By Jenny Molloy
Having a nice cuppa with my social worker friend, casually reading through Nicky Morgan’s statement on social work reform, we were expecting maybe something about the desperate cuts to services, but not that social work was to have a new regulator, or that accreditation of children’s social workers could be mandatory.
It appears that I am not alone in being shocked at these quick, very quick, developments. Alas, I am a care leaver, and not a social worker, but I am hearing that service users are an important part of shaping these reforms.
My experience of what I needed from my social workers feels like yesterday. Social workers have a lifetime impact on kids who rely on them. I needed to feel special, cared for and about by the most stable and significant adults in my life.
I needed them to ‘see’ my achievements, struggles, pain and happiness without me having to call the office and leave a message; or, worse, wait until my statutory visit; or, even worse than that, my looked after child review. The shame at being praised in a sea of faces round a large polished table, always with the posh cups and biscuits saved only for ‘visits’, was excruciating.
What I didn’t need was to be stuck in the middle of a divided service. A life changing service, where the qualifying route of my social workers determined whether they were accepted and respected or not. We don’t care how you qualify, just that you do. Is a baby born through IVF more or less equal than a baby born through a surrogate or natural birth?
There is no hierarchy of social worker, other than in the love and care they share with us.”
Had I caught wind of such a situation when I was in care, and in a mood, I would have used the terms ‘Frontline’ or ‘Step Up’ as a curse. “I want a new social worker, a normal social worker, not one of you Frontline social workers innit.” It would have been music to my ears to have had another insult to use when I was being told off. Let’s not deceive ourselves into believing that kids in care don’t read newspapers or watch the news.
In my experience, though, social work education is so variable, and this must not be allowed to continue. While some university courses involve service users working alongside lecturers, giving the students the opportunity to hear of real life experiences, this isn’t always the case – and how can we expect students to be able to understand the impact of their decisions without hearing reality combined with theory?
Even worse, social work academics sometimes invite in care leavers to speak and struggle to treat them as equals. This is a strange power dynamic which surely has to be passed on to their students. However, all of this doesn’t mean the fast-track route to practice should become the norm.
Further, had I heard that my social workers risked being imprisoned for not doing their job properly (as David Cameron has suggested in his proposals to introduce an offence of ‘wilful neglect’ for social workers), or even viewed as enough of a risk for this to be considered, I would have gone into emotional meltdown. My parents being constantly in and out of prison was shameful and frightening enough, but my social worker? The adults who I finally trust and believe can protect me?
Stand up for social work values
I see the current disunity in social work as ‘you are lesser than me’ within the sector. If the reforms – largely, I’m told, led by the Conservative government – are against the values of social work, hold the government to account. Go shout, strike or campaign, or maybe all three.
Because you see, social workers led me to believe, and I do believe, that you must not accept the story that has been written for you, and that you are integral to the ending. My social worker believed, and told me often, that I could and would succeed. That the fear I held most close, that of continuing the appalling life that my parents had led, need not come true.
My social workers shared with me the value of forgiveness. Sharing my anxieties, shame and anger, showing me how to hold myself together, giving me the space to grow.
The elephant in the room here is that my social worker had time. Time to be with me when there wasn’t a statutory obligation to tick off a list.”
Time to show me a side to an adult which didn’t involve the painful experiences I was used to. A role model for me to work out where my values in life lay.
Finally, I was well aware of the compassion and kindness that my social workers held for my parents, the belief that poverty, discrimination, addiction, to name a few, did not make the person, but that it drove people into places of despair and desperation, and that, for many, the ending of their story was written for them.
Jenny Molloy is a care leaver and author of ‘Hackney Child’ and ‘Neglected’