Student social worker: ‘The environment felt invasive and unnatural’

Student social worker Ricki Steed* reflects on her experiences and learning from the first two weeks of a child protection placement

Photo: REX/Image Source (posed by models)

“You’ve got five minutes left of the session Jane.*” The voice that came out of my mouth was not my own it, it sounded meek and shaky. Jane turned round and said: “I’ve asked for you lot not to count down the session, can’t you see it’s upsetting her?” I mumbled an apology and continued writing down my observations on my clipboard.

For those of you reading this who have not yet encountered a contact session, supervised contact is used as a safe method for children to meet with parents, carers or family members when it has been determined that a child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering, harm during contact with a particular person or people.

Supervised contact gives professionals the opportunity to assess the possibility of children being able to return to their parent’s care, and allows evidence to be collected, through observation, that helps to make long-term decisions in the best interests of the child.

For my first contact sessions I was asked to observe interaction between parents and a child under the age of two. An older teenage sibling was also present. I was assisting a qualified social worker as the parents had previously made allegations against a member of staff who had supervised contact.

The session was difficult and stressful. I was asked to record the events and my observations during the one-hour session. I felt very stressed because, although I had previously recorded my observations in early years educational settings, it was not clear to me exactly what I should write.

I followed the technique I had learnt at university and wrote a narrative observation. However, I also noted issues I felt were inappropriate, such as the parents calling their two-year-old ‘sexy’, and the emotional distress of the teenage sibling during the session, which upset the child.

The parents had a clear disdain for social services and I could feel myself sweating when they required supervision when taking their child to the toilet. The environment felt invasive and unnatural.

Prior to the session, the worker I was working with had told me they did not like this family and their body language and tone in the contact room felt oppressive. The imbalance of power made me feel shamefaced and heartless.

I had no knowledge of the case or the reasons why the child had been removed. The session ended after the mother had become irritated with me for asking her to start packing up and her teenage daughter had asked why we were ‘so heartless’.

Once they had gone the worker advised me he did not have the time to look at my observation and asked me to pass it to the children’s social worker. I blinked back tears as I felt I had engaged in the type of social work I normally criticise. I slept badly that night. I was annoyed with myself for not exhibiting confidence or promoting a positive contact environment and promised myself I would take action.

The next day I typed up my observation, including my concerns and the issues Mum had raised about me calling time on the session, and asked if I could observe the next session. I also asked for feedback on my observation and to meet with the social worker to get a synopsis of the case. The social worker met with me and gave me feedback, as well as tips for analysis for what I had observed. She also told me the reasons that children had been removed from Mum’s care and showed me the risk assessment undertaken for contact.

This information made me feel much more confident about the next contact session. I asked the worker supporting me if they would also record an observation so we could compare after the session to aid my development. I spoke to the parents prior to the session and asked if they would prefer me to tap them on the shoulder when the session was five minutes from ending.

They were much happier with this, and also supported me putting their children in the car, which allowed them to be more included in the process. I observed a third session for the family later in the week, and the parents greeted me with smiles. This meant so much to me; I knew my changes had created a much more positive contact environment for both the parents and children. This made me feel confident in my own abilities.

From my experiences so far, I believe developing the confidence to be assertive is a key attribute to developing good practice. I have learnt that, when used effectively, these attributes can help overcome barriers in even the most demanding situations.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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19 Responses to Student social worker: ‘The environment felt invasive and unnatural’

  1. Edna September 25, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    This article is very worrying indeed, although the self doubts of the novice social worker are heartening as is her desire to make the contact experience positive for parents.

    But as someone who has lived rather longer than the average child protection social worker and has known many many households with children during my lifetime I am aware from this piece that it is more than impartial observation that is going on, especially when carers complain about staff.

    Social workers are making adverse judgments over things that go on in many households as part of everyday relationships. It may not be a good thing for a small child to experience an older siblings overt distress or a mother to call the child ‘sexy’, but it is not a crime either and I cannot see how it could be judged as poor parenting necessitating removal of the child. It is not abuse / neglect or harm unless the child shows evidence of sexualised behaviour.

    Perhaps the local authority child protection workers in Rotherham and elsewhere took the other extreme view that the young girls who were groomed and abused suggested their behaviour was a ‘lifestyle choice’.

    ‘Damned that you do and damned that you don’t.

    It seems that the whole of child protection is not about what is really harmful but about judgement of others behaviours by mostly childless and life inexperienced social workers.

    We do not have a cosy ideal world because we as humans are not always good and moral ourselves- hence we judge others. Those who know themselves well will always doubt if how they approach others contributes to unfair judgement.

    I would never wish to be protected by a social worker as someone in the ‘vulnerable’ category (yes I have suffered abuses in my life time) life is hard and not just, Social work does not promote the latter as it is a ‘career’ for many.. Careers by their very nature are competitive and sometimes unpleasant, back stabbing journeys for many, as they relate to employment in an organisation. Values of organisations are not always those of individuals and if these are in conflict then everyone is negatively affected- save the people at the top. .

    • Nick September 25, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      Oh, for heaven’s sake, Edna. Talk about reading way too much into something. This student didn’t say or even hint at why the child had been removed, merely provided some commentary on her own experience early on in a placement. She was nervous, as most students are, and clearly hadn’t been given adequate information prior to undertaking the task which is her supervising SW’s error.

      She reflected on the experience and adapted her practise accordingly, as any competent worker should. She will no doubt experience more, reflect more and learn more. She will also have bad days due to situations completely out of her control that will have a negative impact on her client’s lives, possibly long-term. It occasionally happens, unfortunately, because we’re human. It is an important skill to recognise this and learn from any mistakes but also accept that they *will* be made.

      You’re comment that “Social Workers are making adverse judgements over things that go on in many households as part of everyday relationships” is itself incredibly judgemental. We make assessments, not judgements. We know what goes on in families and everyday relationships because most of us have them, warts and all. Often in my office you hear social workers saying things like “I might have done the same thing myself in their shoes” and “you can’t blame them for that” and then discuss how to help parents learn better routines, coping skills, or whatever may be needed. It only gets to child protection level when, to use your words, it goes well beyond the “everyday”.

      Your idiotic claim that social workers are mostly “childless and life-inexperienced” shows your lack of interest in facts that might challenge your pre-conceived notions and that you really have no idea what you’re talking about.

      • Edna September 26, 2014 at 11:16 am #

        I accept that I may be reading too much into the novice’s article- but it is clear that there was much wrong with her social services supervising seniors.

        Unfortunately Nick I have rather too much experience of social services / workers over several decades from varying perspectives and my most recent experiences have been the worst imaginable. To a degree that I would question whether social work is needed/ meaningful as a separate entity in a local authority, when others such as health professionals often have just as much understanding of matters and can assess too. If funds were transferred to develop and expand health workforce skills to cover child and adult protection it would save the government a lot of money of having two separate cultures, one of whom really thinks very little of the other, (from personal knowledge), but is forced by the current guidance to ‘play along with it’ to cover its own back.

        Social workers do not just take child protection measures for children at serious risk, (or adult safeguarding ones). There are plenty of well reported cases where this has been highlighted. In these cases ebellishment and fabrications are used in reports to expand unfounded judgments. Things like ‘… demeanor appeared anxious- suggestive of guilt’ (this is from a real report). Once the boot is in it can be a very difficult and damaging journey for the client/their family at the other end. At least when a medical doctor does something very wrong they can be tackled, not so a social worker- it is all hush hush. When case reviews are undertaken gagging clauses are applied to them so no one can know or talk about the failures; The public are informed things have improved in the local authority.

        Unfortunately the ongoing issues with social service / work failures, with lessons never learnt, are getting to be evident. One reflective worker does not a profession, that honestly reflects, make.

        Quite often the back covering that hides the judgmental and poor social work goes un-noted by the public, but not by those who are at the receiving end of this.

        I take life more seriously and responsibly. If I had to remove a child or adult from a family I would wish it not to be on belief, gut feelings, hearsay or personal judgement of their relationships, but because I can evidence the harm in that situation and, if the child can communicate or adult has capacity, have a clear idea of their feelings and wishes. Unfortunately looking at the way the social work reports are often endorsed without much thought by court judges I fear for the public at large.

        • Ellie October 1, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

          Whilst I can agree with some of what you say, Edna, I would be more than a little concerned by some of your comments. You appear to have a vested interest in criticising Social Work, and in trying to say it is useless. This is added to an apparent vested interest in promoting the NHS, and in suggesting that medical professionals other than Social Workers are better at the job…

          I quote two examples of this, BOTH of which cannot be proven as correct, and which could actually be DISPROVEN…

          1. “To a degree I would question whether Social Work is needed/meaningful as a separate entity in a local authority, when others such as health professionals often have just as much understanding of matters and can assess too”.

          2. “At least when a medical doctor does something wrong, they can be tackled – not so a Social Worker, all is hush, hush”.

          In response, I’d highlight the FACT, and I repeat FACT, that evidence shows your claims to be inaccurate…

          1. Social Workers have different skills to other medical professionals, which, when used correctly, should complement them within a truly multidisciplinary environment. Social Care uses different models of practice to those of the NHS – social as opposed to medical models. This stance was adopted because, unfortunately, medical models of care have been found to pathologize individuals – locating “problems” and “illnesses” or “dysfunction” within them, and not within the wider environment. This can be very stigmatizing for individuals. If you doubt what I say, try reading Jenny Morriss, “Pride Against Prejudice” (The Women’s Press). Jenny is a disabled (I hate than term!) writer and activist, who talks well about the way in which medical models of care stigmatize and negatively label disabled people.

          2. There is ample evidence from CQC investigations, Government NHS audits, and “whistleblowing” cases to prove that the NHS has long suffered from the problem that you report as exclusive to Social Care – the issue of covering up, or hiding, complaints. You say that medical doctors, for example, can be tackled when they do something wrong… Perhaps you need to update yourself with regards to current news reports, and suchlike. There have been innumerable cases, including the INFAMOUS MID STAFFS SCANDAL, in which the mistakes of medical doctors – and staff working alongside them – were covered up. The “Francis Report” details several of these – NHS and not Social Care problems.

          The REAL issue is more about the nature, and competence, of INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYERS. It is about their morals, ethics, practices, policies, procedures. About the way the treat staff, recruit staff, train staff. NOT about whether they are NHS or Social Care.

          ANY employer can be good, or bad. The good ones ensure that staff, including trainees and students, are well cared-for, given excellent training, have excellent facilities and working conditions. They stamp out bullying, nepotism, cronyism. They Fight for fair pay, and decent pensions. They encourage forward-thinking, and innovation; rewarding new ideas, and clever insightful work.

          Bad employers care little about staff. They see them as numbers, statistics – just as they see patients the same way. They have bullying, competitive work cultures. They lack resources, training, facilities. They treat newcomers, and trainees as a nuisance; or as demanding too much time. They are scared of innovation and fear change. They are stuck in a rut. They do not admit mistakes, and never learn from them.

          This is NOT about NHS or Social Care… this is about how individual employing organizations look after their staff – and the impact that this subsequently has upon patient care. Happy, well-looked-after staff are more likely to contribute to good patient care. THAT is common sense. BOTH Local Authorities, AND also NHS organizations ought to know this!

        • Debbie October 2, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

          Edna your memory is obviously effected to the point you missed the fact 250 people and maybe more died due to poor health care workers in Stafford Hospital

          I would rathet have a social worker manage social care than the NHS any day

      • Amanda October 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

        I found this article to be incredibly informative and refreshing, a ‘fresh set of eyes’ in a placement can sometimes make a huge difference as this ladies experience on placement demonstrates, she has reflected on the situation and the oppression faced by the parents/caregivers and has been incredibly proactive to make that situation more bearable for all involved. I’m also on my first placement and this has been very useful.

  2. Lynne Brosnan September 25, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this story and I hope this social worker never changes her opinions of birth parents. We all know the work of social workers is hard but being human and not exerting power is the best way in the interests of the child/ren.
    Would like to read more stories from this social worker.

  3. Jane Marsh September 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    The focus in a contact session needs to be the child. If you over formalise them and parents tense up, then the child will suffer. I have always tried to create a welcoming environment where parent and child can play together, relax as much as possible and interact. Most contact sessions are good fun. Taking time to form that relationship puts you in a better position to draw boundaries when you have to. The ends of contacts need to be handled well – if everyone ends up in tears then it is traumatic for the child. Its a skilled job and is undervalued in social work departments. Quite often the focus is on risk rather than the child.

  4. Liz McAteer September 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    What a pity that a student social worker, in the first two weeks of her placement, when she should be completing an induction into the placement agency and her role within it, should be thrust into a situation that she was totally unprepared for. Supervised contact is an important part of the process which decides how a family can be supported whilst minimising the risk to the children involved. The assessments from these sessions will also be used in child protection case conferences and reviews and possibly in care proceedings. The author of such observations should be comfortable in providing verbal delivery of her work in any of these forums and will need to comment on theory, including attachment, child development and risk. To be asked to undertake this important task without having been briefed about any aspects of the case is completely unprofessional and she should have refused to do it, obtaining the support of her tutor, placement co-ordinator and student rep. This may have been difficult, but ensuring her own professional security and learning process is part of the overall training social workers undertake. It is also completely disrespectful and unprofessional, as cited by the student, to offer less than a fully prepared contact session to the family involved. No social work team should be operating in this way and if they are then this needs to be fed back to those involved with with the placement process. Students are in placements to learn, not to be exploited.

    • carys clueless October 8, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

      I do agree, that students are not there to be exploited. However, they are! Doing the transport runs, supervising contact, due to S/W thinking its not there place to do those aspects of their role. Just by the mere fact that the S/W debriefed the student after the contact session about the family!

  5. Dominique Robinson September 25, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    If the student ia stressed over observing a straightforward contact then i’s be worried. What will he/she be like when ahe’s got a case load of 50? We need to get real here, nobuse sugar coating things, social work is an incredibly tough job which requires resilient ‘can do’ workers

    • Caroline September 26, 2014 at 10:45 am #

      As a student social worker who will soon be going out on my first placement, I can completely understand why he/she was stressed during the contact session. What if the parents had reported them for harassment? Being on placement is completely different to being a practising social worker. You have no real power and being sent into a contact session with no information on the situation leaves you vulnerable to criticism, which you don’t have the power to deal with. Yes we should be resilient, but if we go into it with a “don’t care” attitude, we shouldn’t be there. We train to be social workers because we care. This student did exactly the right thing. She found a way to change the situation for the better. It’s a shame that not every student social worker would have the initiative to do this.

    • Anj October 2, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

      These experiences create resilience, don’t be worried!

  6. Lisa September 25, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

    Lovely to read, just shows how a little creativity in practice can make all the difference for families.

  7. Richard September 26, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    I thought this was an excellent description of feelings and thoughts for an individual within such a new & complex situation. When I started my job as a contact worker, I was a masters student social worker and my work experience had ranged across various areas of work such as therapy, support work, mental health, education and volunteering. I have to admit the first contacts I observed, I felt incredibility awkward as ‘The environment felt invasive and unnatural’. However, over time I learnt with good communication skills and empathy, I could conduct contact in a positive fashion regardless of how difficult parents were. Emphasize the child is the focus; in keeping them safe & happy and talk to the parents, listen to them (even the annoying/stressful ones) and never take sides!! There are bad contact workers and this student clearly encountered one.

  8. Andrew September 27, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    It is interesting reading this article and the comments everybody has made. It shows just how different we all are and react to a persons perception of her experience of supervised contact for the very first time.

    I would like to point out to Dominique, as a child protection social worker myself that holding a caseload of 50 Is not an example of resilience. That is an example of a local authority not prioritising the needs of its families, a very popular statement used by Social Workers in reverse when a parent is considered to be failing their children. They are also not considering the health and well being of their employees.

    We have to remember that to be a social worker, is to be connected to the communities and people who are most at risk, and not to be a glorified administrator which it oftens feels like, particularly if your bombarded with too many, often very complex cases.

    If a student isn’t able to express her anxieties, thoughts and feelings then they are not being given the opportunity to reflect, develop and grow. I commend this student for opening up about their experience is such a public way. Individuals like this are an asset to the continuing professional development of Social Work.

    • Ellie October 1, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

      Utterly agree, Andrew. It is a pity, but one thing I’ve noted about life, is that some of the most sensitive, compassionate and caring people – the ones who ask questions, and challenge what they think is wrong, speaking out about it like this student – get “shot down in flames”. We seem to have developed a society in which asking uncomfortable questions, going against the grain, and lateral thinking are NOT advisable; instead some people view them as “problems”.

      It is all very well, here, for some people to say that Social Workers need a “can do” attitude… BUT what exactly is a “can do” attitude? Many people can come across as confident and capable, when actually they are anything but – and consequently the worst person for the job. People can be dispassionate, cold, distant, and robotic… this can give them a “can do” attitude – but who’d want cold and robotic as qualities in a caring profession? People can be bossy, ambitious, competitive… giving them a “can do” attitude – but do we really want such qualities at the expense of caring, sensitive, thoughtful?

      Besides, some truly unpleasant individuals have a “can do” attitude – conmen, sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists… THEY have a “can do” attitude quite simply because they lack compassion and empathy, two VERY important qualities in a good Social Worker. Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable, even commendable, to take a step back and say you CAN’T DO, or even you WON’T DO – because you are unsure, or you don’t think it’s right.

      This should be do-able, without the fear of being criticized or punished. Unfortunately, there is still VERY MUCH a culture of “shoot the whistleblower”! It worries me very much to think that “can do” is seen by some as “do whatever you like even if it’s wrong”!

  9. stephen September 30, 2014 at 2:13 am #

    As someone who has experienced social workers in adult care I have experienced judgmental attitudes and the fall out from failure of so called social workers to even follow there own procedures, It is a credit to this newly qualified individual to hold the view of nurturing and working with the child and family.

    There are to many of you social work proffesionals out there who are not undertaking safeguarding procedures correctly either due to work load or plain ignorance.

    There is also an unhealthy attitude of acting on gut feelings and personal views of the family dynamic where some individuals become hung up on the power of the job role.

    It takes a special person to carry out this important role in society however my own experience sadly has shown that very few have either the skill or human empathy.

    I used to hold this proffesion in high regard but not after what I have witnessed in staffordshire.

  10. Jayne September 30, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    Very interesting reflection. It should be commended when a worker is able to reflect on their practice and identify ways to improve on this in the future. Like some others have said this should be seen more in practice.

    No matter your profession, people especially your clients, service users, the public etc will often judge you – it is reciprocal.

    A social worker going into an assessment with an open mind and putting themselves in the shoes of others ie understanding how the balance of power can affect the other person will be professional yet empathetic and this reflects in body language , tone of voice, etc.

    A social worker going in with preconceived notions, or judging an individual has set themselves already to fail. Going with an open mind and achieving the best for your client in this case- the child is key.

    I have seen a lot of social workers with this positive approach and again like every other profession, there will be a few bad eggs. Social workers are not living saints they are human and reflections help us improve and strive for a better professional version of ourselves.