A taste of the front line

Community Care’s Care in the Capital Week, which ran
from 17-21 June, focused attention on staff shortages in London.
One of the ways it promoted social work as a career was by offering
two women from the world of business the opportunity to experience
life on the front line, an experience that both found surprising
and enriching.
Natalie Valios

Working in London’s square mile is a far cry from providing
support for a traveller community. As executive director and head
of charities at Schroders, an investment management company in the
City, Jean Smith’s normal day involves investing people’s money,
meeting clients, discussing investment strategies and reporting on
the performance of their funds.

Schroders has more than 200 charity clients on its books,
including the Children’s Society, Macmillan Cancer Relief, and the
RSPCA. Smith rarely has the opportunity to be directly involved in
the day-to-day work of these charities, so she jumped at the chance
to shadow Brigid MacNeely, project co-ordinator for the Westway
Traveller Project run by the Catholic Children’s Society.

The site is under the A40 Westway running from Paddington
through north Kensington and linking up to the Western Avenue in
Acton. It has been used by some traveller families for more than 30
years, and there are currently about 25 families living there.
MacNeely has an office on the site for the project’s five part-time
staff, which includes two travelling women. The project provides a
focal point for residents to turn to when they need support with
social and welfare issues. Staff act as advocates for the residents
in their liaison with other agencies and support individual
families with specific problems or issues.

Smith saw first hand the increasing interaction between the site
and other services when she helped hand out leaflets detailing a
fire brigade talk that evening on safety measures for the site. As
part of this, fire officers were offering to fit smoke detectors in
their trailers.

Access to the site leaves a poor initial impression for
first-time visitors, says Smith. Travellers have to walk along a
passage that is too narrow to take even a pushchair. “It’s enclosed
behind what looks like the Berlin Wall, which is rather symbolic of
an out of sight, out of mind attitude. This in itself is quite
shocking because the site has been there for a long time.” Even
more striking is the fact that access for horses from a
neighbouring yard is much better, she adds.

The site itself, although urban, is neat and organised and it is
clear that the traveller community takes much pride in the trailers
and home environment. Each trailer has an amenity hut containing a
shower and stove, which Smith found “pretty grim” but she adds: “I
would imagine there are some people in permanent accommodation
living in similar conditions.”

There are no facilities for children and young people and as
traveller families prefer to remain separate from the settled
community, boredom and frustration is an issue for children.

Part of the project’s aim is to combat the educational
disadvantages faced by traveller children by helping them with
basic numeracy and literacy skills. The Catholic Children’s Society
runs an under-eights playgroup and two after-school clubs for
children up to 14 on the site.

Smith quickly became aware of the sensitivities of MacNeely’s
job and was impressed by the rapport she has built up with the
travellers. “They have a strong sense of identity and culture and
you have to be very sensitive to their way of life.”

MacNeely is obviously considered a friend by the community and
someone they can turn to, she adds. Indeed, while Smith was there,
a traveller sought out MacNeely to discuss a personal problem.

“My idea of a professional in social care was of someone who was
brisk and efficient, a practical problem solver. When you see them
on the ground you realise how much of it is to do with the nature
of the person, their warmth and strength and the trust they have
built up with the people they work with.”

Bindi Rehal is an account manager for Miller Starr, a direct
marketing company in Camden. Her client is a well-known computer
company and she handles its marketing activities in Sweden, Norway,
Denmark, Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands. She is contemplating
a complete career change, so the chance to shadow a social worker
gave her the perfect opportunity to see whether this is the job for
her: “I’m interested in pursuing social work as I want to do
something that’s more worthwhile and fulfilling.”

Although she doesn’t have to deal with the personal
circumstances of the business people she mixes with, Rehal believes
her job has given her a grounding in people skills that would come
in useful in social work.

The seed was sown for a possible career in social work a couple
of years ago when her father became seriously ill after a head
injury. The family had two social workers who were a great support,
she says.

Rehal spent a day with social worker Angela Marshall and student
social worker Patsy Montague from Greenwich Council’s Kinara Family
Centre in Plumstead, which works with young people aged 13 to 17.
Referrals come from the social services initial response team, the
hospital social work team and education social workers. The
centre’s aim is to prevent family breakdown and children being
taken into care.

Staff provide help and support to individual families and young
people on their own on a one-to-one basis. Parenting groups are
also run at the centre. In general, staff work with young people
and their families for three months and then the case is reviewed.
As there is no follow up when a case is closed, the centre has
devised a 10-week programme called Space, for young people to
attend when their case has been closed where they can attend talks
on various subjects from drugs to bullying. There is also a
programme for teenage girls who have been sexually abused.

The centre works closely with field social workers, child and
adolescent mental health teams and the youth justice team. Although
Rehal had no preconceived negative impressions about social
workers, she was confused about their role before she began the day
shadowing. “The area is so vast that I didn’t know they could have
specialisms and that you got social workers in education or health.
I thought you got a social worker regardless of your

After sitting in on a team meeting, Rehal went on two home
visits. The first family had been referred to the centre because
the children were severely neglected. The house had rats, the
children had been seen scavenging in bins, and they had no
toothbrush, soap or flannels. Consequently, they were being bullied
at school because of their appearance and the family had been

Although Rehal had been warned about the state of the house –
now much better than when the family was first referred – nothing
prepared her for what she saw and she found it disturbing: “I was
shocked by the way they were living. The house was dirty and
smelly. I didn’t think people lived like that any more. It opened
my eyes.”

The second family had been referred because the children had got
into trouble partly as a result of parenting failures. The case is
on the verge of being closed because the children have responded
well to input from the centre.

After a day at the centre, Rehal believes the work they do is
exactly what she wants to be involved in. “I was very impressed by
what they do and it confirmed for me that it is definitely
something I want to do – they do such a great job.”

Care in the Capital Week was supported by

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