Social worker of the year Dee Jethwa tells Daniel Lombard about her commitment to social work, which the judges described as “tireless”
“Passionate”, “dedicated”, “an inspiration to everyone who works with her” – these are some of the accolades bestowed on Dee Jethwa whose dedication to raising standards in children’s social care led to her being named UK social worker of the year for 2009.
Community Care caught up with her straight after the awards ceremony in Bedford on 31 October. It was approaching midnight on a Saturday night when the post-awards disco was in full swing, but Jethwa’s commitment and enjoyment of her work, delivering safeguarding training to children’s services practitioners for the NSPCC and other bodies shone through.
“State of shock”
Jethwa, 52, from London, says her job gives her “great satisfaction and happiness”, and the award came as a great surprise. She describes her reaction when her name was called: “I was in a state of shock and disbelief, my knees started shaking.”
But many people, including Una Fisher, the NSPCC’s head of child protection training services, believe it is richly deserved for a career in social work stretching back 25 years, including the past 11 as a trainer.
Originally from Kenya, Jethwa arrived in London aged 14 and initially gained a degree in business management before realising her calling lay in social care.
She started as an unqualified social worker in the London borough of Barnet in 1984, initially working with ethnic minority communities, before taking a masters degree in social work at Canterbury University and graduating in 1990.
She moved to Harrow Council’s social services department in 1991, where she took on a unique role of “professional carer” for a 14-year-old Asian girl. The pair’s friendship remains to this day.
“The role was designed for a children’s services professional who was able to provide therapeutic care, and she came to live with me,” she says. “She was my foster daughter but I now consider her my daughter. She became a member of my family and still lives with me.”
Jethwa says the experience had a profound effect on her work with looked-after children and foster carers. “It was a huge learning curve for both of us but it was a very effective model,” she says.
In 1998 she left full-time practice and became an independent trainer. Since then she has delivered training to more than 6,000 people in the UK, India, Singapore and the Middle East.
Passing on knowledge
She does not “market” herself and doesn’t have a website. But she says: “I’m conscientious about the quality of my work and wherever I go people ask me to come back.”
Her approach in keeping abreast of developments and passing on knowledge is also informed by her beliefs as a Hindu. “The principles guide the way I live my life and how I relate to people – truth, integrity, acceptance of difference, sharing knowledge and learning through this. I have a thirst to learn and if it benefits other people then I have a responsibility to share that.”
Jethwa is considering returning to academic study and wants to take a doctorate in social work, focusing on family violence. University lecturing on social work is another possibility.
But it’s clear that she greatly enjoys working with charities, as proved by another unexpected accolade last month. She had been leading a four-day course at the NSPCC’s national training centre in Leicester with a colleague, training people to train others in safeguarding, incorporating her usual participatory style of activities, case material, and group exercises.
“Over those four days it felt like people were so motivated and wanting to do their work better and, at the end, we got a standing ovation.
“It was the first time that has happened – it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
She admits becoming emotional at receiving her first standing ovation. But the response serves as another reward, in the words of the judge of the 2009 award, for her “long-term and tireless commitment to raising a wide spectrum of best practice standards in social work, and raising them again and again”.
DEE’S TOP TIPS
Dee Jethwa shares her top tips for child protection practice:
● You need to be clear about what is unacceptable about the care of the child, why it is unacceptable, what needs to change and by when, and what will happen if things do not change.
● Gathering information on forms is primarily a procedural task. It is what sense you make of the information and how you use it that is critical to understanding what is going on. This is where analysis and professional judgement come into play, but this is an area of practice that is sometimes underdeveloped.
This article is published in the 12 November 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “The standards bearer”