When Ruth Ibegbuna looks back at her two years as a foster carer, one social worker’s visit stands out.
“I had two young girls living with me, they both loved Disney. The social worker came round, sat down cross-legged on the carpet and had a really deep discussion with the six-year-old about the final sequence in Frozen for about 20 minutes,” she recalls.
“She didn’t turn up with an agenda, she didn’t fill out any forms, or talk about LAC [looked after child] reviews. She just talked to the six-year-old about something the girl cared about. I was just watching it, thinking ‘this is brilliant work’. From that point on that girl adored that social worker completely. They had that bond.”
Having the time to build those bonds, to take a real interest in young people and show that they matter, is fundamental but too often gets lost in the way our education and care systems operate, says Ibegbuna. She’s seen it time and time again in her work with thousands of children over the past 15 years, first as a high school teacher and, since 2007, with the Reclaim project – the charity she founded to support young people from Manchester’s working class communities get their voices heard.
‘Kicking the stigma out’
Reclaim’s mission, she says, is to “kick the stigma” out of being working class and help young people meet their “leadership potential”. The charity works with young people to run projects on issues they’re passionate about – recent examples include a group of young women leading a campaign against street harassment from older men, and #Teamfuture, a movement calling for more ethical political leadership that grew from young people’s concerns over the way politicians acted during the EU referendum campaign.
“We feel working class young people are often frozen out of leadership positions. Their voices aren’t heard in society strongly,” says Ibegbuna.
“When I talk about leadership I’m also talking about young people feeling they can take control of their own lives and express the direction they want them to go in. It’s especially important for young people in care because they’re cast into a system where all of these people are making decisions for them. Their authentic voice needs to be heard, yet a lot of the time it absolutely isn’t.”
Ibegbuna has been giving the care system a lot of thought recently as she was invited to deliver a seminar to an audience of social workers training on the Frontline graduate scheme.
The profession is close to her heart. When she was growing up in Bradford her dad was a social worker on the notorious Buttershaw estate, the housing scheme that inspired the cult film Rita, Sue and Bob Too about the early years of Thatcher’s Britain. It meant she saw the rewards, and strains, of social work up close.
“My dad loved his work. Sometimes he’d come home elated, sometimes exhausted…you could see there were some cases he couldn’t get out of his head. But he was really passionate about social work.
“That’s why I fostered. My dad used to talk about how ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and all that sort of thing. He used to feel very sad that communities didn’t step in more when families were in crisis. I think he found it a shame that it got to the care system so often.”
Both sides of the fence
Having grown up in a family where social work was “embedded” (her brother is also a social worker), Ibegbuna’s experience of fostering let her see the care system from “both sides of the fence”. She says it hasn’t diminished her regard for social workers at all, but has given her “a more rounded view” of the system they work in.
She was struck that foster carers aren’t empowered as much as they should be, are too often “given a job and told what to do” regardless of their own knowledge and experience and not treated as an equal voice. She was also troubled by the way young people, in stark contrast to the professionals supporting them, were sent into LAC review meetings without prior training or mentoring support.
“The professionals have all sorts of support in place, yet we expect a 12-year-old to go into a room full of near strangers and talk about very painful things from their life? There’s very little resource put into the young people – why haven’t they got a coach or a mentor? We can’t just expect young people to turn up and be at their best. It takes work to get to a point where young people feel comfortable with you.”
A large part of that comes back to giving social workers the space to build those relationships, says Ibegbuna. Her frustration is that her experience of a social worker visiting to simply spend time talking to a young person about Frozen, seems to be the exception rather than the rule. She knows a lot of it reflects the “heavy caseloads” facing staff, and says managers need to find ways to enable their social workers to spend time “up front” simply investing time with young people.
“Because when it works, it’s because the social worker and the young person have got that bond. It’s not just seen as a transactional thing. It’s about someone coming round that cares about me, that has my best interests at heart. If a social worker just arrives, fills in forms – that’s not building a relationship. To be fair to the social workers, they don’t decide the size of their caseloads.”
Ibegbuna says she was surprised but “really pleased” to be invited by Frontline to share her experiences with social workers and hear about the challenges they face.
“I think reaching outside the profession to hear other voices is a really positive step. It’s a bit like teaching – if teachers only talk to teachers then not a lot changes. So the idea of having these seminars bringing different voices and types of leader, I think that’s a really, really healthy way forward.”