by Sophie Ayers
During her time as education secretary, Nicky Morgan said that social workers should be tested to give them the same professional status as ‘surgeons and lawyers’. She cited the example of Peter Connelly (also known as ‘Baby P’) as social work failings.
In speeches Morgan was complimentary about social workers. She described us as unsung heroes “completing thankless work”. However, the underlying message delivered was that current social workers are not meeting the expected practice level – which is a significant generalisation.
I have the same aspirations as Morgan and the government that social workers should be admired, trusted and respected. However, the government’s solution to the debate about the perpetually corroded reputation of social workers is based on future aspirations, rather than on considering the skill set that already exists in abundance within current social workers.
The government consistently says it wants make improvements by attracting ‘high-flying’ graduates into the profession. Over the past year, it has repeatedly backed and expanded the ‘Frontline’ graduate programme to achieve its aims.
I consider myself to be the very graduate that the government would like to recruit. I obtained grade As in my A levels; attended a ‘top 10 university’ and achieved an upper second class degree. I read newspaper articles, am politically aware and sometimes, when time permits, I write poetry.
Yet the model of looking at future high achievers insults the substantial amount of bright; analytical; passionate and dedicated workers that I have had the pleasure to work with. The simplicity of future plans for testing seeks to find fault in individuals rather than assess the role of child protection social work in greater detail.
It is widely known that there is a shortage of child protection social workers. This does not mean that there are not enough people qualified to complete the work, but there is certainly a shortage of people willing to do it.
The reason for the shortage is that there is a clear expiry date. Some practitioners will progress up the ranks to management, while others flake away to emotional despair, a change of career or an area of social work which they consider less demanding.
I am baffled why more focus is not applied to the emotional impact of the work rather than looking at systemic failings or processes. Child protection social work is unique, disparate and taxing. You will always have a changeable day, which requires you to adapt to so many circumstances.
Social work is an isolating profession with work completed by individuals without the support of others. You are expected to complete your visits solo, without the emotional fortification of others. Referrals are made with minimal information, sometimes just an address, child’s name and date of birth.
I have faced real risk during my time as a social worker. I have stepped over a dead body whilst I discussed with the potential killer where her children should sleep that night; I have been held in a house with a machete; been spat at; had a window broken over my head; hid under a desk whilst a service user destroyed my office and had more death threats than I could count.
Police officers generally visit in pairs, with crucial intelligence relating to the home address; weapons at their disposal and the power of arrest. Police officers also receive ongoing support from psychologists to manage the recognised trauma that they face.
Whether it is funding cuts, a lack of awareness or malaise into the traumatic working life of a social worker, the emotional framework is not there for even the most robust individual to cope with each harrowing episode.
I will always remember the time that the police refused to attend a property due to the risk of firearms. My colleague ensured she filmed me on camera: her car engine running. At least then, the potential murderer would be captured in evidence, if the worst case scenario came to pass. This dice with death was to ensure that a father had the correct court documents and a right to participate in care proceedings.
Not only overt risk takes place but other situations occur that gnaw away at social workers’ psyche.
Try being the person who takes a brand new baby away from the hospital ward. Try sitting at the back of a ‘riot van’, waiting for the scared little ones to be brought to safety, screaming for their mother. Walk from a court when a Judge agrees with your plan of adoption, watching the families you have destroyed react to the desolate news.
Frequently, with each chilling event, appropriate support is not readily available. Although, this is entirely dependent on the resources available within each local authority. Generally, there is simply not the time, the structure or the knowledge to manage such traumatic events.
’Firefighting’ is a term often used within social work and this is a live issue within many local authorities: emotional protection is the last possible priority.
Recruitment and retention within social work will continue to be a theme until there is wider appreciation of the demands of the profession.
The solution appears to be so apparently obvious that I am dumbfounded that it has never been progressed. Why look for the perceived intelligentsia or seek accredited professionals from abroad? If only we could nurture those fabulous beings already in existence: waiting for more cohesive emotional support; appreciation or awareness of the daunting task of everyday social work.
If only the government could start to understand the formidable and monumental task that social workers face every day: perhaps appropriate funds could be delivered to secure better working conditions to maintain the talented, diligent and creative workforce that is already in place. Hopefully the profession’s faith will be restored by Nicky Morgan’s successor.
Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker