“There’s a joke someone told me a while back, the only one I know about social work, it goes; How many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?
We don’t change light bulbs; we empower the lightbulb to change itself.”
Tim Fisher, a family group conferencing manager at Camden council, is explaining how the idea for an ‘empowering families’ training project came about. He says it was a “lightbulb moment”, hence the joke about lightbulbs.
“It was discussed in a series of coffee mornings held with residents in Camden. Fuelled by coffee, tea and cake this ‘brains trust’ of service users we now call the ‘Family Advisory Board’ talked about their experience of the child protection system – about what good social work relationships felt like. They shared a common aim which was to positively influence future social work practice in Camden.”
Space for dialogue
This idea developed into a training day which put service users and social workers together, creating a space for dialogue that moved it beyond the usual safeguarding discourse, Tim explains.
The day led by Tim and ‘Annie’, perhaps better known as Surviving Safeguarding, a social work trainer who has been through care proceedings as a mother.
“All the best stories start with ‘I was in a café in King’s Cross when…’ and this is where Tim and I first drafted our training day. Working with him was a truly empowering experience for me; he listened to my views and ensured the voice of the service user was woven throughout. Sometimes, as a service user your involvement in the design and delivery of services can feel tokenistic, but this was certainly not one of those occasions,” Annie explains.
The Camden families reflected on what constructive relationships with social workers felt like, a young parent spoke about learning to ask questions, a kinship carer talked about what it felt like to have two social workers say contradictory things to them. They had formed a panel to offer their experiences for discussion.
Bridging the gap
“We began our journey with the aim of bridging the gap between social worker and service user, building relationships and empowering families. It was expected to be a challenge; it is difficult for professionals to let their guard down in front of service users and it is equally difficult for service users to be vulnerable in front of the very people they feel have hurt them in the past,” says Annie.
“I had designed a particular activity in which a service user would each join a table of social workers, which resulted in real co-productive working.
“The energy level in the room was high with every social worker contributing and many feeling moved by some of the exercises we had designed. By the end of the day, the titles “social worker” and “service user” had been voluntarily put to one side, and we spoke together, as people, building and strengthening relationships and learning from each other. In short, it went better than either of us could ever have hoped.”
They were careful not to match families and social workers that had very recently worked with each other, and the main goal of the day was to help develop social work practice. According to Annie and TIm workers responded by being “extraordinarily positive” about the session.
They reported feeling empowered themselves, and valued the chance to listen and work with service users in a way that made them think about their practice.
Service users remarked on an “incredible” experience to speak to social workers in the setting, and said it was a good chance for both sides to be heard without judgement.
For Annie, she wants to deliver this training to every local authority.
“Frankly, my children need shoes,” she jokes. “Besides, I really, truly believe in it and the feedback was the best the training centre had ever encountered.”