By Lorna Stabler
Growing up in foster care, I experienced the positives, and negatives, of being a looked-after child. I had the good fortune of ending up in a very supportive long-term placement with an inspiring foster carer who fought tooth and nail to make sure I had the opportunity to achieve my potential. However, I also suffered separation from my family, ever changing social workers, and the often careless use of language that cemented the negative outcomes expected of care leavers.
Becoming a kinship carer for my brother when his placement broke down gave me some insight into the difficulties of the system from the other side, but at the same time increased the feeling that I was helpless to make any real changes. I was relieved to finish my masters, discard the label of care leaver and put children’s social care behind me.
I was drawn to research because I wanted to find ways that evidence could influence change. I studied international development, then international political economy, thinking that I would focus my attention on international inequality. I never thought that looking at my own life and past experience with children’s social care would be the route I would take.
But when I saw a job advert looking for a researcher to work on a project with social workers to evaluate their practice, I saw a way to draw on my own experience of children’s social care to help shape the understanding of what makes effective social work practice.
And I now find myself working alongside social workers every day.
Measuring practice quality
I currently work as a researcher at the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care, on a DfE-funded Innovation Project in Islington children’s services. The project is a partnership between the service and the research team aimed at measuring the quality of social work practice with families. As part of this, I observe meetings between social workers and service users wherever they take place: in the office, in homes, parks, prisons, cafes. Afterwards, I interview families about their experience of the meeting and the impact of social work on their lives. As part of the work, I have observed and listened to possibly a hundred such meetings.
What stands out to me is a desire among social workers to focus on what is most important to families. The strengths-based and relationship-focused social work that I see in most social workers’ practice was not what I expected.
I have had the chance to get to know many social workers personally, and hear about their passion and motivation to do what they can to help families in need of assistance.”
I have witnessed a real desire to be a positive force in society, and also the impact this has had on families’ experience of children’s social care. Seeing social work close up in this way, and talking to families and young people about their experiences, has helped me to better understand my own experience and put it into the wider context of the social care system.
Service user or professional?
One thing has struck me, though. Having been in the role for nearly a year, I have noticed that it is rare to hear about lived experience of foster care from practitioners and researchers. I am confident that I am not as unusual as I seem. I read stories of care leavers becoming social workers.
I meet young people in care, or leaving care, who want to be social workers. I know many researchers who gravitate towards areas related to their personal experience. But I am yet to meet a social worker who has mentioned being involved as a service user with children’s social care.
Service user and professional
Drawing on my own lived experience shapes how I interact with service users and social workers. When speaking with families, I am able to empathise with the initial fears or misgivings that getting referred to social services can bring. It helps to be able to show that I take their views seriously and am not there to judge.
When asking questions to children and young people in care, I am able to reflect on my own experiences and choose real life examples to illustrate my questions and explanations. And if they ask why I am interested in their views, I am able to say that my own experience in care showed me that it is important to speak up to shape the world around you.
When social workers ask me what my background is, and what expertise I have to observe their practice, I hope they find it reassuring to know that I have a personal interest, as well as a professional one, in making sure practice is beneficial to families.
When reflecting on a visit with a social worker, I try to help them imagine the family’s point of view and to try and relate it back to their own experience – perhaps linking the anxiety of having a social worker visit and the anxiety of being observed at work! Of course, there are professional boundaries, and I have never talked about anything personal in an interview, but it goes a long way when interviewing a foster carer to be able to say “my foster carer is a diamond.”
I believe the distinction between service users and professionals in most public services is a false one.”
Everyone will experience using some form of public service in the UK and this is usually uncontroversial. However, the stigma still associated with involvement with children’s services could mean that practitioners are uncomfortable discussing this.
I hope drawing on my experience with children’s services, and being open about it, will help address this to an extent. For truly reflective and empathetic social work, it is important not just to imagine yourself in a service user’s shoes, but to think of times when you have been, or may be, in a similar position. As I have discovered, drawing on your own lived experience can bring an added dimension to the way you view your work.
Lorna Stabler is a researcher at the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care, University of Bedfordshire