Children’s literature: where are the positive social work stories?

Personal adviser Max Hawker questions the narratives missing in children's literature and how this can affect looked-after children

teenager schoolgirl reads a book at home

By Max Hawker

The narrative of the orphan has appeared time and time again in children’s literature, in The Secret Garden, The BFG, Oliver Twist, Snow White, and many others, including perhaps the most famous – the Harry Potter series. What is rarer though, is the inclusion of the role of a social worker in these narratives, and particularly, showing them in a positive light.

My family was the subject of social care intervention when I was a child because my middle sister was born with a rare chromosome disorder. Her condition had a terrible impact on my family, and my parents had to fight for years to get the support that not only my sister needed, but that we all needed. Our impression of children’s social care was of a system that ignored need and it was many years before my sister became looked after.

My only memory of contact with our social worker was being alone in a room at home with her, where she asked me, ‘Do your parents ever hurt you?’.  I don’t remember my response, but that’s all I recall of her interest in me before I went on to suffer years of abuse. That abuse was never known about by the authorities and, subsequently, I never became ‘looked after’ like my sister. I needed help and it didn’t come.

As a child, I loved to read and tried to use this as an escape from the world around me. As I was growing up, the Harry Potter series was at the height of its popularity. Lemn Sissay MBE, who was in care himself, has drawn attention to the role of the orphan narrative in literature, the dynamic of which is more often than not a child going to live with horrible people after their wonderful family has been killed. But the narrative that is chiefly missing – especially in children’s literature – is that of the child embedded in a distressing family situation or, indeed, the child who has been looked after by a loving foster parent.

Detachment

I struggled to find anything relatable in literature. There seemed no positives for people like me and I came to think of our social worker as a chilly entity who was actively seeking to cause harm and that is a very visceral experience for a child. I remember feeling a sense of cold detachment, which only deepened when I was diagnosed with severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at the age of 14. My family life was a dirty secret and children’s social care was only involved because there was something terribly wrong with us; that was my belief and there was nothing I could turn to that challenged it.

I was also very aware of the fact that no other child I knew was in a situation remotely similar to mine and many of them made me very aware of that. Jacqueline Wilson is one of the few writers who has managed to celebrate a looked-after child with her Tracy Beaker series (with Tracy having been placed in a residential care home – ‘the dumping ground’ – as a result of neglect and domestic violence), but even there the image of the social worker is negative. So, as a child looking for a positive impression of social work involvement in family life, I discovered only a void. It was as though this was a subject that either went unspoken or did not affect any other children – and that is a powerful message.

Working with care leavers

As an adult now, I work with care leavers and am training as a social worker and I still struggle to find portrayals – whether positive or negative – of people with care experience/social care intervention or of social workers themselves. There are exceptions, of course, such as the character of Kay Bawden in JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which provided a sympathetic – yet honest – look at the realities of the social care world but, ultimately, ends in tragedy. And there’s Jacqueline Wilson’s My Mum Tracy Beaker, which (quite unfortunately, in my mind) gives us a grown-up Tracy who is a single mum living on a council estate – which is a familiar stereotype.

I’m privileged to support some supremely talented and courageous care leavers who defy the horrible stereotype of the care-experienced young person as ‘failure’. But, more than once I have had one of them say to me, ‘I’m expected to fail’ or ‘Social workers don’t care’. And those care leavers I know who do read and look for an appropriate role model are typically frustrated, thereby reinforcing the belief that they are somehow ‘damaged’ or, worse still, not even worthy of representation. The fact that they cannot find examples of good social work in fiction also reinforces the idea that they are simply not worth the effort of effective professional support.

What little that exists in print is either a depressing narrative in fiction or the non-fiction ‘misery memoir’ of someone’s care experience. While the latter is clearly a powerful account of an imperfect care system that must be listened to, the literary offering of care leaver as doomed victim and social worker as incompetent child-snatcher must be challenged.

So long as there continues to be a dearth of literature that positively represents the world of social care, then children – in particular – will rely on media mythology and damaging hearsay to construct a false understanding of anyone whose life is connected to our world. They deserve better.

As a writer myself, I am trying to challenge the norm by crowdfunding a children’s book called Rory Hobble and the Voyage to Haligogen with Unbound. The book is about an 11-year-old boy with OCD who journeys into space with his care-experienced social worker to rescue his abducted mother. The story is told through the relationship between boy and social worker, and I can only hope that young readers will be encouraged to reconsider what they think they know of the world of social care when they read my work.

Max Hawker is a personal adviser in a London local authority and an MA social work student at the University of Greenwich. He is also a writer and OCD sufferer. You can follow him on Twitter @MaxHawker

2 Responses to Children’s literature: where are the positive social work stories?

  1. Charlie June 18, 2019 at 9:54 pm #

    David Walliams writes positively about a social worker called Winnie. I believe the book title is The Demon Dentist. I cried when I read the book to my son, because Winnie helps and adopts the boy when he looses his father and becames an orphan.

  2. Sarah JC June 19, 2019 at 3:36 pm #

    How about The Boy At The Back of the Class? Fantastic social worker in that story. I recommend everyone to read it.