‘At times you feel like an imposter’: why care experienced social workers need their own association

Ian Dickson and Mike Starr discuss why their experiences as social workers who were in care led them to set up an organisation offering peer support to those in the same position

Man speaking at peer support session
Photo: fizkes/Adobe Stock

By Ian Dickson and Mike Starr

Most care experienced social workers will know the feelings of doubt and discomfort in meetings, at times feeling like an imposter. The fear of daring to share intimate feelings about life in care and its impact, and of people possibly judging you if you do.

There is the ongoing internal dialogue: “Am I approaching this situation with too much passion?” “Dare I say – ‘from my experience…’?” “Are my thresholds in this situation too high or low?” “Dare I challenge the language that person used?”; “Do I personally agree with the decision?”

One form of discrimination care experienced workers face is othering, which is always unintended but can result in subjugation and isolation.

It may be triggered by innocent comments from colleagues like: “Haven’t you done well considering what you’ve been through?”

Reinforcing trauma

It can involve having to face suspicion or doubt in your abilities for having a childhood care experience. When comments are made frequently enough, this reinforces feelings of difference and trauma.

Experiences like these led us, a group of care experienced social workers, to set up the Association of Care Experienced Social Care Workers (ACESCW).

We believe that care experienced social workers need their own safe place to come together, support each other and discuss issues important to them.

When care experienced social workers experience othering or the imposter syndrome, the value of peer support networks is unquestionable.”

Care experienced social care workers know what it’s like to have been “social worked”, to have experienced the real and raw reality of living within the system, and they bring this to practice as they cross the fence to work in social care. ACESCW recognises this, and more so, the need for a space to reflect safely away from the workplace.

Some of our members will have had positive experiences of being in care, some not so positive, but all share a common ideal to use their experiences to make a difference to others lives. Achieving these aims can be complicated.

It’s not enough just to understand the feelings of the helped and the helpers – there is a grey murky area in between. ACESCW will aim to provide pastoral care for its members, challenge stigma and discrimination for care experienced people, lobby politicians, and offer learning, training and research.

ACESCW will seek to:

  1. Create safe communities for care experienced people working in social care to enable discreet and confidential peer support and mentoring.
  2. Educate colleagues within our profession and more widely and harness the good will and empathy around us to empower our members to be confident in their heritage.
  3. Promote pride in our profession, our practice and our journey. We will seek to be a proud identity badge for care experienced workers in the social care professions.
  4. Offer a safe platform for the voices of care experienced people in the profession to be heard and challenge the status quo where it fails to recognise their value and contribution.
  5. Lobby politicians and decision makers on behalf of care experienced people and seek to inspire children in care and care leavers to be whoever they choose to be.
  6. Campaign to make the care experience a protected characteristic.
  7. Use our collective wisdom and experience to help shape policy and practice.

The seed has been planted. We have already heard how honoured care experienced social care workers are to wear both hats. Collectively members will help ACESCW grow and become a respected and recognised network and beacon for change, validating their life experience.

How we are accepted matters. You cannot redact what has been lived.

Ian Dickson is a children’s rights advocate who grew up in care and is a retired social worker, Ofsted inspector and residential manager. Mike Starr is a care experienced social worker.

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12 Responses to ‘At times you feel like an imposter’: why care experienced social workers need their own association

  1. Shelley August 5, 2021 at 8:25 am #

    At last a support group for Care experienced social workers. I never shared my care experience with anyone during my professional working life because you want to keep that part of you hidden through shame and fear of being judged.

    However. In my last job, I was asked by a member of staff why I had chose a social work career and decided to be open and honest and shared that I had been in care and wanted to make a difference to children’s lives.

    Omg, what followed was the underhanded comments, ‘eg, oh, she’s got issues because she’s been in care’, ‘ you’ve identified with the mother because of your own experience. The bullying and discrimination I experienced by some staff members including management got so unbearable I left.

    I have heard so many derogative remarks made against care leavers by professionals no wonder I chose never to share and when I did, look how I got treated. Shame on those….let’s stand unite and educate.

    • Opal lady August 5, 2021 at 3:51 pm #

      The information Shelley shared with us says it all!

      I have been a social worker for 18 years and never shared I a work setting.. For this very reason I am ‘not out:..I know I would feel very vulnerable indeed and I would challenge those closed minded oppressive people (which, I know, may feed into their stereotypical views of us care leavers)!!

      I have fared ‘far better’ than my half siblings who were ‘cared for’ by a neglectful and violent ‘mother’.

      I know that I am a damn good social worker who does her best not to label and oppress people..

      The sad thing is, many of these vile people have at some point, worked in isolation with vulnerable families..What then?!

      An absolute disgraceful attitude to another human being (s)!

  2. rowena Grace August 5, 2021 at 2:29 pm #

    Can you post details of how to join please?

  3. Elle Pheasey August 5, 2021 at 9:01 pm #

    I used to hate the fact I was in care as a child and effectively public property for the first 18yrs…in addition to the many social workers I experienced during that time…some great…some not so great…I never wanted to be a social worker but actually having used my care experience has greatly helped in engaging some families and have always been open with those I work with…I have been qualified now 23 yrs and still have the same passion to improve outcomes for our families… especially those children who are looked after. Making small changes such as every child having their own suitcase so they didn’t have to move between places with big bags as I did! I have also delivered training to foster carers and been a foster panel member where my lived experience has enabled me to change people’s perceptions of being in the care system. Great idea to have support specific for care experienced social workers 👍👍

  4. Edyta August 5, 2021 at 9:33 pm #

    I think its a brilliant idea and making a status of a care leaver a protective characteristic should be given a thourogh consideration.
    The culture of health and social care can be oppressive hence sharing personal ACES can lead to negative reactions. In health service especially there is little or no support for secondary trauma.

  5. Ian Dickson August 6, 2021 at 3:02 pm #

    Hi, it’s Ian Dickson. I identify with all the comments above. I am retired but was a social worker for over 40 years having grown up in care. When I became a social worker at the beginning of the 1970’s I was the only care experienced social worker I was aware of for years. Thankfully there are many more now. When Mike, Saskia and I (all care experienced social workers) first floated the idea of an association for care experienced social care workers, I was staggered to learn that the stigma and discrimination some of us met decades ago were still to be found in social work. We hope this association will address that.

  6. Mrs Davina Severgnini August 6, 2021 at 9:08 pm #

    How do I join this association please?

  7. Silent One August 7, 2021 at 12:32 pm #

    Social work lives and breathes stigma and othering. Most social workers I have worked with are extremely good at working out what the prevailing orthodoxies are. Many vigorously pursue the path that gets them noticed and yearn to fit into the dominant culture. Not having conviction they are also very adept at ditching what is no longer fashionable and in taking up the new with ease. Even when their new convictions are a direct contradiction of their previously passionately expressed ones were. It’s a journey as no doubt it will be said. Why am I writing this? Good luck with the initiative but I will not come out because in my environment rejection, belittling, humiliating and bullying is the norm. My colleagues would recoil from such a description but cosy collusion in dismissing that which does not fit in leaves no room for self doubt and honesty in their world. Perhaps I am wrong but I don’t want to be the team pet project now CeP has become ‘a thing’. Trouble with fads is that not being based on respect and acceptance our ‘comrades’ move on to the new swiftly. I rather not be the new exotic. It’s more humiliating than being yesterdays chip paper. Good luck and my sincere best wishes, I applaud your bravery.

  8. Kat myers August 7, 2021 at 1:41 pm #

    It’s so nice to hear this being explored further as I believe there is a need for a forum such as this and can only make practice stronger. As a care leaver, parent, social worker and Team manager I have felt this many times. We should be proud of who we are and what care experiences we have had that can support and help families to improve their outcome. It’s also a very positive way of informing young people that with some hard work you can achieve in life. This engage practice of ‘be the kind of social worker you would have wanted’ will always prevail . Warriors 😊 I love hearing and reading of success stories of care experiences people as sometimes the fight to even be accepted is the toughest one ! We bring something different to an area that sometimes lacks the empathy required.
    Kat Myers 🤗

  9. Alec Fraher August 7, 2021 at 2:39 pm #

    really interested. I have a few details questions and a general question. the detail questions are (i) by what mechanism does the association have legal identity (ii) what are the membership criteria (iii) sell itself to members and (iv) relate to the existing plethora of competing self advocacy interest groups ? the general question asking ‘Social Work is Dead, Long Live Anti-Social Work?’ Has LASSA run it’s course?

  10. Ade August 9, 2021 at 8:24 am #

    Me: “I was in a foster ‘placement’ before being adopted” Colleague to another: “We better watch what we say then”. Silent One is right.

  11. Vanessa August 12, 2021 at 12:09 pm #

    I am trying to find out how I can be involved / part of this development? I cannot find any email addresses or contact details for the organisers.. can someone advise? Excellent idea!!