Imagine supporting families who are spread out across distances equivalent to a trip from London to the Midlands, where meetings with colleagues could demand journeys of over two hours, and if you miss your bus home you could be faced with a three hour wait until the next one.
This is reality for the team of social workers delivering short-break fostering for children with complex learning disabilities across Dumfries and Galloway – the first region you hit when travelling over the Scottish border from England.
‘A forgotten region’
Working for Quarriers, a charity commissioned by the region’s council to undertake some statutory fostering social work duties, this team are responsible for supporting children and families in an area local MPs lament is too often “a forgotten region” due to its remoteness from Scotland’s political power base in Edinburgh.
“Dumfries and Galloway is a beautiful area. We feel very privileged to live here but it presents its own real challenges as a social worker,” says Jan Hastie, who leads on Quarriers’ region-wide family support work in an area that spans over 90 miles from one end to the other.
The Quarriers team operates from two sites (a third recently closed). The first is in Dumfries, the region’s largest town, and the second is 75 miles west in the coastal town of Stranraer. Surrounding the two bases is a patchwork of market towns, farms and a host of ex-mining communities still struggling to recover from the collapse of that industry.
Social worker Libby Welsh has headed up Quarriers’ operations in the region since she was seconded by the local authority in 1999. She feels policymakers often have “a lack of understanding” about the scale of challenges faced in rural communities, including a lack of employment, poor transport links and health inequalities.
“We also have one of the biggest problems with drug misuse in Scotland. That’s partly to do with the coastline – a lot of drugs come in through Stranraer and other ports up the coast,” says Welsh. “But it’s also in great part to the fact that young people here don’t have the same kind of opportunities they might have in other areas.”
Access and opportunity
Where you live in Dumfries and Galloway can also impact your access to different support services. For example, Quarriers and partner agencies run youth clubs and friendship groups for children with learning disabilities. The groups are run in the town of Dumfries and social workers admit that accessing them can be an issue for families living in the region’s more remote parts.
“The kids that go there love it and it has been a massive success in terms of joint working but you have to live pretty local to Dumfries to realistically use it regularly,” says Andrew Johnston, one of Quarriers’ social workers.
Long distances can also be an additional issue when matching foster carers and children. A carer that is a “fantastic match” for a child might simply live too far away to make a placement practical, says Welsh.
The travel time and costs, particularly in a region where petrol prices are among the highest in Scotland, place an added strain on social workers and the service’s budgets too.
“If we deliver two hours of support to a family and social workers have to travel 40 miles to get there in the first place it doesn’t balance the books really, so there’s issues there,” says Hastie.
‘You can feel isolated’
Attracting qualified staff to social work posts in the most remote parts of the region can also prove tough. Vacancies in Stranraer are often hard to fill because – as Welsh says – “it’s not near anywhere, and if you’re part of a couple where you both have to find professional jobs then that is doubly hard.”
Alana Perry, who has been a social worker with Quarriers for the past nine years, spent eight months seconded in Stranraer. During the posting she was 100 miles from her home in the north of the region and lived in bed and breakfasts.
“Stranraer is a lovely area and the people are really receptive and friendly. But it doesn’t take away the fact that you’re extremely isolated from a lot of places. You can feel cut off from family and friends if they’re not with you,” she says.
Perry also knows the challenges of transport in Dumfries and Galloway better than most as she doesn’t drive. She jokes about knowing the train and bus timetables “off by heart” having travelled the length and breadth of the region on public transport to visit foster carers and children.
“I always think when there’s a will there’s a way,” says Perry. “It can get difficult as it gets later at night. There’s a bus from Dumfries to where I live that goes at quarter past five but if you miss that then you’re stuck until quarter past eight. And on Sundays it’s a two hour service.”
Johnston says that planning is key to the social work team mitigating the transport issues. Visit schedules are carefully coordinated because the long distances mean “you can’t just pop out somewhere” for a visit.
The team are also “rational” about allocating workers to cases – for example, cases that are miles away from public transport routes are, where possible, taken on by someone that drives.
‘We have fantastic natural resources’
But working in rural Scotland has a lot of advantages too. Johnston says that “the fantastic natural resources” on offer in Dumfries and Galloway – the region’s woodlands, beaches, hills and more – provide endless opportunities (weather permitting) to run outdoor activities for disabled children and carers.
He also feels that the Scottish borders has a “really positive sense of what community is” compared to some urban areas he’s worked in.
“Here you also don’t have a lot of the pressures and stresses of living in a city,” he says. “Although there are some significant areas of deprivation there are some really, really beautiful places.”
The nature of the geographical area, and the fact social workers tend to enter the field of children with learning disabilities later in their career, also means that social workers who opt to join the team are often in it for the long-term, Welsh says.
The relative stability of a lot of local teams, both in statutory and voluntary sector services, means that strong working relationships have been built up over years.
“There’s huge advantages in that to the families we work with I think,” says Welsh. “In city areas social workers often come and go – two years here, two years there before they move on. Whereas you’ll have many families in this area who will have had the same social worker for five years and that’s very positive for a child.”Andy McNicoll is Community Care’s community editor