‘It’s the complexity, the challenge and the satisfaction of getting it right’

Last year’s Children’s Social Worker of the Year, Angela Adams, reflects on her 20-year-long career in social work

L-R Sherry Malik, Angela Adams and James Rook. Photo: Matt Grayson

Getting nominated and shortlisted for the 2014 Social Worker of the Year Awards was “all a bit embarrassing” for family court adviser, Angela Adams. But after scooping the accolade for Children’s Social Worker of the Year, she now says the event is one that really made her year.

“I just thought nothing would come of it so the fact I actually won was amazing,” she says. “After 20 years in social work it is such a validation of your professional ability and achievements and I’m very lucky to have had that chance.”

Social Worker of the Year Awards 2015

The awards are open to qualified social workers in England and nominations will be accepted until 5pm on Friday 24 July.

There are 17 categories to enter across children’s and adult social services, including Mental Health Social Worker of the Year, Student of Social of the Year, Team of the Year, Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Contribution to Social Work.

The awards, for which Community Care is the official media sponsor, were founded by independent social worker, Beverley Williams, in 2006.

Adams’ career in social work started with a passion for sociology. At 16, she was fascinated with studying society, social groups and social dynamics. Coming from a working class background, higher education was an unusual path for members of Adams’ family, but after excelling in her studies at the local comprehensive, she landed a place at Liverpool University.

Adams later secured sponsorship from the Home Office to complete an MA in social policy and social work at the London School of Economics. “The Home Office sponsored students to take their master’s degree if they worked for the probation service for two years afterwards, which if you think about the situation now, that’s a pretty amazing opportunity,” she says.

‘Confidence and resilience’

One of Adams’ most notable achievements is the changes she effected around domestic violence during her early days as a probation officer. When she started this role, domestic violence was still called ‘volatile relationships’ and wasn’t being recognised as an offence.

“It certainly wasn’t being responded to in the sense of the risks it poses to children, even in terms of exposure,” she says. “It was pre the knowledge we have now and pre that focus on the risk issues of domestic violence.”

When the first domestic violence courts were set up, Adams’ worked as part of a team to educate magistrates about how to approach the issue in terms of risk assessment and to treat perpetrators as high risk offenders, even from the first time they were charged with assault.

She was met with resistance – with one magistrate even suggesting that the social work approach was “meddling” with the natural order of relationships – but Adams’ didn’t give up.

“I wrote lots and lots of those reports [on the impact of domestic violence on children and family life] during that time because I felt frustrated that there was still the tendency to say ‘well, this is a first time offence, they are not really high risk’,” she says.

It took considerable resilience and confidence to maintain that stance, but eventually Adams and the judges moved on together.

“Part of our role as social workers is to influence stakeholders and be able to do that in a positive way,” she says. “Our relationship didn’t break down and in the end I think it probably benefited from me maintaining my professional position, them respecting it, and vice versa.”

Adams later worked as an independent social worker in the borough of Richmond, before joining Cafcass as a family court adviser in 2009, where she continued her specialism in domestic violence, holding the team portfolio on the topic.

‘Real outcomes’

What she’s enjoyed most about this role, her achievements in which prompted the awards nomination, is being able to influence tangible outcomes for children.

“A lot of people would say ‘writing reports, what does that contribute to society really?’ But those reports are a basis for hope and for a child-focused, safe outcome in the midst of family conflict and risk,” she says.

“At the end of proceedings there is a real outcome and you actually have a role in enabling the child’s needs to be put at the forefront and their voice to be heard.”

Since winning the Children’s Social Worker of the Year award, Adams’ has moved to the high court team at Cafcass, which involves working on some of the most complex legal and welfare issues in the family court.

This has brought new challenges – “the level of cross examination is much harder and what’s being asked of you in terms of the quality of your work and the quality of your evidence is much higher” – but it’s a transition she’s glad to have made.

What’s next? Adams doesn’t know. But for now “the complexity, the challenge of the work, and the satisfaction of getting it right” make her role as a social worker worthwhile.

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