Social worker of the year Jacqui Knight has been recognised for “going the extra mile” to keep her clients safe inside a young offender institution while planning for their release. Amy Taylor catches up with her
Jacqui Knight is the first to admit that working in a young offender institution is an acquired taste. But for the social worker of the year the young offenders held at Brinsford YOI in Wolverhampton, where she works, are children needing help like many of those outside the criminal justice system.
“This kind of environment is not for everybody but I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for these young people and I don’t feel it is any different to other parts of social work,” she says.
For Knight good social work practice is about doing the best for your clients. For the young people at Brinsford this involves helping them to plan for when they leave the prison rather than writing them off as lost causes, and ensuring their time at the YOI is spent safely.
Her commitment to the “special role” social workers play in YOIs, and “going the extra mile” for her clients are the reasons Knight believes she was honoured at this year’s third annual Social Worker of the Year Awards.
Brinsford YOI’s governor, Peter Knapton, thinks Knight is a very deserving award winner. He describes her as a “kind and compassionate” professional who “retains a sharp focus” on the specific needs of the young offenders and employs a “dogged determination” in helping them turn their lives around.
Knight sees her role as making sure local authorities carry out their duties towards the group. She says this is less of an issue for looked-after children at Brinsford but for those accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 – where councils step in when parents or carers can’t or won’t look after children in need – it’s very real.
“It’s a big problem and we are having to go down the penal route with some local authorities,” she says. “As soon as they come here the local authority wants to close the case.”
Working in an environment with no other social workers could be isolating. But Knight, who took up her post in December 2005, says she enjoys sharing an office with the probation and psychological teams.
Although other staff were “sceptical” of her when she first arrived, she says, this soon disappeared. Testimony to this is the fact she was nominated for the award by her boss Helen Teden, the head of safeguarding at the YOI. Knapton explains that staff quickly recognised Knight’s depth of knowledge and experience, particularly around child protection, and warmed to her friendly personality.
Knight’s post was one of 25 social worker roles in YOIs funded by the The Youth Justice Board under a two-year pilot from March 2005. In March 2007 joint funding was provided by the YJB and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to extend the pilot for another year, which has again been extended until March 2009. After this, councils are supposed to pick up the bill. The future of the roles is increasingly uncertain.
Each stage of new funding has created doubt about the scheme’s long-term future, causing many of the social workers concerned to leave. Knight explains she is one of the lucky ones with a position being available for her at Staffordshire social services safeguarding team – her current employer – if the scheme ends.
Knight says that many of her colleagues in other YOIs will have built up relationships and gained other professionals’ trust, something which will be lost if they leave or their positions are cut.
“We know the posts are needed and all the evaluations show this. It’s just about who’s going to fund them.
“It’s so disappointing given the work and the links we have put in. All of the YOIs are used to having social workers in them now, they are part of the grain,” she adds.
For Knight, winning the award is further validation that her and her colleagues are a valuable resource which should not be lost. “The award recognises the work of all social workers in YOIs,” she says.
● Qualified as a social worker in 1995 after working in probation and being sponsored by the Home Office.
● On completion of her course there were no jobs in probation and Knight worked in the leaving care team at Wolverhampton council for five years.
● Before her position at Brinsford Knight worked as a shift leader at Watling House, a Local Authority Secure Children’s Home in Staffordshire.
● Knight became a social worker at Brinsford YOI in December 2005.
- More about the Social Worker of the Year Awards
This article is published in the 20 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Knight with shining ardour”