Time-poor, overstretched and changing too often – children’s experiences of social workers

A report finds care-experienced children and young people value positive relationships with their social workers, but too often the system leaves them feeling like 'cases', says Linda Briheim-Crookall

Social workers and young person
Photo: Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock

By Linda Briheim-Crookall, Coram Voice

For care-experienced children and young people who have been separated from their birth families, positive relationships with social workers can provide an important sense of connection and stability. But a report published today by A National Voice (ANV), featuring the views of over 300 children and young people in response to the care review, has found that all too often social workers and other professionals, such as personal advisers, didn’t have time to develop supportive relationships with them. Instead, they felt that many social workers and PAs were time-poor, overstretched and changed much too often.

As Coram Voice care experienced consultant Lauren Parker highlights in her article for Community Care, constant changes in social workers make it harder to develop trusting relationships. ANV’s report, which collated responses from a diverse mix of children and young people from 31 local authorities all over England, found that social worker changes can be especially difficult for children and young people to navigate when they happen quickly or with no warning. Young people told us that it was frustrating and unsettling to repeatedly have to tell new social workers about their past. Some also found it difficult when new social workers had different opinions to the previous social worker, leaving them feeling disorientated.

One young person said: “I don’t think it’s necessary to change social worker for every stage that you are in care because it’s too hard for the children to then feel like they are understood and known. They lose trust quicker.”

A system set up for adults

Young people often felt that the system was designed to meet the needs of adults and processes rather that the young people in it and that changes in workers could be driven by the way that services were set up.

Young people reported a box-ticking culture that hampered their relationship with social workers and often made them feel like they were “just another case” rather than the social worker taking an interest in them.

One young person responded: “A previous social worker was very ‘tick boxy’ and didn’t get to know me personally. She saw me only as her job and made me feel I was not worth her time. She was always late and made me feel worthless”

The best social workers, according to the respondents, were those who listened, spent time to get to know them and were able to form a more personal connection. As one young person put it: “Someone that listens and remembers the little things we said and helps include that in sessions or work.”

Engaging activities together was identified as way to help build positive relationships between children and professionals, with one young person saying: “I would like a worker to spend time with me – take me to the footy.”

Some young people were also keen to see a more thoughtful and flexible approach on timing when they met or had contact with their social workers. As one young person noted: “Allow us time, sometimes a session does go over but you’re not mad or kicking us out the door, you allow that extra time.”

This sentiment was echoed by another young person who had a positive relationship with their social worker: “I know my social worker cares because they text me out of hours.”

Having a positive relationship with social care professionals also seemed to help some young people feel more prepared for independence. As one young person put it: “I had a lot of support when leaving care, from my PA. I found things quite difficult to begin with, but I adjusted and I loved living on my own and having my own independence.”

Support abruptly withdrawn

However, many young people thought that social workers and PAs underestimated the impact of leaving care and felt that they had not received adequate report and preparation. The “cliff edge” of support suddenly being withdrawn had not only put them in a precarious financial position but also left them feeling disregarded and ill-equipped to move on to independent living.

One young person said: “Being in care was life-changing. Every aspect of my life is still affected by it. I don’t think there is enough time to process all the trauma before you leave care and all the stress and headaches come back.”

Another young person reported receiving a text message telling her that she would receive no further support after graduating from university, which she felt lacked empathy and concern: “So, all the support I’ve had in the last 14 years was gone, in a single text message. I wasn’t given any information of where I can get support if needed, I wasn’t told “congratulations for getting a first” or even given a letter to explain why my case has to close.

I was cut off in a message that would have taken them 30 seconds to write.”

The report found that young people believed that social workers and other professionals should have more training to recognise and understand trauma and the impact it has on young people’s lives. One young person said: “It can be lonely during the harder times, like significant changes, like when you’re first put into foster care. You have just left your family and moving into a place with people you don’t know.”

Taking care with language

The language that social workers use was also highlighted in the report as an area for improvement. Young people wanted social workers to understand the potential for some words to feel cold, impersonal and stigmatising. Young people took particular issue with the word “contact” and suggested “family time” as a replacement. “Respite” was also deemed inappropriate with one young person reporting: “It sounds like carers don’t like you; you’ve worn them out and they can’t cope.”

There also needs to be a greater understanding of the long-term impact of language, particularly when social workers write records that may one day be read by that young person.

In his report The Case for Change, care review lead Josh MacAlister said that practitioners are social care’s “greatest asset”. Our report has found that young people themselves also appreciate the great potential for social workers to make a very positive difference in their lives. They just need the time, training and support to be able to do so.

Linda Briheim-Crookall is head of policy and practice at Coram Voice. A National Voice (ANV) is the National Children in Care Council for children in care and care leavers aged 11-26, run by Coram Voice.

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6 Responses to Time-poor, overstretched and changing too often – children’s experiences of social workers

  1. Anonymous November 8, 2021 at 7:02 pm #

    It doesn’t sound any different to what’s going on in adult social care. It’s just as bad. Problems have felt even worse since year 2020. Yet that’s not the point. I don’t think social care can be rescued anymore now. It’s had It’s day. Can never get enough staff into recruitment for it, so it looks like social care is becoming a very unpopular career option among the young. It just isn’t a desirable career option, unlike being a famous singer, for example.

  2. Debra Gibbs November 10, 2021 at 9:41 am #

    That small but heartwarming sign shown by the Social Worker in texting out of hours, or remembering what was said by the young person and incorporating it in the next work session is key. Josh MacAlister ‘The Case for Change’ review talks about Love, we have got too nervous of using that phrase in a landscape of safeguarding but as the ‘focus on stigma’ webcast (see http://www.assurancepac.co.uk for details) recognises Young Social Care Experienced People want Ambition and Empowerment not just Safeguarding, safeguarding must be the minimum standard; lets strive for more.

  3. Led By Liars November 10, 2021 at 10:08 pm #

    I’m a registered senior social worker, working in a local authority. Social workers don’t do “social work” anymore.

    Social work is done by early help services, NGOs, charities, volunteers, family workers, support workers, foster carers, residential staff, care staff, and so on. The work that social workers do is safeguarding (children) and resource management (adults). While these are both aspects of social work, they are fairly limited.

    It’s a real shame that people with a vocational commitment spend time and money and effort to complete a limited and limiting degree-level qualification that doesn’t lead to them doing actual social work.

    In case you’re wondering, I love being a social worker and this is my second career, having re-trained in my 30s. I’m just not under any illusion as to what the social “care” system really offers.

    We’re called Social Workers. We don’t do social work.

    • NIGEL November 11, 2021 at 1:56 pm #

      So true. But there are those who beleive that deviating from the Polyanna script is doom mongering. Some even question if we are cut out to be social workers. Or so I read in the usual twitter feeds.

      • Led By Liars November 11, 2021 at 3:38 pm #

        I’m afraid I avoid Twitter. I find it hard to navigate and understand, and there is so much poisonous opinion or bland propaganda that I can’t see the benefit.

        • NIGEL November 11, 2021 at 7:10 pm #

          Agreed.