“You don’t know what a Citroen 2CV is?!” asks Lyn Romeo in mock-outrage.
The chief social worker for adults is remembering back to her days in practice and the time she careered across a field in her trusted car, trying to find a person who’d “suddenly disappeared out the back door” in the middle of a Mental Health Act assessment.
“2CVs were built by French farmers so they could drive them across fields with eggs from the chickens and the eggs wouldn’t break. They had very good suspension,” she laughs.
“They were a stereotypical car that social workers used to drive – ‘oh look, here comes the social worker in their 2CV and sandals.’”
We’re sitting in Richmond House, home to the Department of Health and Romeo’s base since she was appointed chief social worker three years ago. It’s the day after the Brexit vote and in the background civil servants are hedging their bets on who will be the next Prime Minister.
Romeo splits her time between Westminster, where she advises ministers on social work reform, and trips to visit social workers across the country. Her current role, part of the civil service, is in many ways a different job to frontline social work, but even so, she says there are similar challenges.
“You have to deal with being employed by a statutory body. You have to live with sometimes saying no, or your advice not being taken,” she says.
“This is not a campaigning role, it’s a professional advisory role. I have to give direction where it’s needed and try and influence the direction of travel. Strategically from within government that will feel like the right thing to do, but it might not feel like that for people out in the field.”
‘Service to others’
Romeo says her motivations for doing this job remain much the same as when she started her journey into social work. When asked if she’s ever wanted to quit the profession, her answer is a confident no: “Sometimes when I’ve worked in situations where it has been really distressing or upsetting, that’s been hard, but I’ve never ever felt like I wanted to walk away.
“I’ve always felt motivated still by trying to make a difference to people, and trying to make a life better.”
She developed this “sense of fairness and service to others” during her teenage years, when she joined a youth movement at school, which focused on community work.
“That’s probably where my interest in social work came from. I think I might have thought about teaching or something like that, but I got this real passion for working with people to address some of the challenges either created through their circumstances, or poverty, violence, or through their own personal problems.”
Romeo grew up in a small town in rural New South Wales, Australia, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her family’s European background meant sometimes having to deal with issues of “being seen as different, being excluded, or not seen as part of the community in a full way”, something she also feels influenced her move into social work.
“I had a good childhood and everything but we didn’t have much money, we lived fairly ordinary lives but in that context…I had a kind of awareness of the challenges people face when they’re trying to make a place for themselves in the wider community.
“I developed a strong sense of looking out for people, of family and connection, and the difference that could make to your life, even if you didn’t have much materially.”
After leaving school at 18, Romeo moved to Sydney to do a four-year degree in social work.
“I was a bit green [inexperienced] to be honest with you. I don’t know if it was a good or a bad thing that I went straight from school, but I was still very passionate that this was the sort of work I wanted to do. It was a great course.”
The placements ranged from a psychiatric hospital to setting up a neighbourhood centre back in her hometown, where there were very few, if any, community services available at the time.
“It’s still there today after all these years. I was very interested when I went past the centre last time I was visiting and it runs things now like LGBT groups, and all sorts of that things that at the time would just have been unheard of.
“It’s developed into a very community-facing, inclusive support and early intervention service – it feels like quite a legacy to go back and see that.”
Another of Romeo’s placements was in a large hospital and after qualifying in 1977, she took up her first post there as a hospital social worker.
“I think that’s interesting because something I’m picking up as I go round the country now is where employers provide a good placement for the student, they get to know them, and the student does well, it can be a really good opportunity for recruitment and retention.
“The students will think ‘I really want to work there because I really liked it’ but also the employers will know the students, have good regard for them, and so it creates a relationship.”
Romeo spent two years at the hospital, largely working on end of life care. It was “challenging” work. She recalls supporting a 15-year-old girl who was receiving treatment for a life-threatening illness. Her parents were very strict, and Romeo had to manage that, as well as the anxieties around what the future held.
“I remember the engagement I had with her, obviously partly because I was young myself I suppose, but also taking the time to really listen, empathise and understand what all the issues were for her in that context.
“Also to be somebody she could share things with that might have seemed silly at the time – like her wanting to go out and getting her parents to understand that she wanted to be like other teenagers, while also trying to manage the very scary things around her illness.
“That influenced my career – it taught me that however young people are, we have to ensure that their voice is heard, they are listened to and we really understand what matters to them.”
It’s something that stuck with Romeo, who during her time as chief social worker has always stressed the importance of social workers being able to work across the lifespan, rather than a strict adults/children divide.
Her first job in the UK was in children’s services – after leaving the hospital job and spending a year travelling Europe, she landed a job as a residential social worker in Leeds.
“I went between two jobs – one was working in a residential unit for young people preparing to leave care, but also I sometimes covered for what was called a small family group home at the time, the oldest was 15 and the youngest two, it was like running a family home really.”
Next stop was Bradford council and a move into generic fieldwork. Romeo’s patch covered anything from child protection to working with adults with learning disabilities.
“That’s how it was when it was generic – there were some specialist teams to be fair, but mainly we all did a bit of everything and were more focused on a particular neighbourhood.
“There were three social workers and a social work assistant and we covered one council estate – we did everything that there was to do with the people who lived there. You were mainly working with people who were poor, had very little resources, and lived in social housing, they often came from families with a single parent, or issues of domestic violence.
“It was a really interesting and satisfying time for me as a frontline social worker. We worked closely with a specialist family therapy team and developed a systemic family approach to working in statutory children’s work. Systemic theory and practice has continued to underpin much of my work since then.”
‘Simple as that’
Ten years later, Romeo moved into a team manager role – initially for generic teams, but in reality it became “more and more focused on child and family social work”. She never thought she’d move into management, but ended up enjoying it.
“I think my approach to those roles has always been one that’s collaborative, supportive and empowering – but maybe you should interview someone I managed.”
“I’ve never been a boss-type person. I’m not a command and control person.”
Romeo progressed to area manager level and her shift into management of adult services followed the implementation of the NHS and Community Care Act 1990, when local authorities began to split their services into “children and families” and “community care”.
“It seems a bit odd now when you think back to it – it was just the positions that were available, the council needed someone to take on the adults work, and it was as simple as that.
“It wasn’t that I really wanted to jump, it was just circumstances, but having done it I’ve found it really satisfying – to have the opportunity to lead and shape good practice with older people, people with learning disabilities and support for young people moving into adulthood.”
A lot of this work involved working closely with health colleagues to build in “more of a social work in health arrangement that wasn’t just about providing services” – an area Romeo continues to champion in her role as the chief social worker.
“I was involved in setting up a social work service co-located with GPs, back in the GP fund-holding days – it was about trying to get back to that original experience I’d had in the hospital, working in a multi-disciplinary team – where I’d had an even status and a role to play.”
The area manager role later led to a secondment to the Department of Health, where Romeo worked on social care policy in relation to the care management model.
“We look back now and we can see that it was probably too process-driven, like an industrialised approach to care really. There should have been less emphasis on that and more emphasis on ‘people are people and let’s start with a conversation about what matters’.
“We’re pulling back from that now and the Care Act is a great opportunity to reframe all that again, to focus on wellbeing and how we can work alongside individuals.”
The next few years saw Romeo return to Yorkshire, before moving back to London and becoming a Social Services Inspector. Her final post before being appointed chief social worker was assistant director for adult services in Camden – a “very, very challenging” role.
“There were issues around quality and performance in relation to social work services that needed to be addressed, alongside real pressures on finances and budgets. It was a hard slog for the first few years – but I was really fortunate I had a good team of people with me.
“We worked really hard, but we had a lot of fun, respect and time for each other. I still meet with them now and I think people really valued that time when we were setting out on a challenge and bringing people with us to make a real difference.”
Having a good friendship network – “often people who were also social workers” – and support from supervisors and colleagues, is something Romeo says she’s really valued in her career.
“It’s about that sense of optimism and hope – if you can hang on to that, then that’s what makes a difference for the people you work with too – particularly when you’re working with people with mental health issues.
“I did a lot of work in that area and I think that made it much clearer to me – what people want when they’re working with you is to have that feeling.”
Hope and optimism is also what Romeo says she tries to bring to her current role.
“It’s very important to me to try and do this job as well as I can…I want social workers to hear and to know that somebody is really batting for them, being a voice for them, support but also challenge what we are doing and have that connection.”
For Romeo, social work is not “just a job in the same way as lots of other jobs are” – it’s been part of her personal journey. She’s always valued the profession’s “acceptance of who people are” and remembers how she felt growing up as a lesbian in an era before the progress made by the women’s liberation and LGBT rights movements.
“I had to deal with those issues of sexuality and identity. I had a struggle. It was difficult to even talk about it or accept it in yourself.
“Things have changed tremendously and I think in social work of all professions, there’s that acceptance of who people are and the diversity of the people in the profession has really tried to mirror working with very diverse communities – this is one thing we don’t want to lose.
“Having the time to reflect and understand the knowledge base from sociology, psychology, human development, social justice, human rights – that combination does really help to make you who you are. I suppose that’s the thing – it’s a vocational profession, it shapes you.
“Your journey as a social worker shapes you. I don’t go and do social work between 9 and 5. I am a social worker. You see everything through that lens now…even Brexit.”