Andrea Collingridge has spent three decades supporting families in danger of having their newborn children taken into care. Mithran Samuel talks to her about a frontline social work career that has led to her receiving an MBE
While social care’s great and good featured prominently in this month’s Queen’s birthday honours, only one serving frontline social worker made it onto the list of 984 recipients.
Andrea Collingridge’s MBE was reward for 33 years of service at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, where she works as a maternity social worker, employed by Leicestershire Council.
She practices at the cutting edge of child protection in an area of social work that has been beset by controversy in recent years – carrying out pre-birth risk assessments on expectant parents.
For instance in 2007, Northumberland Council came under media attack over plans to remove the baby of 22-year-old Fran Lyon at birth following a child protection investigation.
Collingridge’s attitude is a world away from the baby-snatching social worker of media folklore.
“It’s so important to bear in mind that parents who have had an abusive background or not been in the right relationships deserve respect.
“Even if the decision is that the child is not going to be safe in their care, parents do deserve to have things explained to them with care and compassion.”
The nature of her client group, who are referred by midwives or social services, has changed over time and she now works predominantly with people who misuse substances.
There’s a lot more substance misuse in the referrals we get and quite a lot more domestic violence. These are the two main categories which have increased.”
One of the things she likes best about the job is the fact that her clients are a “motivated group”.
“Whatever they’ve had in the way of bad experiences, they are motivated to work things through for the baby they are expecting. That’s why I’ve stayed in this work for so long.”
She adds: “You’ve got to give them an opportunity in the pregnancy to really help them make the changes which mean they can, on balance, care for the baby themselves.”
This involves intensive work, she says, with the fine balance between child protection and family support always at the forefront of her mind.
“It can be that we need to set up a child protection plan. But if they are beginning to make changes it’s better if the babies stay with their families.”
But she adds: “What we’re mindful of is that our relationship might be with the mother but it’s the child that’s our priority.”
She says the job has narrowed in focus over her three decades in post and now almost exclusively concerns child protection or child in need cases, rather than more preventive family support work.
She values being based in a hospital and working cheek by jowl with health professionals. “We’ve had to work at it a bit. On the whole it’s pretty constructive.”
Of her immediate social work team, she says: “I’m really fortunate that I’ve got an excellent team manager. It’s a really close-knit team.”
She was nominated for the honour by her manager and, modestly, attributes the award to her longevity in the job.
Leicestershire Council leader David Parsons is more effusive: “Andrea is an exceptionally hard-working and dedicated social worker who always puts other people first and has made a great contribution to social work.”
When pressed, Collingridge says: “My husband said I’ve always gone the extra mile and the secretary at our office said that as well. To remove a child from a family is a huge responsibility. If we do that we have a huge responsibility to get it right. I’ll go that extra mile to get it right.”