There are some professions where the fruits of your labour are clear for everyone to see. For example, we all know doctors cure the sick and teachers educate our children.
Social work is one of those professions where the good, and at times painstaking, work often goes unnoticed. This is because it involves some of the most vulnerable and is therefore highly confidential.
Every so often people get a glimpse into our world and last week was one of those occasions. Five men and boys were found guilty of the rape and sexual assault of five girls in Peterborough.
When the verdicts were returned the chief executive and director of children’s services for Peterborough council stood up and told the media this important outcome owed much to the incredibly close relationships I and my colleagues had built with the victims.
Their positive acknowledgement of the work we had done over the past 18 months, and what we had achieved as a result, was extremely important. We had secured justice for the girls, which was always our aim, and we felt very proud to have achieved that.
Life as a social worker is always busy, but the past year exceeded anything I’d experienced previously. This was because of the time we invested cultivating close relationships with the victims to enable them to share details of the awful crimes they’d endured.
Relationships are key to all social work, but they are absolutely vital when you are supporting children who have developed strong emotional connections with people they trusted who went on to abuse that trust.
The extra mile
They often feel like nobody understands them and they don’t realise they have been exploited. Gaining their trust in me as a social worker was vital. I supported two sisters. The youngest, who is now 14, was the lead witness, but has a learning disability. She needed constant reassurance that I’d be there every step of the way, which often led to calls out of hours and at weekends.
It was important to go that extra mile, making sure we were available for them when they needed us. Actions speak louder than words, so if they needed us outside of working hours we made it our priority to meet those needs by making a visit or phone call. We also supported them through experiences that caused them distress or anxiety, such as meeting new people and visiting new places. It was all a necessary part of the process for us, but an often difficult part of the process for them.
The dedication was worthwhile. Once the girls felt they could depend on us they then felt able to reveal the awful details of what they had experienced.
Once the police investigations began it was critical to maintain that trust. Working with the police, we made sure that the interviews were very much focused on the victims, to ensure they felt able to give their evidence.
In the months between the police interviews and the trial, there were numerous occasions when the girls would feel anxious and unsettled about the trial. I found with the girls I supported, and particularly the lead witness because of her learning disability, timing was a big issue.
So I created a wall chart that she could use to count the days until the trial. I also wrote things down that I had told her so that she could look at it when I was not there. These little things really helped to keep her calm.
As the trial drew closer we had to focus our efforts on supporting the girls to give their evidence. It was immensely stressful for the victims and understandably there were times when the enormity of what they had to do became overwhelming for them.
We prepared the girls as much as we could for the experience, talking them through what they would be doing in great detail. It was a great reassurance for them to know we would be sat beside them as they gave their evidence in court – for some of them this was key to them doing so.
Advice for other social workers
Looking back it’s clear that unlocking abuse is all about time and patience. When it was identified there was child sexual exploitation in Peterborough, the city council set up a dedicated team to work with the victims and police.
At the time, when we were all learning, this was critical as it gave us time to develop those crucial relationships, not only with the victims, but with each other as a newly formed team and with our police colleagues. Those close working relationships provided us all with much needed emotional support.
If there was one piece of advice that I would offer a social worker who was in the early stages of identifying child sexual exploitation, it would be to put all your time and energy into developing close relationships with the victims. I know it sounds obvious, but go above and beyond, pull out all the stops to ensure they know they can trust you implicitly.
My other piece of advice would be to ensure there are close working relationships with partner agencies. Too often there is a lack of communication between agencies, but in this investigation the police and the council worked together at every level and most importantly listened to one another. There was never a culture of secrecy; we shared everything.
Challenges and rewards
The past 18 months have perhaps been the most challenging of my career, but they have also been the most rewarding. My colleagues and I feel so very proud of the girls and immensely privileged to have been part of their journey, to have shared their experiences and supported them through the highs and lows.
However, it doesn’t end there. Yes, justice has been done, but now we need to help the girls pick up the pieces of their lives so that they can grow into adults and have healthy relationships. This is the time they need us the most.
That is a challenge we are only just embarking on, but the close relationships we have built with the girls so far will give us the best possible chance of helping them recover.
- Estelle Thain is a senior children and families social worker at Peterborough City Council. In 2012 she was named Social Worker of the Year.