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”.
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.