A social worker’s involvement with a young offender can be the thing that stops a young person spending the rest of their lives in the justice system, in a psychiatric hospital or on the streets. If you get a bad start in life, your expectations aren’t high and, without help, you continue that way through life.
My career started in the probation service. I thought prison was a really bad place so I wanted to help keep people out of prison. At that time, in the 1970s and 80s, there was quite an emphasis in probation on helping people in terms of employment and understanding what they’d done wrong, rather than on punishment.
From there I moved into the youth justice field, where I worked with young offenders in Kent for more than 20 years. I suppose what social workers working with young offenders do is give these young people a better life chance and help them achieve their full potential. They remove some of the handicaps they have had and help them make a better start.
The relationship between the social worker and the young person is very important. You have to be honest and straightforward and, if you say you are going to do something, you have to make sure you do it because these young people have been let down a lot in early life.
The voluntary organisation I work for now, Medway Mediation, runs family group conferences on behalf of Medway Council. We take on the cases of children where the local authority is taking court action regarding a child protection matter and, in the first instance, is looking for a family solution.
In this line of work it is easy to see the difference a social worker’s intervention can make. One case that springs to mind is that of a four-month-old girl, Louise.* Medway Council was taking legal steps to make her the subject of a care order, having previously obtained care orders for Louise’s two stepbrothers and a stepsister. Louise’s mum, Steph,* had been unable to care for her older children – when they were taken away, the children were so hungry they were looking for food in bins and picking up scraps from the floor.
Medway Mediation family group conference (FGC) service team was asked to consult Louise’s family. The FGC convenor visited Louise’s parents and her wider family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends – to explain the problems Louise’s social worker was raising about Steph’s ability to care for her daughter. The convenor also invited them to attend a conference.
Eleven family members came to a conference where they successfully produced two family plans aimed at safeguarding Louise. The first was a comprehensive support package provided by various family members for Steph and Louise’s dad Jack to enable them to play their full roles as Louise’s carers. The second identified two separate relatives from within the group who would be willing to permanently care for Louise should the first plan fail. The council agreed to stop proceedings and allow the support package to be put in place.
The social worker in this case made a real difference to Louise and Steph by seeking out an alternative solution to a care order.
The greatest reward for social workers is seeing improvements in the lives of the people they work with, when they actually achieve something they wouldn’t have achieved before. That is very satisfying and that is why we do the job we do.
Ian Sparling is a manager at Medway Mediation
*Not their real names
This article is published in the 9 April issue of Community Care under the heading Proud social worker stands up for the profession
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Stories in the mainstream media give a skewed picture of social work because they focus on children’s services and relate mainly to crises and serious cases. Community Care’s Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign is seeking to redress the balance by giving a voice to social workers from across the profession to talk about their daily lives and the difference they make to service users. E-mail your positive social work stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and discuss your achievements at www.communitycare.co.uk/proud.