When 12-year-old Wendy Whitaker caught her male peers teasing children with learning difficulties on the school bus, she vowed to put an end to the injustice. She sat next to the children every day to stop the taunts and, while this earned her the nickname ‘Welfare Wendy’, it also marked the beginnings of an unfaltering passion for social work.
That passion has remained with Whitaker throughout her 36 years in the profession – a career that has seen her support survivors of sexual abuse, teach families and carers the skills they need to care for a loved one with an eating disorder, and scoop the accolade for Mental Health Social Worker of the Year at the 2014 social work awards.
Social Worker of the Year Awards 2015
The awards are open to qualified social workers in England and nominations will be accepted until 5pm on Friday 24 July.
There are 17 categories to enter across children’s and adult social services, including Mental Health Social Worker of the Year, Student of Social of the Year, Team of the Year, Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Contribution to Social Work.
The awards, for which Community Care is the official media sponsor, were founded by independent social worker, Beverley Williams, in 2006.
“I think I’ve just had the fortune to get a job that allowed me to do very creative social work, to do research, to publicise what I do and that’s perhaps why I ticked all the boxes,” says Whitaker of her awards win. “I don’t think many social workers get that headspace – I don’t get much headspace, but I am in a team where we can do those things.”
‘Feminist social work’
Whitaker originally applied to Brunel University to study social work but after travelling to the interview in London from her small Oxfordshire village, she found the concrete capital all too much. “I just thought I can’t go there, I can’t spend three or four years in London so I went to the University of East Anglia (UEA) instead and did a social studies degree.”
London drew her back though, and after qualifying Whitaker went on to secure a role as a trainee social worker at Southwark Council, in the south of the city. She’s been lucky to have “absolutely brilliant” social work managers and has remained there ever since – apart from taking time out to study her social work MA at Warwick University.
“In those days you could do psychodynamic social work, or case work social work, and the Warwick course was a Marxist, feminist social work course,” she says. “When I was at UEA I belonged to the women’s movement and I think I realised things needed to change on a very grassroots level, so that’s why I chose that course.”
Whitaker’s thesis was on a feminist perspective on incest and she wanted to work in a community action programme. But “everyone wanted that” so she got a placement in a GP surgery in Birmingham instead, which she now says changed her life.
“It was basically a counselling job, benefits, welfare rights but a lot of it was working with women who were depressed and socially isolated,” she says. “There was this one case where a woman had caught her second husband abusing her third daughter and I worked with the family to get it stopped.”
In the late 1970s there was little awareness of sexual abuse, no policies on it, no British literature on it and, as Whitaker points out, “we were sort of creating it as we went along”.
After completing her MA, Whitaker returned to work in child protection in Camberwell and Southwark, where her caseload was almost completely sexual abuse. “I can’t believe how much things have changed really,” she says. “I would go out alone onto a very deprived council estate, as a newly qualified social worker, to investigate child abuse.”
Three years later and following the birth of her first son, Whitaker decided to go part-time and move into mental health services at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust’s Bethlem Hospital.
“I worked in a community mental health team with my colleague Kay Beaumont, who was a real guiding force for me, and we did a lot of work with survivors of sexual abuse.”
“But I think in the end it was quite emotionally draining and I shifted into working with adults with eating disorders and working with families,” she adds.
Whitaker has worked as an approved mental health professional (AMHP) on the eating disorders ward for the last 16 years, where she has been instrumental in equipping service users’ families with the skills they need to care for their loved ones.
“The thing that really fired me and still does is finding a way of really working with families in a way that enables them to face the difficulties and change,” she says.
It’s not easy to talk with families about the difficulties they’re experiencing as a result of the illness and other things like bereavement that may have affected the service user’s experience growing up, Whitaker points out, but enabling those conversations helps them to move on.
“I’ve always felt that’s all you can really do and I’ve felt it personally. I’ve had three sons and I don’t think I did a brilliant job all the time but being able to go back to your kids and say ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get that bit right and it’s not your fault’ – that’s a gift you give to your children.”
“I think in a way that’s what our team does when we bring carers together and we train them and offer support,” she adds. “Being able to help people to do that – to offload and then to know how to change – that’s what I feel most proud about.”