Melanie Palmer was a social worker in Canada before coming to the UK. Here she describes her enthusiasm for Cafcass court work in the UK
I came to work in the UK in June 2003 from Manitoba in Canada. A few English local authorities were actively trying to recruit Canadian social workers and I joined Bedfordshire Council as a senior practitioner in its referral and assessment team in Bedford. I worked there for eight months before moving to Northamptonshire Council as a child care worker, and then joining Cafcass as family court adviser in 2006.
My experiences of working as a social worker in England are very different to those of working in Canada. In Canada social workers are seen as helpful, even if we do have some very unpleasant parts to our job. There, social workers are held in high regard and are seen by the court system and other relevant professionals as being able to provide accurate, concise and expert assessments. Psychological experts are used more heavily in the court system here than in Canada, where the social worker’s assessment is regarded as expert enough.
When I came here, I was astonished to find social workers were not well respected; when I tell people my job they say “oh, you’re a baby-snatcher”. In fact, the system in this country tries very hard to keep families together.
In Canada, if a child needs protection, they are very often taken away from the family immediately; in England there is a lot of work being done to keep families together through family support. To be called child-snatchers is therefore completely inaccurate and this negative view hangs over the profession like a dark cloud.
I started my first degree in sociology at 18 years old and worked part-time in a child care team’s out-of-hours service to earn money. It was then that I decided to do social work as a career because the profession helps people and I’ve always been geared towards helping children.
I did my second degree in social work at the University of Manitoba and qualified in 1995. I’ve worked with vulnerable adults, in mental health, with children and managed a voluntary sector body called Kids First.
No family court adviser role
In Canada we don’t have the role of family court adviser in the family court system. The English local authorities I worked for felt as if they were so strapped for cash that sometimes I was restricted in advocating for a child and obtaining the service they really needed. I wanted a role where I could advocate for vulnerable children in a less restrictive way.
Working for Cafcass has shown me I really like doing court work. What I like most is that I am advocating for vulnerable children at a time when they are distraught because of what’s happening to their families. I am more of a help to them because I can support them in an adult environment, where decisions are being made about them.
The child knows I am court-appointed and independent and there for them. Children quickly realise if they believe they aren’t being listened to by other agencies they can always call me and I will try to sort things out. I generally receive a positive reaction from the children I work with.
My son tells his friends “my mum helps children and she talks to a judge. I want to do that when I grow up”. Even though he is only six, he can see the good I, and social work, do.
Melanie Palmer is a children’s guardian and qualified social worker
STAND UP NOW FOR SOCIAL WORK
Stories in the mainstream media give a skewed picture of social work because they focus on children’s services and relate mainly to crises and serious cases. Community Care’s Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign is seeking to redress the balance by giving a voice to social workers from across the profession. E-mail your positive social work stories by clicking here to and discuss your achievements at http://www.communitycare.co.uk/proud.
Published in the 11 June 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline ‘I was astonished at lack of respect’