By Jack Brookes
I was, on reflection, very lucky. With the exception of six months or so when she was unwell, I had the same social worker, Marie, for my 14 years in care. I remember a benign figure who would appear every now and then and take me out to lunch at Happy Eater on the A27, or to the beach in her VW camper.
Did I trust her? I don’t know. I looked forward to seeing Marie but I didn’t understand what she did – not really. I understood a little more in my later teens but I only really understood after I started work in a children’s home and in my mid-thirties, when I read my social services records. It turns out she did quite a lot for me.
I doubt Marie remembers me as a benign figure. According to her records I regularly shouted and screamed appalling abuse at her. On one occasion, in a psychiatrist’s consulting room, I threw a chair at her and called her a liar.
Why should they trust?
The question, “why don’t looked-after children trust their social workers?” is the wrong one. A better question is: why on earth would they?
The vast majority of children in care share one thing in common – they have been let down by adults. Not just any adults, they were let down, whatever the mitigating circumstances, by their parents. From their first moments in the world they were not cared for properly and the adults in their lives were unreliable. Children in care are set up not to trust adults or relationships in general.
In my role in residential care work it can take me months, or even years, to build meaningful and trusting relationships with children I look after. They show me the worst of themselves and I come back the next day, the day after and the day after that. If I let them down, either for reasons beyond my control or because of my own inadequacies, I take responsibility. Even after that they never completely trust me – some ambivalence will always remain.
I can do this because, in the average week, I spend more hours with a young person than their social worker will in a year.
Of course, social workers are in a different role. This means they are likely to have been present for some of the most difficult moments in the children’s lives: When they were removed from their families, when each subsequent placement broke down and so on.
It is even worse when the social worker has not been present for these traumatic moments. Children will often have multiple social workers. Or the duty worker, a complete stranger, may have come to tell them they couldn’t live with their foster carers anymore and they would have drove them to live with more strangers, in yet another town they have never been to.
Most social workers understand that it is unbearably difficult for children to accept that their parents aren’t good enough, and the social worker can take the blame for them being in care. But this is only true to an extent, actually many children will know, deep down, why they are in care. They will think something like: “You tell me now it is not safe for me to live with mum – so why did you leave me there for ten years?” And they may well have a point.
A foster placement breaks down? They will probably think: “You tell me now they could not manage my behaviour – but you knew what I was like before you sent me there”. And they will definitely have a point. Out of desperation to get them placed, did you gloss over the more difficult stuff in the referral paperwork?
Individual social workers can hardly be held responsible for under-resourced child protection teams, the lack of meaningful needs based placements or the numerous other inadequacies of the care system.
But the man in uniform on the train platform isn’t responsible for the fact that my train is inexplicably late, the management of Southern Railways or the government’s transport policy. He is responsible for responding with empathy and understanding to my irritation and keeping me as informed as possible. I am much less likely .
Some children do have fairly trusting relationships with their social workers. And these social workers all have one thing in common – they are reliable. It is surprising how rarely they cancel visits or can’t be there when they should be. This can’t just be about “the system”.
When you visit a young person – let them know when you will see them next. See this appointment as a priority and not just another LAC visit that can be bumped for ‘this meeting’ or ‘that training day’. When you really can’t make it? Don’t just email a carer to rearrange call and speak to the child. If the child won’t come to the phone? Send a card. You hear they tore the card up? So what. Make sure you send one the next time and the time after that.
Be honest and take your share of responsibility when things go wrong or you make the wrong decision.
The most important thing is to let them know that you understand why they do not trust you, that you hope they will in time, but that you have a lot of work to do to earn their trust first.