Seconds after we sit down at her desk, Korrine Williams’ phone rings. “Hello? You’re where? You’ve got no shoes? Hang on a sec,” she grabs her handbag and rifles through it for a pen. “Have you got enough call me back texts?”
We are sitting in the fifth floor offices of International House in Brixton – home to Lambeth council’s family support and child protection team.
Williams has been a social worker in the south London borough for the last year, a product of the council’s ‘grow your own’ scheme for newly qualified social workers.
On the phone is one of the young people Williams works with. The girl is upset, and angry. She says she’s homeless after falling out with her mum and is demanding that social services get her housed and pay for a taxi to pick her up.
Fifteen minutes and a series of phone calls from Williams later (one to the girl, one to her parent, two to the housing department, another to the girl) and things improve.
An appointment with housing has been sorted and the girl feels able to make the short trip to the housing office on the bus.
On the table opposite, Pauline, Williams’ line manager, is busy preparing for a legal planning meeting about a child protection case that looks like going to court.
It’s the week before Christmas. At the end of the desk are two frames draped in gold tinsel that serve as a reminder that 2012 has been a good year for the team.
One contains a letter from Labour leader Ed Miliband, congratulating them on recently securing an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. The other shows off a ‘team of the year’ award picked up at the 2012 Social Worker of the Year Awards.
The caseload that has everything
The recognition is welcome for social workers working in one of London’s most challenging boroughs where inequalities and deprivation are rife.
Williams says her caseload has “everything you could think of”, including substance misuse, mental health, domestic violence, homelessness and trafficking.
One of the team later tells me: “A lot of people say if you can be a social worker in Lambeth, you can work anywhere.”
An increasing concern for Williams and her colleagues is gang violence. Some young people they work with can’t go down certain streets for fear of being stabbed by rival gang members.
A local community project called Young and Safe has been helping social workers get to grips with the issue, Williams says.
“It’s a brand new problem for us, and it’s really come to a head in the past few years. It’s frightening, and it’s frightening for the kids involved,” she says.
The borough’s diversity brings other challenges. Around 150 different languages are spoken in Lambeth, with each community having different cultural norms for social workers to get up to speed with.
“It’s a great place to work if you want to learn,” says Williams. “You learn to be really culturally aware. What I initially might have seen as unusual, might be perfectly normal in another person’s culture.”
We’re on our way to visit the mother of a toddler Williams has been working with since February. The woman has a history of drink and drug use and, until recently, was in a violent relationship with the child’s father.
The toddler is now in the care of a kinship carer, a “protective factor” that Williams says has been key to the case not going to court.
When we arrive, the mother and Williams greet other warmly. The mum is getting support for her drink and drug use and feels positive. But she and Williams both admit that their relationship has had plenty of friction over the last year.
“We’ve had difficult times,” the mum tells me. “Korrine told me to do things and I always told her ‘no, I’ll do it next time’. I worried at first that they wanted to steal my child. But she’s helped me help myself. Now, I know I can call her anytime there’s a problem.”
Don’t mention the ‘h’ word
When we get back to the office a problem awaits. Williams can’t find a laptop charger. Apparently, they regularly go missing as a result of Lambeth’s hotdesking policy. Finding desks for everyone can be like playing “human Tetris” on a daily basis, one social worker tells me.
And while all of the team – from Williams, one of the team’s newest social workers, to Flo, their most experienced – have plenty of good to say about the council’s approach to social work, the mere mention of hotdesking triggers a chorus of groans across the floor.
“If we had our own desks, we might not all feel like we’re running around like headless chickens,” Williams laughs. “But we make it work. We smile through it, we make jokes and we help each other.”
As Williams scrambles about for a charger, Denyse, the team manager, comes to check on caseloads. In a bid to protect their social workers from stress and burnout, Lambeth are keen to ensure caseloads don’t spiral out of control.
Denyse wants social workers to be managing an absolute maximum of 21 cases at any one time. Williams’ current load is 23.
“Denyse really looks out for us,” Williams tells me later. (I speak to her a couple of days before this article is due to be published and she’s glad to report she’s got her caseload down to 15).
The next day, I come in to carry out some final interviews. At the desk next to me, a father whose children are in contact with social services is waiting to speak to one of the team. He offers to tell me about his experience of social services.
“At the start you feel very hostile towards them. If social workers come in being hostile you can’t get anywhere. They have to be calm,” he says.
“I remember telling them – ‘you’re not going to take my kids’. I kept saying to myself ‘I know they’re going to try and do something’. But as time goes on you get to know a person. You get to know what their job is about. Taking away your kids is the last thing they want. It took me time to realise they’re genuine in that.”
Before I leave, I ask Williams what she likes most about her job. She says it’s working with the most challenging cases and starting to make a breakthrough, however small.
She tells me about a woman she’s working with, who has had an alcohol problem since a very early age. The woman started out very hostile to Williams, not helped by the fact she’d moved from another borough where she felt she’d had a bad experience with social services, but things are improving.
“You’ve got to understand that often we work with people that have had horrific, traumatic childhoods. I couldn’t imagine the things that woman has gone through,” Williams says.
“But you know what, I’m not going to go into her house and tell her she’s a bad mum. I’m going to encourage her, as I think that’s the best thing for her child and for her.”
“That’s been our breakthrough together. I think she thought I’d be one of those people who just give up on her, because that’s what has happened throughout her life. We’ve got a lot of work to do together, and it has taken months and months and months just to get to this point. But we’ve already made small steps, you know?”
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Andy McNicoll is Community Care’s community editor