By Lou Newman
I spent nine years of my life looked after by the local authority in a kinship foster placement. My care experience was positive on the whole; my family carers were able to support me emotionally and practically. I also, crucially, had social workers who I felt able to trust to make decisions that were in my best interests.
This started with my accommodation – placing me with individuals I had already established a relationship with. This was exactly what I wanted and the social worker echoed my wishes and feelings in her assessment and decision-making.
I remember being about ten years old when the social worker took me to an adventure playground to talk to me about my views. Looking back, I can see how she engaged me in playing games and ‘got down to my level’ in this non-intimidating setting to help me feel comfortable and speak freely without the influence of family members.
I was grateful to have social workers who clearly explained why I was having this intervention and made sure I understood what was happening every step of the journey to being accommodated with my kinship carers.
I believe that this positive decision-making contributed to the success that I have encountered as an adult.
Drawing on my own experiences
In summer 2015, I graduated as a social worker myself. My positive experiences of having inspiring social workers, learning about the role through what they did and how influential and imperative social work intervention can be motivated me to embark on the degree and want to do this job. Contrary to stereotypes, university was never ruled out as an option for me and was always discussed as a possible route in education meetings.
Throughout the course, I was able to draw on my care experiences to shape my own practice and help others. When we learnt about child-centred working, I reflected on how social workers had worked with me to meet my needs in a way that best suited me.
I consciously tried to integrate good practice and direct work techniques professionals had used with me into my own practice. For example, I appreciated how they had made sure I understood what was happening by avoiding using professional jargon. I’ve heard a social worker say that having time for direct work is unrealistic but it’s key to building and maintain relationships – helping young people feel important and that their social worker is genuinely interested in supporting them.
Carrying a pocket game, pens, pencils, toys to use can break down some of the barriers. Often social workers may not feel they get gratitude from young people but I would say they do recognise when extra work has been done to establish a positive working relationship.
The child’s voice
I remembered a negative experience when I was called out of an English lesson at school to attend a personal education plan meeting. I was keen on learning and felt uncomfortable, missing out on valuable lesson time. However, I was able to voice my opinion about this and my social worker at the time ensured that future meetings were organised at a time and place that suited me best. That is often what I admire in other social workers now – finding ways to be flexible in often rigid systems to keep the child’s voice central and act in their best interests.
I felt involved and included in decision making and my views about education were taken seriously, plans made were child-centred and achievable.
From where I stand now, I can see I had extremely positive influences during my time as a looked-after young person. My social workers made it clear that care leavers can and do achieve within their lives and empowered me to follow my aspirations and dreams. I hope that as my career progresses, I can be a similar role model and provide encouragement and belief that young people who have been in care can achieve good outcomes, in the same way that professionals and carers believed in me.
Unfortunately, many young people in care and care leavers are stigmatised and discriminated against, but they can be encouraged to see their status as positive. Social workers can help young people see their experiences as valuable to society.
I think it’s vital to be aware of the consultation and support groups where looked-after young people and care levers can contribute to how services are delivered, encourage them to attend and have their voices heard. These young people can embrace their status and grow in confidence as those voices echo within their local authority to influence positive change!
Standing up for social work
To me, this is part of celebrating social work and how good practice is shared. I want to be an advocate and cheerleader for care leavers and how individuals can be encouraged to aim high and reach their full potential. I will also work to challenge negative stereotypes that can mean care leavers are subject to unfair judgements – it’s part of our social work role and values to try and ensure young people are afforded equality and that diversity is accepted and celebrated.
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