By Charmaine Malcolm
Social work is a world I entered in 2006. Since then, it’s seen many changes which have arisen for a variety of reasons; serious case reviews, legislation and media profiling to name just a few. But what has remained consistent is the desire to share good social work practice, improve quality and produce better outcomes for children.
In a typical year, hundreds of thousands of children are involved with children’s services. Often, these result in positive outcomes. And yet it is the very small proportion of cases where things go wrong which are profiled by the media, and result in public outcry with calls for the profession to be held to account.
While being held to account is something all social workers are well versed in, being praised is not a common experience. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the job. Children, society’s most vulnerable, should not be hurt, should not be abused.
But I often wonder if social workers are treated in this way because social work is not truly recognised as a public service. We hear junior doctors are going on strike and there is a public outcry. We hear teachers are going on strike and there are conversations on every radio station and news broadcast across the nation. When social workers go on strike due to poor working conditions and high caseloads? It may be publicised in the sector press, but where else?
Each and every day
This needs to change, and it shouldn’t just be about celebrating social work today. We need to do it each and every day of the year. Social workers work with some of the most vulnerable children in society, regularly save children’s lives, create safer families, rebuild families and work with health professionals, schools, courts and the police, to achieve social justice for children.
Whilst the workload is demanding and at times exhausting and emotionally draining, the look on a child’s face when they are safe is the greatest achievement. I will never forget three children who came into care due to significant inappropriate physical chastisement.
One of the children was reluctant to share the abuse they had endured. But when they saw my tears as another of the children revealed the extent of their injuries, I learnt about a history so full of abuse that the best outcome was to identify a safe carer for the children.
Going through court proceedings, running parallel child protection and looked after children processes often led me to challenge processes and procedures. However, I also recognise the role they played in guiding what I understand to be good practice. These children went on to share good feedback about the support they had received, and named us as part of their support network.
I have learnt to be my own critical friend
I love being a social worker, I thrive on keeping children safe and creating healthy and happy memories for them. Surprisingly, I am opposed to political interventions and rarely get frustrated with the changes. This is because I choose to dedicate my focus on improving my knowledge, skills and professional confidence. I have learnt to be my own critical friend and use feedback from the children and families I work with to improve social work practice.
As an interim service manager and a practice educator, I recognise my ability to lead and influence. I have the opportunity to influence a service, external agencies and prospective social workers to understand the importance of keeping children at the centre of everything we do and to be focused not just on results but good outcomes for the children and family.
I once worked with a director who attended every meeting with a piece of A3 laminated paper with the word children written on it. Every conversation had to consider the impact of decisions on the children themselves. Their example continues to inspire my work, and for me, is the epitome of good social work practice. So let us celebrate such examples of good practice on World Social Work Day today, and on every day that follows.
Charmaine Malcolm is an interm team manager in a social services department and a Frontline fellow, having taken part on the Firstline leadership training programme.