by Paul Fitzimmons
Being a student social worker is a journey like no other. It is intense, mentally challenging and often involves working with families and children in crisis. Emotional resilience is a key skill, regularly put to the test. I have found this particularly challenging, as I am the father of a beautiful, funny and at times very mischievous two-year-old.
In July 2016, when she was only 5 months old, I packed my bags for the five-week residential Summer Institute that begins the Frontline programme, leaving behind my wife and daughter. I knew that this was not going to be the first time that I would have to sacrifice my time with my daughter as I pursued my career in social work.
I received my Diploma in Social Work, and officially qualified as a social worker in September 2017. Not only do I work 40+ hours a week in a North West local authority, but the programme also requires a great amount of studying in my own time – assignments and other academic work such as reflective logs, which take up hours of my evenings and weekends that I could be spending with my little girl.
I remember last Easter with less than fond memories. As my wife and daughter embarked on an Easter egg hunt with other family members in the local park, I was confined to the four walls of my bedroom, swamped with books and journals; which I must confess did not make much sense to me at the time.
I was completing a 10,000 word parenting intervention assignment, which detailed an intensive piece of work that I had completed with a family to improve relationships between family members. The irony of this was that while I had been working so hard improving relationships in one family, I felt like I was sacrificing my own.
And yet, the role of a social worker is also like no other. The intense and challenging situations we find ourselves in often result in an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and reward, and if I can go home after a full day’s work knowing that I have changed somebody’s life for the better, then the demanding nature of the day has clearly been worth it.
Every day I can leave home knowing that my little, cheeky daughter is in the safe and capable hands of my wife, but unfortunately this is not a luxury enjoyed by every household in our country.
Our role is to empower families to provide that safe pair of hands. To do this, we not only support and challenge parents and family members, but also must have the courage to challenge professionals, using our influence and knowledge of legislation to advocate for the child. This support, advocacy and determination to promote and protect a child’s most basic human rights is why I became a social worker. On a daily basis, I see that it is life changing work at its very best.
Last year I worked with a 13-year-old boy who had a very negative outlook on the world. His behaviour in school was deteriorating and becoming very challenging. His parents had separated and the emotional impact of ongoing conflict within the family unit contributed to his overall lack of motivation and self-esteem.
The majority of my sessions appeared to fall on deaf ears and change was a struggle to implement; his most common response to my questions was “what’s the point?”
After months of direct work, using a range of different methods and techniques, I received a thank you card from him. Inside, the words simply read “Paul, thanks for everything you’ve done. Thanks for making me realise that not everything is bad in life.”
These words still resonate with me on a daily basis, and remind me that my work as a social worker, regardless of how challenging it can be, is all worthwhile in the end.
It is not easy to dedicate yourself to the needs of other families, while sacrificing time with your own. But being a father and a husband has brought me so much joy and support over this last year, and having the amazing family that I have has afforded me this excellent opportunity to excel in a career which many say I was destined for.
For the sake of those who lack that support, I will continue to develop my skills, reflect on my interventions with families, and ensure that the service I provide is the best it can possibly be.
Paul Fitzimmons is a children’s social worker