Big Interview: John Black – BASW Scotland Social Worker of the Year

While social care has made recent strides in its provision for men, social worker John Black (pictured), who works with fathers with substance misuse problems, says many services still have a long way to go.

“You go into these places and they’re set up for women,” says Black. “There are pictures on the walls that are all flowery. I’ve tried to have an influence for men to make it more welcoming for them. I’ll put up articles that talk about fathers. But everything’s still geared towards the mother being the main carer.”

As a project worker with Children 1st’s East Renfrewshire Family Support Service, his championing of men has made Black the winner of the inaugural British Association of Social Workers Scotland’s social worker of the year.

Difficult to engage

When fathers and male carers reach Black, they will have already passed through several agencies, but they often find it difficult to engage with what has been offered. Black works closely with his service users to uncover their core problems. “It’s a client group held in contempt by most of society. Most of them are on methadone scripts, but they’re still finding it hard to engage with services. And that’s because there’s not a lot for men.”

Black says that engaging men means rebuilding their confidence, and often providing them with the basic parenting skills they don’t possess. “One guy told me he went to McDonald’s with his son for the toys. They went home but after about 15 minutes he ran out of ideas for playing. He just needed to be more comfortable, more confident about keeping things going.”

“A lot of what I found was they simply couldn’t play with their children because they would be ahead of them in terms of ability. What we do is get them to feel in control of what they are doing.”

p28 10 April issueTo get this to happen, Black role plays different situations. He says activity-based sessions are the most effective way to engage men and boys, as they are unwilling to sit and talk about their root problems. An average day can encompass role playing a parent-teacher conference in a solo session with a father and then seeing his group attend a cookery class.

“The people who referred these guys here never thought they would make a commitment to this group. Guys being guys, they either all go together or not at all – it’s herd mentality.”

Even with an activity-based approach, it has taken stubbornness to get men to engage with him. He didn’t see one client for the first three months he worked with him, as they would communicate exclusively through his letterbox.

Improvement in provision

Talking through doors was perhaps not what Black had in mind when he left his bank job in 1977 to find a job “working with people”. Building on voluntary work with children, Black started in residential care for boys.

After completing a CQSW at Jordanhill College in 1982, he worked as a detached youth worker in Glasgow’s East End. His career since then has largely focused on male provision – as a youth worker focused on addiction, he worked mainly with boys addicted to glue sniffing.

After his two years as a youth worker finished, he started 22 years with Children First, where he still works. He also obtained a certificate in child protection studies with Dundee University before entering his current post in 2004.

Black says there has been an improvement in provision for men over the past 30 years following a recognition that “you can’t just expect that men will come along and join in”.

The post is funded by LloydsTSB, although that funding is coming to an end. The award is something that Black can point to as a sign that his approach works. That should help in applying for council funding, considering he proudly says he has never met a target set for him in the programme.

“It’s very hard with outcomes, but we have to be creative with them,” says Black.

“People might come in and say ‘this family’s been with you for three years, you can’t be doing a very good job’. But if we’re holding families together, if they’ve stayed on their prescriptions, for their children it’s heaven.”

Related article

More on the awards

This article appeared in the 10 April issue under the headline “Everything is still geared to mothers”



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