Vidhya Biju, winner of the 2017 overall social worker of the year, is passionate about the service users she helps, and adamant that direct interaction with service users is the priority.
Despite an incredibly varied career, practicing in New Delhi resettlement colonies in India and across children’s and adults’ services in Birmingham and Walsall, her approach to practice has remained the same.
“I have all along enjoyed working with people, building a rapport with them and making a meaningful difference to their lives whether they be a child that I worked for, a person with disability or an elderly person,” she says.
Biju won gold in the adult social worker category at the 2017 Social Worker of the Year Awards as well as the overall title. The board of trustees said she typified everything that is good about the profession.
“To me, social work is about changing lives for the better for vulnerable people, who believe you can turn things around for them when their world appears upside down.”
She has been a social worker for almost two decades and doesn’t see that relationship ending any time soon.
“My grass root experience of working in the deprived areas of the city slums of New Delhi helped me to understand the effects of oppression, poverty, disability, isolation and loneliness on human lives.
“This understanding always maintains and ignites my passion and commitment to the most vulnerable individuals and apply the values of social justice, social inclusion, equality and empowerment in my everyday practice.”
Biju grew up in Nagpur City in the Maharashtra state in Central India. She says her education helped her absorb “core humanitarian values”.
“The dignity of the human person, respect for human life and sharing hope for people who feel oppressed, isolated and marginalised lies at the root of my social work value system,” she says. She was driven to pursue social work education immediately after secondary school, which culminated in a master’s degree in social work in 1999.
Her first role in the profession was in Delhi’s slums and resettlement colonies, where people from slums were rehoused, in areas far from the city with little or no basic amenities. She highlights that despite this rehousing, individuals were displaced socially and economically, struggling to find jobs with their families and continuing to live in poor social and economic conditions.
“The people in the slums of Delhi were migrant people who settled in New Delhi City trying to earn themselves a livelihood by picking menial jobs but had to live as squatters in tents with no basic amenities such as access to drinking water, housing, toilets, and other sanitation facilities,” she explains.
Biju and her colleagues worked with families and communities, particularly with women and children. “A lot of this work involved advocating and mobilising people for their rights as citizens. Our work involved promoting linkages for sustainable community development by using a rights-based approach, enabling and empowering people to get services.
“The charity Saahasee Society for Community Empowerment and Urban Transformation also worked to support people for better health, education, promotion of self-help groups and enterprise development to improve the quality of their lives and I was part of this mission.”
Transfer to adults’ services
Biju gave birth to her first child a month after her partner – who is also a social worker – had moved to England to work for Birmingham children’s services. Upon her move in 2004 to reunite the family, she joined the same local authority.
She moved to Kerala, South India, in 2012 with her children to care for her husband’s elderly parents for two years until a suitable carer to stay at home to look after them was found. She returned to England in May 2014 and joined Walsall council adults’ services soon after.
Her move from children’s to adults’ services, she says was inspired by her role as carer for her parents in-law.
“This was clearly an opportunity to recognise the unrecognised work of carers, a job that gave me immense satisfaction and kindled my passion to do my best for them,” she says.
“I think my move into adults’ services has brought me back to the style of social work with people which I had practiced back in New Delhi; understanding people and their needs, working with them in an informal manner and spending time with them, making them feel valued and giving them the belief that we do care about them.”
Biju joined Birmingham’s enhanced assessment team in August 2015. The team consists of professionals including social workers, doctors, discharge nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and enablement care professionals, alongside private sector residential and nursing home providers.
As a unit their role is “to ensure the potential of individuals to continue to live independently and safely within the community was maximised and the least restrictive care options were proposed and delivered where this was the most appropriate outcome,” Biju says.
She is unfazed by the busy and pressurised multi-disciplinary environment: “I have worked in Birmingham’s children’s services and Cafcass which have always been busy and pressurised environments, so working in a hospital-based environment has never been daunting to me.”
“I deal with the pressures through early intervention and rapport with individuals, their family and support networks, effective joint working with health colleagues and service providers. At times the work can’t just be limited to 9am to 5pm but I have no regrets about spending a little more time, for this is such a noble and rewarding profession.”
It is this time with service users that Biju feels is fundamental, and she cites the “documentation” required in social work in England is a factor that affects this.
“The pace of the work in the UK has been much more fast paced with the amount of documentation and recording needed to be done, and this has clearly affected the amount of time I would have liked to spend with the vulnerable people I should be working for.
“If I could change one thing about social work in the UK it would be reducing paperwork so social workers can spend meaningful time with the most vulnerable people in our country and be powerful instruments of positive changes in their lives and the latter can regain greater control of their own life.
“In India the work focuses more on grass root practice, spending hours with families and communities each day with much less time being spent on paper work. I spent a lot of time in the community with people and so was able to witness the impact of my work every day in the lives of the people and it is rewarding.”
Biju says in her view a strengths-based approach will “help to promote independence, provide support and prevent harm, neglect and abuse in a balanced way”.
“This is possible if we maintain the right focus from the time a person moves into the enhancement assessment service, and we get to know the person and their families at the earliest opportunity through direct work and through joint working with the colleagues in the team.
“Understanding the significance of relationships and attachments for people, and the forms of harm and their impact is critical. I start to draw upon their strength, independence and resilience to minimise vulnerability, risk and resistance from at times overly protective relatives.”
Her work alongside health colleagues has influenced her practice and she advocates a collaborative approach despite acknowledging the need to hold firm her position.
“Each professional must acknowledge and contribute to each other’s area of skills and expertise. There are times, however, when a social worker may have to stand their ground against overriding views of health colleagues if they want to promote a strengths-based approach to social work.”
Biju feels humbled by her wins at the awards, adding that being announced as the gold award winner in the adult social worker category was beyond her expectations. But when she was named overall social worker of the year “it was beyond my imagination, quite an emotional experience”.
“I would like to acknowledge the support I had from my line manager and colleague. Being recognised for the hard work and passion through the compliments from the service users and their families has always been a positive feeling but being nominated by your managers and [employer] was even sweeter.”