Paul Child, a Hampshire social worker in the looked-after children team, has won council worker of the year award for dissuading a 13-year-old boy from a suicide attempt. Camilla Pemberton listened to his story
It all started with a call from the school to say Callum had walked out. I called his mobile. No answer. Then a call came through from Callum’s phone. It was a police officer. ‘Are you Callum’s social worker?’ ‘Yes’. ‘We’re with Callum. Can you come and meet us?’
“I hurried to the location the officer gave: a bridge above a busy dual carriageway. I saw a group of officers huddled around several police cars. Terror was probably the first thing I felt when I saw Callum, but the adrenaline was racing so I didn’t have time to think about it. I can still see it clearly in my mind. He had managed to get himself beneath the railings and was threatening to jump.
“The police told me to go and talk to him. They gave me a walkie talkie but I didn’t know how to use it. Callum seemed relieved to see me but he was extremely distressed and wild-eyed. All I could hear was the rush of traffic and car horns.
“Callum was unhappy with his new foster placement. He said he’d jump unless we sent him to live with his mother. This had never been part of his care plan, but he was very clear that’s what he wanted. It was tempting to say, ‘yes of course’, just to calm him down and coax him back to safety but I was acutely aware that it was dangerous to promise him the world. We didn’t want to find ourselves in the same situation the next day.
“As I climbed down to be near him, I wrestled with whether or not I should pull him back to safety. There was a horrible moment where he lost his footing.
“We discussed his foster placement and the possible future options. There’s no training for this type of situation but I just thought it best to calm him down so that he could start thinking clearly. Eventually he said, ‘ok I’ll come with you’. He said he trusted me that we would be able to find a good solution for him.
“It was very emotional afterwards, he clung to me. I think he’d given himself a big shock too. I was a bit of a wreck for the rest of that week but my team were brilliant and helped put everything in motion for Callum’s future.
“He now lives with his sister who is being supported as a foster carer. It’s all going brilliantly, touch wood. They moved away from Hampshire so I am no longer his social worker, but we keep in touch. We always had a great relationship and I think that was a crucial factor in how events unfolded that day.
“Callum enjoyed playing football so I used to take him for a kick around. It was in those moments that he was his most lucid and really wanted to talk. As he dribbled the ball, or sat down to have a sandwich afterwards, he’d open up about his life and how he was feeling. If we’d stuck to the face-to-face round table model of social work I wouldn’t have developed the same relationship with him or got the information I needed. I think it’s important for social workers to be able to communicate on whatever level works for the child.
“That day was an extreme example of the complex and dangerous situations social workers have to face. I was thrilled to be awarded council worker of the year but I know so many social workers who would be worthy winners.
“The media interest has been difficult to handle. As social workers we tend to shy away from the limelight. But it reminded me of how important it is for social workers to have a positive media profile to sit alongside the more negative coverage. I’m the son of a social worker and I’ve always worked in social work, both adult’s and children’s. I can honestly say it’s the most amazing job and it was an honour to be able to help Callum that day.”
This article is published in the 29 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading ‘It was an honour to help’