‘I changed my mind: social workers are not the enemy’

Parents can feel threatened by social workers knocking on their door, leading to communication breakdown and obstructive behaviour. Camilla Pemberton asks one such parent why she changed her mind about social workers

Parents can feel threatened by social workers knocking on their door, leading to communication breakdown and obstructive behaviour. Camilla Pemberton asks one such parent why she changed her mind about social workers

By her own admission, Karen Green (pictured) was in “a very bad place” 10 years ago when she first encountered social workers. Her husband had just left her and their three under-fives and she needed help. “So I should have felt relieved when social workers appeared at my door,” she says. “But I wasn’t. I felt terrified.”

For many stressed-out parents who feel their parenting capacity has been called into question, this is a natural reaction. For Green social workers became the enemy.

“When they appear at your door it’s as if you’re being told, ‘You’re not good enough’,” she says. “If they have concerns about your family when you already feel like you’re failing, it’s scary. You’re going to be obstructive because you think you have every reason to fear the worst.”

Green, from Enfield, north London, became convinced that social workers were trying to “demonise” her and, for eight years, had little further contact with children’s services. But she continued to struggle.

The breakthrough came two years ago at a parenting class run by Enfield Council, she says: “My eldest son’s behaviour was challenging and I was at my wits’ end so I decided to seek help. I knew effective parenting was not about shouting and screaming.”

When she realised that the classes were run by social workers Green was immediately sceptical, almost bolting from the class in defiance.

“I nearly turned on my heels and ran, but something made me stay. The social worker seemed so kind.”

The classes made a difference. “When I was calm, I started to listen to the help that was on offer – it was designed to empower parents and give us the skills to parent properly. I began to realise that social workers actually want to help families to stay together, not tear them apart.”

It was an important revelation for Green, who is soon to become one of Enfield Council’s first parent champions – a training programme for volunteer parents who wish to help others who need parenting support. Worried that families are missing out on support because social workers have been unable to win their trust, Green is determined to help social workers improve relationships with their communities.

“It will take effort, but it can be done,” she says. “Social workers, like police, need to become friends to the families in their communities.”

She believes this could help to prevent future disorder, such as the recent rioting and looting. “If parents lack confidence and control they feel helpless and demoralised,” she says. “This has a knock-on effect on children. But if we give parents the tools to feel empowered and confident we can help them to instil confidence, pride and ambition in future generations.”

Parents are likely to feel affronted at the intrusion in their family life, even if it is justified, Green says, making the right approach crucial. She believes that winning a parent’s trust involves a “gentle, non-judgemental and patient” approach. The best social workers, she says, listen to parents, as well as children, and look for ways to alleviate the pressure on families.

“One social worker took me out for tea and helped me with the shopping,” she says. “Just having time to relax and being assured there was someone on my side, who wanted me to succeed, made a huge difference. I really believe that, with that approach, you can move mountains.”

Green feels galvanised in her new role, which will soon involve her accompanying social workers on home visits.

“There is so much help out there for parents but many are missing out on it because they don’t trust the people delivering it,” she says. “As a parent, I know how they feel so I want to help them to trust social workers and accept their help like I did.”

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This article is published in the 8 September 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Befriending the enemy”

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