By Lucy*, parent, Southwark
In December, I had my first Christmas in my own flat with my daughter Eva*, our own Christmas tree and presents for her. So much has changed in my life since Christmas two years ago, when I was due to give birth and living in a mother and baby foster placement, and even more from the many years before that I lost to addictions.
I was very scared when social workers first came to see me to do a pre-birth assessment. My experience of social services as a child had not been good; I’d had to look after myself from a very young age and then got lost to drugs and bad experiences that go with addiction.
What you could read on paper about me and my history could therefore be very scary too. I could imagine people thinking nothing was going to work with me but Melanie, the social worker, didn’t judge me.
I remember her coming in to the detox centre where I was having treatment and being so smiley and friendly. She told me my skin was lovely and that I looked amazing. She was just really decent to me and it was the start of a unique relationship that continued through my pregnancy and the family drug and alcohol court (FDAC) proceedings while they tried to decide if the baby would be safe with me.
After that, I never had a fear of meeting Melanie – I looked forward to seeing her. She didn’t tell me what I had to do, it felt more like working together and I could make suggestions.
Melanie didn’t make any promises. She would always say if she needed to check with a manager but she let me make a lot of decisions for myself.
It was hard work. My first time at FDAC, I was terrified. I thought: these people want to take my child away – they think I’m scum. But the judge said if I put everything into FDAC and took everything that was offered, it would be an amazing thing I could do for myself and my baby. From that day, I realised it wasn’t my social workers’ or FDAC’s fault I was here. We were all here because of me, because I was a drug addict and I needed to engage and not fight.
I wasn’t perfect – sometimes I didn’t do the right things. But Melanie was always there to support me. She came to all my reviews and showed an interest in everything that was going on for me. It felt like she wasn’t just my daughter’s social worker, she was mine as well. But if she had to tell me something, she’d be straight with me.
She always explained why things were happening. I knew that the mother and baby foster placement was because I hadn’t had the experience of being nurtured and loved by a mum or dad in my own life. They were looking to see how I responded and bonded with my daughter. Melanie didn’t make it feel like a test though. I felt comfortable to say “I don’t know what I’m doing with this” or “I need some help with that”.
She involved me in choosing the placement. She would phone me and say: “I think I’ve found a place for you but I’d like you to come and meet them first. If you don’t like it, we’ll find somewhere else.” She gave me that choice and control over the process. To be able to be proactive and have that bit of independence and hope was really important.
Victoria, my keyworker from the drug intervention programme, told me an important thing she thought I developed during this time was being able to interact with the many different professionals involved in my life and speak confidently as a mum and make decisions.
Seeing how Melanie worked to solve problems and try different things if something didn’t work out had a big impact on me.
“There’s no absolutely hopeless situation”
This was one of the first cases I took on as new social worker. It has been really good for me to have this positive experience at the beginning of my career and learn that everyone has the ability to change. Reading Lucy’s history, it did look pretty bleak and I’m working with other families now where, on paper, you’d think there’s no hope but there’s no absolutely hopeless situation. I’m not idealistic, sometimes it might not work but sometimes showing faith in people and persevering does make a difference.
There was obviously something within Lucy ready to be galvanised and we gave her something to work with that wasn’t there before. She really understood our approach of trying to work with her – for example I knew at first that she really didn’t like the idea of the foster placement but she could understand why we were saying it might help her. If she had been different or not made the efforts she did, the outcome may well have been different.
I knew because she was so focused and determined, she would be devastated if something went wrong and feel she’d let herself down.
I tried to anticipate what might go wrong and talk to Lucy about it first – for example really empathising about what it would be like as an eight months’ pregnant lady living in someone else’s house and the way that affects your independence, and in the run up to Christmas. By talking about potential difficulties, it helped to inoculate against them to an extent.
We talk a lot in the team about the factors that work together to help someone change. Sometimes you see it when people get into a better relationship that makes a difference, or simply time – one parent I’m working with seems to understand things differently now she’s older and more mature.
It was quite daunting being the lead professional in a case involving so many agencies and there were lots of strong views about what should happen from people with more experience than me, who were mostly connected with Lucy. I had to step back and think about the baby in the middle of it and meeting the child’s needs.
I was also very aware that Lucy had lots of counselling and therapy and that wasn’t really my role. I hope I gave her the opportunity to open up if she wanted to, while having that boundary and knowing I was there to bring it back to the child.
Melanie, social worker
Even things that seemed small – like talking to the foster carer about how she was dressing my daughter in clothes that I didn’t like – she helped me talk about what this meant for me feeling in control. I felt I could take different ideas from different people and work it into my own way of being a mum.
Looking to the future
My contact with my social workers reduced as I was able to look after Eva more independently. After finishing with FDAC, it became every couple of months and then the odd phone call. Then Melanie said she just needed to see my health visitor, and my daughter’s nursery and my case could be closed.
Today my daughter is happy and healthy and I’ve been clean for two years and five months. I used to take drugs to change how I felt. I don’t want to change the way I feel any more. I don’t want to feel like I’m missing any of Eva’s life.
The things I’m busy with – being a parent mentor for Southwark, volunteering for different services and doing my health and social care course – it’s because I want to give back to the community and do something good, to help mums and dads who are dealing with addiction and feel without hope like I did.
They believed in me even though I’d been falling in and out of services for years.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this without all the services. So many people were involved in my case: social workers, the treatment centre, FDAC, foster carers, the legal guardian, rehab, police.
Everything that I was offered has made me the person I am today, the mother I am today and made me strong.
*Lucy and Eva’s names have been changed
Lucy is now working with Southwark and the South East London Teaching Partnership to help train social workers in what’s helpful for parents in care proceedings and difficult circumstances.
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