Social work diary: ‘The kindness of colleagues is often what keeps us going’

A children’s social worker faces a week of restructures, reflection and a service user that prompts a flashback to a previous case…

Picture credit: quinn.anya (Flickr)


At a meeting this morning I realised that I had worked with the mother of one of the young people who had been recently referred to us. I had been her social worker when I was newly qualified years ago. She was in her early teens at the time. Her mother had serious mental health problems and had made numerous suicide attempts.

She was refusing to go to school and we sensed it was because of her worries about leaving her mother alone. She had no boundaries and we were concerned about sexual exploitation. I remember turning up at her house in the morning and trying to persuade her to go to school. I usually failed.

Many years on and workers are doing the same for her daughter, herself in her early teens; already sexually active and at risk of offending.

I feel quite despairing. Not only is working with the child of one of your ex-clients an indication of how old you are, but I feel sad about the seeming repeated patterns. I had so hoped for more from the bright and resilient young person I had worked with all those years ago.

I know why these patterns exist but it still upsets me. When you have had very little nurturing parenting yourself, it is hard to learn to do this for your own children. Without support, resources and opportunities yourself there are so many barriers to creating a different experience for the next generation…and so the cycle continues.


I’m finding it hard to concentrate today, despite having a tonne of management paperwork to get through. There’s a restructure pending but at the moment we have no concrete information about who will be in what team and the likely management structure.

It’s my third restructure in four years and each time I’ve had to change job locations. Not easy when there is a whole system of complex child care arrangements resting on my work patterns.

I don’t know whether I feel angry or weary. It’s tiring adjusting to change; it takes a lot of energy which I would prefer to expend on our actual work. Restructures also have a significant impact on relationships as you lose colleagues and vital support as teams are split. Yet we all know it is the kindness of our colleagues that often keeps us going in social work.

As a supervisor I also worry about the impact on supervision relationships. Research on best practice in supervision indicates that the most effective supervision is when we know our supervisees well, when we can work with their strengths and weaknesses. This  means that our reflective discussions can have the  kind of insight that can really foster best practice.

Will I be still supervising the same staff in a few weeks’ time? I really don’t know. This uncertainty about my supervisees is also a mirror of what is happening to service users. Restructures and office moves mean staff change. Relationships will be fractured, potentially with little notice, and just as with supervision, relationships are often the key tool we have to supporting people and creating change.


Today I’m filling in for one of my staff members who is off sick. To be honest I’m pleased to have the chance to be distracted from my restructure worries and to do some face to face work with service users. As a manager I so rarely see a young person, I get quite excited at the thought of real social work.

The reality, however, is far less glamorous. Two young people don’t turn up. It’s easy to forget the feeling of sitting waiting for your service user slowly facing the realisation that they are just not coming. When my third appointment arrives I welcome him rather too enthusiastically. I’m just  so grateful someone has come! I get out my carefully prepared session plan.

‘I hope this is going to be quick,’ he says. ‘I have to be somewhere really important in 10 minutes.’

I feel fairly sure that the really important appointment is with his friends who are loitering outside. I am reminded of an important lesson in the frustrations of working with people who don’t really want to see you. It’s good for managers to get back to the floor sometimes.

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2 Responses to Social work diary: ‘The kindness of colleagues is often what keeps us going’

  1. Annie February 26, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    This was lovely to read and made me smile on a dreary Wednesday. You paint a good picture of what happens when a team restructures which is happening all too often at the moment

  2. Phil Welton March 1, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    This diary was nice to read and reminiscent of times gone by. Now retired, I became disheartened in my final years by the demise of collaborative – “how can we (the family, the social worker, the other key players such as school or health workers) work to help the family function better and provide a better environment for the children?” – and the increasing dominance of adversarial – “this is the list of issues and series of improvements we require you, the parents, to make to remove the need for Us (Social Services) to apply for a Care Order regarding your children, and support will be given by a Social Work assistant visiting for c.45 mins a week to see how you are doing”. The kind of supportive relationship referred to in the diary is impeded by an adversarial approach. As referrals increase after Baby P, and financial pressures keep the number of Social work staff at ‘just enough to be defensible’, the threshold for even receiving a Social Work Service has risen to the point that the criteria for receiving a service over and above intake and assessment takes a family very close to Child Protection procedures. These tend to be exercised in an adversarial manner, largely because of the adversarial nature of our legal system, (at least where I was working) and take the relationship way past the point where a Social Worker can be trusted to work WITH the family, parents and children AND potentially supportive extended family and friendship. In my last job as a Family Group Conference Coordinator I gave a young woman and her boyfriend a lift – 2 miles in pouring rain to pick up belongings from a Refuge then 2 miles back to the station. This gave me a rare opportunity to discuss matters with these rather elusive young people. The allocated social worker and her supervisor complained this was ‘unfair’ as the SW was, of course, unable to offer this kind of support due to the adversarial nature of CP procedures. There are some gifted SWs who have the ability to make a supportive, respectful relationship with parents even while they are following CP procedures, but this kind of relationship seems to have lost its value in modern social work. Mistakes made in cases such as Baby P are put down to a naive ‘family support’ approach, causing the other baby, of a good respectful professional relationship with service users, to be thrown out with the bath water of fear of being the one who makes that kind of mistake. Of course mistakes of all kinds continue to be made, children continue to die, and other children continue to be removed from families where they might well have thrived with a decent amount of support, and placed in occasionally less than acceptable care provision or under-supported adoption placements. I started as a SW in 1976 and since then a series of major scandals, compounded by financial pressures, have resulted in a series of changes in emphasis each dealing with the presenting bulge in the hosepipe, by shifting it to another point up or down the hose. I could go on…….(yeah, Phil, we noticed…)
    All the best, Community Care. I have enjoyed your work for many years.