The government seems keen to seek advice from thinktanks on how social work should be reformed. But what do people who use social care support – whose voices are rarely heard – want to see changed?
Community Care asked people who have used services in adult, children’s and mental health social care to share their experiences of what works and what they feel needs to be improved. Here’s what they had to say…
The mother of a disabled child
Margaret Power’s daughter, now 36, has had on-off involvement with social services since being diagnosed with psychiatric problems nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Power, 66, explains that owing to her daughter also suffering from arthritis she’s fallen at various times under the care of regular adult services as well as learning disability teams.
Several years ago Power’s daughter was in residential care but there came a “point where it was unsuitable” and she wanted to explore alternatives.
“We had an excellent social worker who is still in touch. She was a youngish woman who made a special effort to get to know my daughter, take her to coffee shops, talk to her and find out her interests.”
The social worker recommended a supported living scheme in a way that was “persuasive but open to discussion”.
Power is largely positive about her dealings with social services but is critical about the financial pressures placed on teams.
“It’s a daft system where you’ve got social workers deciding what people need and then they have to go begging money from the panel. It’s squeeze, squeeze, squeeze all the time.”
The adoptive parent
Sally Donovan, 44, is the pen name of an adoptive mother of two children who have lived with her for six years.
Over the past decade she and her husband have been involved with a number of different social workers, both independent and those working for local authorities.
Donovan, whose experiences of social workers have been generally positive, singles her current post-adoption support social worker out for praise.
“She’s well educated in trauma, that’s the crux. She has a great deal of empathy, always listens and trusts what you say. There’s never any lack of belief,” says Donovan.
“But she’s trying to manage all post-adoption support in our county with limited resources – a lot of that is trying to get support from outside agencies and that’s not there.”
Addressing such resource inflexibility is crucial, Donovan says.
“The boundaries seem very firm between budgetary areas; for example fostering and post-adoption support. The financial impact of a child leaving an adoption placement and returning to care is massive.
“If you spent a little more upfront in supporting the child and their family, it would save not just money, but a disaster.”
The care leaver
“My first proper social worker was wonderful,” enthuses Nattylyn Jeffers. “When I was six or seven she gave me a Japanese style doll that was her grandfather’s – I don’t know how I’ve still got it at the age of 32! If every social worker was like her, things would be different.”
Jeffers describes this as her only positive memory of social services. After leaving foster care she sued Leeds City Council, alleging that the local authority failed to support her cultural identity and emotional health needs.
In the end the council paid out compensation, although without admitting liability.
Having gone on to attain a master’s degree in youth and community development, Jeffers takes a measured view of how the system could serve young people better. Central to this is increasing the reinvestment of their knowledge into social care.
“Things come up – case conferences and so on; to a young person what does that mean? Big words, terminology: another occasion where people are talking about them and their life, and they don’t feel empowered.
“People who use services are key to shaping provision. It’s more than just tokenistic participation; it’s about giving these young people key roles where they can be employed as mentors. And when you look across the sector, who in management positions has been in care?”
The mental health patient
“Good care is about the small things: turning up on time – I think that’s very important – through to doing things efficiently,” says Stuart Wooding, 66, who has a 20-year history with bipolar disorder and now runs a mental health training and peer support business.
Wooding describes bad experiences with “reluctant” and “lazy” social workers, but explains that his current care co-ordinator is different.
“She fills an enormous gap in my life. I come from a large extended family, who disowned me when I went into psychiatry [sic]. Having someone – not a friend, but a reliable source of information I can go to…she’s built up a very good relationship.”
Ask about what could be done differently, and he answers unequivocally:
“Accountability. I think too many mental health professionals still regard service users as losers destined to have a third-rate life. Recovery should be the number one objective.”
“By that I don’t mean that you shut up and take your medication; I mean you become a bus driver, or a security guard, or a managing director or whatever, you know?”
The adult carer
Cassie Felton, 44, has care of her sister’s three children: two older siblings aged 18 and 20 who were placed on residence orders, and a child of almost seven – on a care order for five and a half years – who she’s recently secured special guardianship of.
“In terms of professionals involved with the family we’ve had 40,” she recalls. “It’s been a mixture – we’ve had some really good social workers and some really crap ones.
“We had one – the longest serving – for about a year. She built up a strong relationship with the children; they trusted her. On the negative side we’ve had some who were less than complimentary – very demanding.”
“One in particular, who was only here for a meeting, walked in my house, ran her finger along my picture frames, looked at it and pulled faces. She never said anything, but it’s quite annoying when someone does that.”
Felton points to individual social workers’ lack of “clout” as a key frustration. “It drags everything out – it makes you wonder what’s the point of them being there,” she says.
For families in the same position as hers, Felton believes a big-picture approach to care that considers the whole family unit – rather than just the needs of the children in care – is essential to minimise needless conflict between service users and the local authority.
*Photo of Nattylyn Jeffers: Hand of correction photography and design