Novel penned by social worker aims to show the “impossible task” of social work

Could 'Known to Social Services' buck the trend of social workers and their careers being poorly represented in the media?

Freya Barrington wrote 'Known To Social Services' to boost public awareness of the profession

It’s fair to say that the representation of social workers in fiction and the mainstream media has received less than positive reviews from the sector.

Just last month Silent Witness was blasted for being the ‘worst portrayal of the social work profession EVER’, while social workers were less than impressed by Canadian social worker Steven Ugoalah (aka #TheBestSocialWorkerInTheWorld) when he competed on BBC1’s The Apprentice late last year.

Social workers even voiced concerns about the impact Ugoalah’s controversial opinions may have on the public’s perceptions of social workers. BBC1’s portrayal of social work in the drama The Casual Vacancy also seems to have missed the mark.

And you can’t discuss controversial representations of social work without mentioning Eastenders’ infamous storyline, which was enough to push one practitioner to tears.

But this trend could be about to be bucked by a new book, Known To Social Services, penned by a former social worker who writes under the pseudonym Freya Barrington.

“I needed to write”

Set in a fictional location, the synopsis reveals the novel follows Diane Foster, a dedicated social worker, into the “grim, grey world of Deacon Hill estate in Millbrook and the tormented lives of its inhabitants”.

Barrington, who now lives in Malta after working in the UK’s children’s services for more than a decade, tells me why she was motivated to write such a book. “As I went on in the job I just felt I needed to write – not for me, not my own story as such – but I wanted to raise awareness for social workers with the general public.”

She worked in a residential children’s home and as a foster carer before qualifying as a social worker in 2001. Working mainly in child protection, she says: “I’d had a lot of very diverse experiences, some good and some not-so-good. I felt I had a story to tell.”

While Known to Social Services, which follows Foster’s packed caseload, is fictional, Barrington believes many of the themes and a lot of the scenarios “could well have been taken out of any social worker’s caseload”.

The cases Foster deals with will be familiar to many social workers, Barrington explains. “I know a lot of my colleagues who can say ‘been there, done that, had one like that’. The cases in the book are very typical of what a child protection social worker might have to deal with in the course of a career,” she says.

“I’m not saying she’d have all of those cases in one caseload, but certainly in the course of my career I would say I have probably dealt with 995 of those cases.”

Although Barrington is reluctant to reveal any spoilers, the synopsis describes how, hampered by an administration inhabited by paper-shuffling and uninvolved, uncaring bureaucrats, Foster fights “unremittingly to protect the children of Deacon Hill from rape, horror, random violence, female genital mutilation and murder”.

Cathartic experience

Writing a novel was a “cathartic” experience for Barrington who merged fiction with her personal social work experiences and condensed it into one narrative.

“It might seem extreme, [people might think] ‘well you wouldn’t get all that on one caseload’ but then, actually, you might,” she argues, referring to a time in her career when she had over 30 children on her caseload.

One of her main goals is to build public awareness of what social workers actually do, and “the impossible task they face”. She explains: “I’ve tried to find the right balance between making it as realistic as I possibly can, and making it as authentic as I can, but at the same time making it commercially appealing.”

Barrington accepts there will be critics, but hopes social workers will relate to the protagonist. “I so desperately want people to understand where I’m coming from,” she says.

Could writing fiction become an avenue of reflective practice for other social workers? “I don’t want everyone to start writing!” she laughs, acknowledging her unique place in a market that hasn’t seen much social work fiction before.

With Barrington already working on a sequel, this market could be about to start growing.

Known To Social Services is available on paperback via Amazon from February 28. 

More from Community Care

7 Responses to Novel penned by social worker aims to show the “impossible task” of social work

  1. ExSocialWorker February 26, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    Great news. Others to read include Martin Weinbren’s ‘King Welfare’ on Kindle or secondhand and Sue Miller’s ‘Death of a Social Worker’ also out of print. George Konrad’s ‘The Caseworker’ was probably the first, but isn’t set in the UK.

    I’m tempted to go into a ‘4 Yorkshiremen’ sketch about having more than 30 on my caseload, but I’ll hold off on that one!

  2. Notwavingbutdrowning February 26, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    A caseload of 30 still seems a remote luxury, the stuff of fiction and reports to management, to most social workers.

    At a time when the task and responsibilities have become most complex and technically difficult, we are seeing many social workers struggling, irrespective of experience, just to maintain some semblance of professional credibility and competence. When the local authority is failing, the task becomes more burdonsome, as the blame culture ramps up, in it’s oppressive management and everyone feels they are barely surviving.

    Is social work on the edge of a profession-changing crisis yet again? Many of us believe the profession is a long way off getting it right and in the meantime, highly qualified and experienced practioners fall by the wayside. The most worrying part is that we were having these conversations in 1992 when I qualified and nothing’s changed for the practitioners themselves as they trudge around the same issues for families and are yet, as a profession, to achieve the breakthrough needed to increase safety and self-esteem.

    • Freya Barrington February 26, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

      Note the piece says “over 30” – and it was – well over!!!

    • SW East Mids February 26, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

      I’m pleased to say our LA try to stick to around 25-30 cases and as an experienced SW I never went above 35 so I think this is becoming a lot less of a luxury!
      Just to add I’ll never give up on you by Becky Hope is also a good read/portrayal

  3. Anne Macdonald February 26, 2015 at 5:29 pm #

    I started writing a novel after retiring from social work in October of 2013, it is not yet finished though this appears to be a field which is interesting people at the present time.
    I obviously don’t know the way Freya has written her novel but in mine I am trying to portray how some social workers find their personal lives affected by the impact of such a demanding career in addition to managing CP cases whilst trying to support parents together with working within constraints imposed by management/organisations.

    Again mine is fictional and written in my maiden name, I will be interested to read Freya’s book.

    • Freya Barrington February 26, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

      Hello Anne, I wish you well with your book. In Known to Social Services, the central character Diane Foster discovers that the demands of her job, have a very negative impact on her personal life. As you say, it is a very real issue for anyone in social work, and of course other fields, as we strive to juggle a complex and often draining job with family and other insistent demands.

      I look forwards to reading your book.

      Regards, Freya

  4. Jennifer Wheaton February 27, 2015 at 3:57 am #

    I am a Case Manager for people with SMI (Serious Mental Illness). My case load has varied from 35 people to above 50. The group I work with are not “stable” and unable to function independently. My job includes scheduling transportation for RN appointments, Psy appointments, and now (with AZ’s wonderful Integrated Care System) medical appointments. I am also to keep track and remind them of these appointment. If a person is on Court ordered treatment, I am required to file progress reports every 45 days. If the COT is renewed and the client objects I have to go testify in court. I am to see all my clients Face 2 Face every month, regardless if they don’t have a Dr appointment for 3 more months and our “requirements” state a home visit only every 3 months. I am required to complete and submit any and all referrals within 30 days, I am required to find housing for people, despite them being on the lists for housing for MONTHS at a time. I am required to transport my clients in my personal vehicle. I am required to go to a clients home to asses if the are suicidal or homicidal and transport (again in my car) to the hospital. I deal with clients who are high, drunk, have bed bugs, are sexually inappropriate, delusional, paranoid and have been verbally abused almost everyday and physically assaulted twice. I am required to make sure all their paperwork is updated every year. I am required to answer the phone when I am at my desk. I am required to visit inpatient clients every 72hrs and transport them from discharge, get their meds filled and make sure they are safe in their environment. On top of this I only have a WEEK to get my notes in. I am supposed to assist with food, social security, furniture, clothes, etc. The amount of paperwork needed for any of the above services is ridiculous and being made more so every day by bureaucracy. That is the life of a CM and SW. Trying to help people while being constantly asked why your work is not done.