There are increasing numbers of young mothers in care, many of whom require social work support that is responsive to their needs. But recent research shows that only two from a group of 24 young mothers interviewed, recounted positive experiences of working with their social worker.1
The main point of the young women’s complaints was that they were not listened to or understood (“I would like to be listened to,” said Claire, a young mother, aged 16.) This is not a new message from social work research. For example, Morris showed that many young people in care feel like this.2
My study, involving interviews with young mothers from Kent, also found that some of the problems of communication between the young women and their social workers, focused around a conflict of roles. For example, the young women were often children in need, teenagers and new mothers. The conflict between these roles caused tension regarding where help and resources should be aimed. This was particularly relevant when the young baby was deemed as being at risk, when the conflict became more apparent. Even when the baby was not at risk, the workers were often dealing with very complex ingredients in the young women’s lives. These issues posed a number of dilemmas common within social work. Should the workers address the young mother as the primary service user, or should the focus be on the baby? This ambiguity frequently transmitted itself to the young woman, resulting in antipathy towards the worker.
When asked what kind of service they thought they were providing for the young women, some of the social workers displayed flexibility and portrayed a user friendly front. One worker said, “I am happy to deal with any of the issues which arise or which the clients bring to me.” Another social worker said, “I see my role as listening and very occasionally giving advice.” Despite this apparent flexibility, a different perspective was represented by most young mothers, who criticised their social workers for being too “nosey” and “bossy” and for “poking their nose in”. These antagonistic views displayed the tensions in the relationship.
Of the two young women who recounted positive experiences, even if they felt the social worker was not in their age bracket or social class, they were seen as constructive if they felt the worker had shown understanding. This was important to the young mothers. If they were understood, then they had been listened to, even if the social worker did not agree with them. These mothers felt that positive social work had occurred if the worker had tried to enter their world on practical and emotional levels. The young women also responded well to honesty, even if they did not like the message, disliking approaches where the worker hid behind the agency.
The overriding message from all of the young women who participated in this research was that they valued their autonomy, which is, of course, much more difficult to achieve when a baby is at risk. However, unclear messages, ambiguity about who was the focus of the social work interest and undelivered promises, all provoked resistance from the young woman. The ability to listen, to make a connection and have fun were felt to be the best ways to encourage co-operation.
Jane Reeves is a research student in the school of health and social welfare at The Open University, and is a senior lecturer, school of health and social care at the University of Greenwich
1 J Reeves, They Should Still be Out Playing – A Contemporary Analysis of Young Pregnant Women/Mothers in the Care System, unpublished, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 J Morris, Having Someone Who Cares – Barriers to Change in the Social Care of Children, NCB, 1999