering households. We often had family days where we'd get together, parties for events such as Halloween and Christmas, and craft days at the office where children and young people who wanted to come in could do some gluing and sticking and unleash their creativity. It wasn't all difficult conversations with foster parents, dealing with referrals and disruption, though that is part of it. Sometimes you get foster carers ringing up saying 'I need you to come and collect this child now! and you'd say, 'I think this needs to be a conversation' and we'd unpick what's going on. A lot of it is engaging with other professionals, teachers, other social workers, and different supporting services who might be involved with the children.
The care sector is already underfunded with very high caseloads. It would be great to get your thoughts around how this new cost of living crisis is influencing this.
I am looking with anticipation to the report coming out from the Care Review to see what recommendations are going to be made there. We already have a huge gap between the number of children coming into care and the number of places and families that can offer homes or placements to children and young people. The cost-of living crisis is going to put a lot of pressure on fostering households financially and could make it difficult for it to remain viable for them to be able to continue fostering. This is going to have a real impact on fostering sufficiency rates and ultimately children and young people who require care away from their birth families.
Cost saving will be something that becomes more of a priority on people's agenda. I know there is still a lot of work being com-pleted online, but then you must question how valuable an assessment would be if you've never actually met that person face to face and only ever over a computer. Of course, there's lots of complexities there - some of the perceived advantages will have been born out of COVID and the realisation that we can do far more online without having to physically travel or go into an office. For authorities who are covering huge geographical areas this is going to be really beneficial to them in terms of cost saving and not having to have people in an office with all the consumables, computers and electricity, but then we have to think about the effect it will have on the service and how available we are to people; and also, how we're able to support our colleagues. Where is the social in social work going if we're becoming more steps removed from those we are working alongside? A colleague of mine has been completing fostering assessments online and she asked if I'd consider doing some, but I wouldn't feel comfortable having had limited or no contact with a family face to face when I'm assessing them to be approved to look after other people's children. There's a lot of stuff that gets lost in terms of body language and people have energy.
Your career in social work has taken a really interesting direction. Can you share what you're doing now?
I'm a qualified, registered social worker, but I no longer work in what people would see as traditional social work practice.
I've got a Community Interest Company and I work in a small charitable organisation with care experienced adults. Through that journey of working in fostering, you become more aware about how many care experienced adults are left in limbo. If you haven't got a network of safe, supportive significant others, it's difficult to thrive. Many care experienced individuals, where able, go back to their families after they leave care because that's what they know, it's their roots, even though those relationships may be painful or fractured. There are many complexities, and it could be that trauma has impacted them so deeply that they can find it difficult to build new relationships, to develop and heal and grow.
Through Your Life Your Story, a charity that works with care experienced adults, we work in a creative way with care experienced adults to access their story in the hope that it will bring some healing and peace to them. There are some people in our group who want to write their life story and get it published, but there are others there who have never picked up a pen before and being able to write about how they are feeling and get it validated because being in a room full of other care experienced people is powerful. Even if you don't actually speak, you can connect through feeling. All of us know about loss and knowing that you aren't the only person out there who feels this way helps. It's also good to show that we're not all locked up in jail, sleeping on park benches, or haven't had our own children removed.
Success comes in all different shapes and sizes, and that's what I want to give back to the children and young people in the system now: success will look different to all of you, but all of you can be successful in your own way. Don't let those narratives that are out there define your life and put yourself in a box for other people's comfort.
The benefit of working outside of local authority social work is having that time to be more creative. I run Artifacts, a Community Interest Company, and I deliver learning and development opportunities and training. I find that bringing the lived experience perspective and marrying it up with theoretical contributions, and social work models and approaches works. Bringing all this together brings it alive and gets across that we're talking about real people here that have real feelings.
How do you find your role now in that social working space, rather than operating through a more traditional route?
I've got a bit more freedom with what I can say. I get a lot of Local Authorities booking me to train their social workers and foster carers because it will be a very full, frank, and honest discussion. I want people to be able to speak about the challenges because unless we acknowledge the things that are difficult, we can't move past them, so we need to be able to speak about this: what is difficult, why, is it about our own experiences, are we talking about unconscious bias, or transference, or is it a learning need? Academic courses can't cover everything and some things you'll only discover when you come up against them. Having the benefit of being in the system and working in different settings enables me to start some of these conversations.
What would you say to somebody thinking about becoming a social worker?
Absolutely go and do it because it's a privilege to be a social work er: it's a role that's primarily about social justice and inclusion At the moment, in our country, we don't have a very socially just society, and many people are excluded. Despite having things like the Equality Act we still have people in our communities who are disadvantaged because of the way that our society is set up. If social workers can do their little bit in whatever way they can to be the difference, and build stronger communities, we can go forward and achieve better outcomes together as a collective, rather than leaving people behind. And this can be achieved in many different ways - it doesn't have to be working on the front line and it can be working in a creative way, delivering learning opportunities and training, or other things.
As part of Artifacts, we've started a project called TLC, which stands for Threads of Love in Care. We've begun to gather people who knit, stitch, sew and crochet to make gifts for children, young people, and care experienced adults. This comes from that knowledge about losing transitional objects and how much certain things mean to you when you're in the system; and where the gaps are. We're creating lots of threaded items which are being sent out to Local Authorities, organisations and services that work alongside care experienced individuals, like comfort critters, and knitted baby items, booties and bonnets for care experienced parents who don't have grandparents to make them for their baby when they come out of the hospital. We deliver identical hearts for siblings who are being split up so they can have one each. A senior social worker reached out to tell me about some siblings who were given the hearts and how important it's been for those children.
That's what it's about - be the difference.