by David Jones
Sally has been a social worker for 23 years but is now seriously considering quitting a job she once loved.
“The workload simply doesn’t allow me the time to engage with children and young people in a meaningful way,” she explains. “And this means forming relationships with some very vulnerable kids is quite frankly impossible.”
This situation has become even more acute, she feels, when working with youngsters in children’s homes.
Under ‘The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations’ of 2010, the statutory requirement is that a child’s social worker should visit them once during their first week in care, every six weeks for the first year and then every three months if the placement lasts until the young person is 18. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.
“It was embarrassing and distressing,” says Sally. “I sensed that the attitude of some of the staff was, ‘oh, she’s bothered to turn up,’ while the young person wouldn’t feel inclined to talk to me. I was hardly a familiar face and I understood both reactions.”
It’s a state of affairs that I can attest to during my 11 years as a residential child care worker. Anthony was a teenager I worked with for six years, during which time he had been assigned four social workers.
He had started to develop a good rapport with two of them, only for them to suddenly disappear from his life, both moving to other jobs at short notice.
I remember Anthony’s disappointment at having yet again to be introduced to a new worker who knew little about his upbringing, or the problems he was experiencing with other young people in the home.
Both before and after I became his key worker, I would have to attend his review meetings when the social worker who should have been present informed the home that they couldn’t be there, or simply didn’t turn up. In time, Anthony became increasingly cynical and resentful, and who could blame him?
Another lad I worked with was 14-year-old Joe. He had grown up in a chaotic household and also been the victim of physical and sexual abuse. Given everything he had experienced, Joe was a personable presence in the home and blessed with a winning sense of humour.
However, after about six months his behaviour started to become a cause for concern. Fiercely loyal to his family, he would spend long periods away from the home with them, and efforts by staff to locate him were constantly thwarted by family members.
‘I’ve not seen her for ages’
I had met Joe’s social worker on two occasions at the home and he would remark to me how much he liked her. He sometimes asked me why she didn’t visit him more often, adding: “I’ve not seen her for ages.” I tried to explain that she needs to see many young people, but promised him I’d phone her to ask when she would next be seeing him.
Joe had been with us for nearly a year, and when I checked his file it confirmed that the social worker hadn’t had any contact with him for four months. She informed me during the call that she was trying to manage a considerable workload, and since no member of staff had reported any negative behaviour, she assumed Joe was doing well. When I updated her regarding Joe’s absences from the home, she arranged to see him in three weeks.
Before that meeting took place, however, Joe’s behaviour started to spiral out of control.
The police returned him to us twice after he was cautioned for being verbally abusive and physically threatening to a shopkeeper. His social worker was now in regular phone contact with staff and clearly very worried. She confirmed that she would be coming to see him as soon as possible.
Matters worsened when three days later, Joe was involved in a street robbery and arrested by the police. He spent the night in the cells and was returned to the home the next day. His social worker was waiting for him with me, but he refused to talk to either of us.
Duty of care
When Joe appeared in court, the judge informed the social worker in no uncertain terms that she had abdicated her duty of care to him and that her practice had proved unacceptable. Distraught, she immediately took long-term sick leave, meaning another social worker would need to be assigned to Joe.
The home in which I work has received ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ ratings from Ofsted, but staff do despair of a system that too often lets our young people down when it comes to their statutory rights. It’s hardly surprising that some kids don’t feel valued.
A month after Sally had opened up to me about how low she was feeling, she contacted me again. After much consideration, she’d decided that she had to resign.
“My mental health is suffering and I feel wiped out with it all,” she explained. “I simply can’t go on trying to give my best and not achieving what I need to with these young people. I owe it to them as I can’t keep letting them down. And in the final analysis, I owe it to myself.”
David Jones is a pseudonym. The names in this piece have been changed. He is a residential children’s home worker.