By Jenny Molloy and Joanna Nicolas
Jenny Molloy lived at home with her parents and younger brothers until she was nine years old. Her parents were both alcoholics and the children lived with chronic neglect. From age nine she grew up in the care system. Joanna Nicolas is a child protection consultant and has been a social worker for 20 years.
Joanna: I need to go and see a seven-year-old, Katie*. Social care has information that there is domestic abuse and drug use in Katie’s home and the school has concerns about Katie. What should I do?
Join Joanna Nicolas and Jenny Molloy at Community Care Live for more information on successful interventions in cases of neglect.
Jenny: Arrange to see her at school or somewhere outside of the house. Put truthful statements to her from what you know of the reality of her home life so that she doesn’t have to try and articulate difficult examples, which may make her feel disloyal or fearful.
Joanna: What if it’s an older child, a teenager?
Jenny: The same as above although if you can be in a car, all the better!
I hated it when social workers could look at me face-to-face when we talked about difficult experiences – I felt exposed. In the car, a young person can avoid eye contact which can make it easier to share difficult feelings.
Joanna: I’m allocated a case and it is a 14-year-old girl, who has had multiple social workers in the past and has been in and out of care. She is a young girl who is hard to reach. How can I engage with her?
Jenny: Be honest from the start about her past relationships with social workers ending, and acknowledge the unfairness of this. When I was 16, I asked my new social worker to agree to two things: 1) send me a photograph of herself and a bit of information about her prior to our first meeting, which she did; and 2) never to turn up without letting me know first. (She was an hour late on her first day meeting me, but I forgave her!)
Ask the 14-year-old what rules she would like to set in your relationship and negotiate from there.
Joanna: I have heard lots of young people talk about social workers being late, or cancelling appointments, which can make them feel as if they don’t matter.
Joanna: How honest should social workers be with young children about the concerns regarding their parents?
Jenny: Be very honest – obviously age appropriate. As a child, I didn’t understand why social workers couldn’t see what I was seeing and why they believed my parents’ lies. When I was older, I read the files and realised they were aware of some of it. This made me feel cheated and angry. I went through a stage of seeing their [social workers’] inability to be honest with me as cowardly, which bred resentment. This is one emotion that is certainly going to hurt the child.
Joanna: How best can I try to engage with parents who are really difficult to work with?
Jenny: Be honest about what you know. Do your research, for example in the associated behaviours of addiction, so that if and when they come up with excuses, you are ready to challenge them. Be clear, consistent and compassionate – and remember that if you find the parents hostile, the children will feel the same.
Joanna: What are the worst things social workers can do with children? How do we get it wrong?
- Give us hope with options that in reality are never going to happen.
- Talk about how busy they are and how high their caseloads are.
- Forgetting about us (that’s how it feels) between visits or when things are going well. I used to ask my social worker to write to me between visits – which she did. Nowadays there’s no excuse – there’s text, email etc. Getting a response is not the goal – it’s the fact that you are keeping us in your mind. We have to know that.
Joanna: What are the best things social workers can do? What do we need to do to get it right?
Jenny: The social worker can be the most important person in a child’s life. They have the ability to give us an example of someone who is kind, caring, loving and secure. I learned about social injustice through watching and listening to my social workers. I loved the way my social worker did her hair and dressed, so she took me shopping. I also learned to forgive my parents through watching the compassion shown to my parents through my time in care.
And, of course, there is love and affection. Thank God I was shown what a normal loving relationship looked like from my social workers, as I had no idea from my parents. My relationship with my social workers helped me identify how I would like to be. I used to ask lots of questions – if you had a friend who did this, what would you do? If this happened, would it make you angry, etc, and I learned where my values lay.
Joanna: Thank you for your honesty, Jenny. Everything you say strikes a chord and reminds us all of the good that social workers can do and the importance of their role and getting it right.
*Not real name.