Why social workers should keep a suitcase in their car

Personal experience of emergency placements inspired one social worker's campaign for 'no bin bags' when young people are moved

By a social worker in a children in care team

For many years before I qualified as a social worker, I considered myself an ambassador for looked-after young people and care leavers. Then, as now, I always tried to ensure that children’s voices were heard and that service users were receiving good practice.

A key issue I tried to promote during my time working in children’s residential care was a ‘no bin bags’ policy for looked-after young people when they move placements. Now, in my role as a social worker I am very conscious that using bin bags when children and young people move is simply unacceptable and try to persuade colleagues to view it the same way.

Young people’s views

I have had personal experience of being moved into a new place with bin bags. When I was around 18, I was moved in an emergency after a placement breakdown. Not all of my belongings were in bin bags but some of them were and this made me feel particularly worthless at a difficult time – that my possessions meant so little to the worker who had packed them into the bags.

I have also heard many stories from young people in which their worldly belongings have been thrown carelessly into bin bags and transported to a new placement.

When I asked other care leavers about this topic, these are some of the things they said:

“I think that bin bags represent rubbish, and by foster children using them would signify that they are portrayed as rubbish too. In my own experience, I did not have a bin bag. I had a green hold-all that I had put my name on. This is because it was mine and nobody could take it away from me. I found it when I moved into my first flat and it reminded me of the amount of times that I used it to move to different homes”

‘I do think it’s disgraceful that some looked after children have to use black bin bags for their belongings… I think it really shows just how little there belongings are valued by the very people who are meant to be caring for them.’

‘Then it was the norm so didn’t think anything about it [being moved with bin bags]; looking back, I don’t think it was such a bad thing as people maybe make out – things had to be moved, what’s the point in buying lots of suitcases? Other humans move their stuff in boxes and bin bags. The sad thing about it was that over the many years of my life I could move everything I owned in two bags.’

My professional experience

I always said to myself ‘I would never move a child using bin bags’ and would not let it happen, but a few months ago in my local authority social work role, I observed that a young person was required to transfer to a new placement as an ‘emergency’, using just bin bags to contain their belongings. I had no alternative for the black bags at the time. I still feel guilty about this.

This was not my case and the social worker who was holding the case was equally upset that they were having to use bin bags. This situation in particular inspired me to carry a suitcase and holdall bags in my car to help prevent this from happening again in future. On this occasion, luckily, the young person was not old enough to realise that their belongings were in the bags. I have worked with other social workers who have had ‘no choice’ but to resort to using bin bags for an emergency move but who also felt very guilty for doing so.

For me, any time I see the use of bin bags to move a young person is one time too many. Too many young people have expressed to me that using bin bags to move their belongings and not having a choice in it is humiliating, degrading, embarrassing, upsetting and suggests that the young person’s belongings are ‘rubbish’.

How can we change this?

For the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in delivering occasional lectures to social work students. They probably aren’t expecting me to get up and talk about bin bags so it’s been a powerful ice breaker and one that I hope those student social workers remember, and then go into practice with the knowledge that moving children to new placements using bin bags is not acceptable.

What else can we as professionals do to prevent this from happening in the future? Or if not completely prevent it, at least minimise the number of young people who feel humiliated and devalued by the use of bin bags to carry their belongings?

Here is a useful, simple tip that I can recommend – although I am sure I am not the first to have thought of this:

I have a suitcase in the boot of my car. It contains a number of hard, sturdy bags that are useful to move young people’s belongings in. I can use them to undertake an emergency move and lend them to other social workers who need to do the same.

I can picture situations where there may not be enough time to go to the car to pick up the suitcase and perhaps I should see if it will fit in the office somewhere. But what I do know is that by having the suitcase available, I am taking practical steps to prevent the use of bin bags to move children and young people who do not deserve to be made to feel that their belongings are ‘worthless’ and ‘rubbish’. This is why there’s always a suitcase in my car.

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17 Responses to Why social workers should keep a suitcase in their car

  1. Bill the Cat September 27, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    Thought provoking article so I immediately asked my procurement people to review our specifications with providers to see if we could slip this in under duty of care; requested monitoring officers to bring it up on their next provider visits and asked my C&YP colleagues (I work in Adults) what we can do in their area to reduce the chance of this happening.

    We might not get it right or stop it happening every time but if we improve one persons experience then its a win.

    See, us Commissioners aren’t only interested in the money! 🙂

  2. J Wheeler September 27, 2016 at 8:17 pm #

    While on my first placement as a student social worker I experienced the sadness of a child moving with bin bags it struck me at how simple this was to change especially when moving between placements.
    The team I was with now ensure they have bright colourful laundry zip up bags available for emergencies and foster carers are asked to ensure that if a child moves to them with no bags they at least purchase some of the said laundry bags for the child’s possible next move.
    One or two ensure they buy a basic luggage set.

  3. Alfredo September 28, 2016 at 12:09 pm #


  4. Emma September 28, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

    In my team, we have either gone ourselves or sent a worker to Argos for a bag. We had bin bags pinned to walls with pictures of children saying “this is not a bag”. No child should move with bin bags.

  5. Charlie Archer September 28, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

    I think you blow this minor irritation out of all proportion. This issue of moving belongings in a plastic bag is not critical, life threatening or indeed demeaning and, as a profession, we should spend less time worrying about what people think about such airy fairy things and take positive action to make sure children are safe. With fewer moves perhaps – making sure the placements are appropriate in the first place. Just a thought.

    • Lorna Fitzpatrick September 28, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

      I think your point about ensuring that placements are appropriate and seeking to ensure fewer moves is valid (see also Paul’s post below) but I think you miss the point when you insensitively dismiss the use of bin bags as a ‘minor irritation’ and state that ‘we should spend less time worrying about what people think about such airy fairy things’.
      The issue raised in the article is about the impact on children and how they might feel having their personal belongings treated as rubbish.
      As a reasonably secure adult, I have used bin bags to transport my own stuff but that has not involved me watching a person who has some power over my life chucking my belongings into said bags.
      From your comments I really worry about your ability to empathise with children/young people.

    • GF September 30, 2016 at 10:06 am #

      As someone who has worked in social care for over 30 years, with adults and children and at all levels;I have sadly had to ‘move’ people around a great deal, I think the bin bags issue is important. Totally agree about fewer moves and keeping children safe. But what about dignity and respect for the people we work with. I met a child, now an adult, a few years ago who I had moved over 20 years previously; she remembered every detail of the day I turned up to move her; so did I!!!. Charlie I’m not sure that respect and maintaining someone’s dignity in what is often a traumatic situation is a minor irritation. To the original poster I say, thank you for reminding me of why I came into this profession.

  6. Paul September 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    I don’t want to be critical of well-intentioned practice, but I can’t help wondering if we might be missing something here. Is the biggest issue not the fact that bin bags are being used, but rather that children are moving placements far too much, and in most cases for negative reasons such as placement breakdowns? Many children have multiple placement moves and whatever bags or containers are used to transport their belongings I doubt they will feel good about themselves when yet again they are effectively told they are not wanted by another foster family. Don’t we need a solution to the failure to achieve permanency for many children, rather than focussing on how they are moved?

  7. Brian Clayton September 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    I work in Adult Services and had the unfortunate experience of having to move a number of vulnerable adults from a failing care home. My Authority ensured that we had access to a large supply of suitcases as the idea of using bin bags was rightly seen as being degrading.

  8. Bob September 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    As foster carers we never let children and young people move on in bin bags, we pick up cases and bags at sales and such and store them until needed.

  9. BB September 28, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

    Interesting article – a few years ago our Children in Care Council persuaded our department to have a ‘no black bin bag’ policy – so it doesn’t happen any more (well, I haven’t heard of it happening so I think the policy is working and part of the foster carer training). Carers are expected to provide appropriate bags. All this because the children said ‘no’ and it was heard by those at the top.

  10. DC September 28, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

    I accept and endorse the points made in respect of frequency of placement moves for looked after children and young people, which should be avoided, when possible. However, in respect of the use of black plastic bin bags – this was recognised as intolerable, 40 years ago by myself and others – but it still happend – on occasions – and, sadly, still does – by the looks of it.

    Time to end this once and for all !

  11. Wendy September 28, 2016 at 10:33 pm #

    This is not new. If children are being move with their belongs in a black bin bags ,there. Is a problem within the service and all staff involved. What happened to the foster carers allowance for children what happened to two allocated social workers involved in the care planning for children . Who should ensure this does not happen.

  12. David Conway September 29, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    This story about bin bags, left me feeling very said. Is this what Social Work has come to in 2016. The Social Care system collapsing around our ears and were taking about plastic bags. Thank God I am getting out.

  13. jacqui September 29, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    In the 20 years of social worker I have only ever moved a child from home with carrier bags given by parents, this was bad enough never mind moving a child from a placement with black bags. From that day I requested there was a supply of cases/ holdalls kept within social worker offices for an emergency basis. I always had my own supply in my car boat, including nappies, wipes, toys etc.

  14. Lynda September 30, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

    Black bins bags don’t bother me personally but I can see the symbolism of how a child might see and remember it depending on their age and insight. I wouldn’t like smelly old suitcases from a charity shop or carboot or tip either though. Maybe pretty bin bags could be sourced as a compromise such as you can get at Christmas time that look like big Christmas puddings but with flowers or something if space or time is an issue. However, if it was a choice between worrying about a bin bag and a distraught traumatised child I know which one I would choose. It’s finding a balance, like most things in life……

  15. Elaine Pearson Scott October 10, 2016 at 11:12 pm #

    Thirty years on should not be happening. Definitely one for Reg44 visits and procurement contracts.