The challenges – and rewards – of depicting social work in fiction

Writing a novel in the voice of a child in care showed lecturer Rhian Taylor how different the social work system looks through their eyes

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By Rhian Taylor

Philip Pullman wrote: ‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the things that we need most in the world.’  As an avid reader, I would agree. As well as a healthy dose of escapist pleasure stories have helped me learn about others; they have expanded my view of the world and have increased my empathy. So, given how important storytelling can be, it is important to ask why there are so few good social work stories in books or on television?

This was something I was keen to address when I started writing my first novel, ‘Fosterboy’. One of the motivating factors for writing the book was because I wanted there to be more diverse stories about young people in the care system. A group of care leavers told me once they were fed up with the TV character Tracy Beaker as this was the only story that people in school knew about children in care.

Whilst I am a big fan of Jaqueline Wilson’s work, I could see their point. There are not enough diverse stories about children with different types of care experiences, and a lack of different voices means less understanding, and the likelihood of more stereotyping and assumptions.

Writing from a child in care’s perspective

I also wanted to write a good social worker. After twenty years in the profession and being aware of the committed and inspirational social care workers I have known over the years, I was keen to be able to provide a positive representation of the profession, knowing that media representation of social workers is often negative or unbalanced.

Yet, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. I was writing in the first person and as I increasingly entered my character’s world, I realised that his perspective on his social worker was very different from my own. My character was an 11-year-old boy called Phoenix who had been taken into care whilst his Mum went into rehab. For him, his social worker would always be linked with the experience of his Mother’s overdose and the battle to get back to live with her.

With my professional head I knew that the social worker I was writing was going to heroic lengths to fight for Phoenix;  I showed her travelling for miles every week so she could take him to see his beloved dog, knowing what a huge sacrifice that would be in terms of her time and workload. However, Phoenix couldn’t see it. The distress caused by the events he had experienced were too much. He needed to hate her.

“Trauma is a multi-sensory experience”

There was other learning too. Writing in the voice of an 11-year-old boy made me realise that the inner life of boys this age is often ignored. We tend to see their reluctance to talk, or their preoccupation with their devices, as indicative of a lack of depth or engagement with what is happening, rather than a defence from painful emotions.

It also made me think about how emotions are experienced. When I started writing I tried to articulate Phoenix’s experience through the language of feelings, before I realised that much of what he experienced was physical. It was in his stomach aches or the relief he felt when he hit out at something or banged his head against the wall. As the psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk describes in his book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, trauma is a multi-sensory experience, it lodges in our bodies as well as affecting our thoughts.

The other thing I wanted to do was to write the relationship between Phoenix and his Mother as a tender one. When a parental relationship is flawed and ‘not good enough’ it is easy to overlook the love. I wanted to capture the tenderness of the mother/child relationship, holding this in tension with the disappointments, the misunderstandings and the very real losses they both experiences.

Challenges as a ‘social work novelist’

One of the challenges of being a ‘social work novelist’ was that I was trying to write a good story, yet also be accurate professionally.  In my numerous drafts and edits I found myself cutting a lot of material that were more professional commentary than storytelling.  I hope, however, I still raised important subjects.

One of the issues which had stimulated my thinking had been a conference I had attended on the child welfare inequalities research headed by Paul Bywater. I’d heard the brilliant ‘Annie’ of Surviving Safeguarding talk about some of the challenges for parents whose children come back to live with them after being in foster care. Parents might be on benefits, whilst their children could have been living in a foster home with a much higher standard of living.

I know the image of a wealthy foster carer is a stereotype and people come from a variety of backgrounds, however it is also true that the requirements to become a foster carer (for example having a spare bedroom) and the payments made for fostering are very likely to create a significant disparity in wealth between foster carers and birth parents.

When Phoenix was thinking about returning to live with his Mum, something he wanted to do, he knew he was moving back into poverty.  I wrote about how he realised that the doors to opportunities in his future were closing behind him.

I hope I met my aim in writing a good social worker. What I realised in writing the book was that good social workers are unlikely to be the heroes or heroines of a story.  They are usually in the background; advocating, empowering, and providing containment for those they work with. These social workers don’t make good TV; they are insufficiently dramatic. Yet they are people who change lives for the better.

Writing ‘Fosterboy’ has been a transformative experience. Writing in the first person challenged me to empathically enter the world of a child in care. I know that I was only able to do this in a limited way, and it was nothing like the insights from lived experience, but it still worked to show me how different our systems look when I saw things through Phoenix’s eyes. I was changed. Stories are powerful.

Fosterboy is available at:

Rhian Taylor is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent.

Van der Kolk, B. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing Trauma, Penguin: London.


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