‘Why social workers need to show children they care’

In this piece for National Care Leavers' Week, Lauren Parker recalls the first time a social worker showed she cared about her - and why it is so important for practitioners to take an interest in the children they work with

wo tennis rackets and balls leaned against the net.
Photo: Dmytro Panchenko/Adobe Stock

By Lauren Parker

The first time I felt like a social worker cared about me was when I was fifteen years old. I’d already had six social workers at this point. With a high turnover of staff and even higher caseloads, I wasn’t surprised that most of these professionals didn’t know me that well.

In one of my review meetings, I was asked by my independent reviewing officer what my hobbies were. No one had ever asked me that question before and after a minute of thinking, my mind landed on tennis. I had never played before, but I’d seen plenty of matches on television.

The following week my social worker visited me at my foster placement, armed with a tennis racket she’d bought especially for me.

She took me to the tennis courts fortnightly and taught me basic techniques to improve my skills. Unfortunately, she landed a new job and moved far away. No one ever took me to the tennis courts again and my dreams of regularly playing tennis died – however, the memory of her kindness didn’t.

Finding out about interests

To find out about children’s interests, local authorities could benefit from child-friendly questionnaires. Croydon Council have their own ‘About me’ questionnaire, which asks questions about everything from the child’s hobbies and favourite food to their thoughts and feelings. Social workers are busy, which is why it’s important to have support in place for foster carers to be able to assist children in their hobbies and interests.

It would have made a huge difference if my hobby had been able to continue. Encouraging and helping me pursue my interests was a meaningful way a social worker showed me they cared. It gave me something to do on a Saturday and helped me to meet new people who became friends.

For the first time, I felt listened to, like my interests actually mattered. Like I mattered.”

Another way professionals can show they care is keeping in touch with children regularly through phones calls, video conference calls and letters. Conversations with the children shouldn’t only focus on the serious stuff like education, upcoming review meetings and health needs. They should also be REAL conversations about how they’re feeling or what they did that week. Ask a child what was the last film they watched, ask them if they could visit anywhere in the world, where would it be?

As a child in care, you are acutely aware of what makes you different. Focus on the things that make us feel like normal kids. Even small things like remembering a child’s birthday and sending them a card or acknowledging a significant date can make a huge difference to the child and how they feel cared for by social services. It shows the child they are worth remembering, they are worth a birthday card, especially when some do not have parents or other family members in their life to do these things.

Social workers can show they care by listening to children in care and care leavers and encouraging them have a say in their present and future. One way is to encourage children to join their review meetings and have the confidence to speak out and not let their ideas get brushed aside.

Proper goodbyes

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care report, The Case for Change, speaks of the “revolving door of social workers” that children have to deal with, but more can and should be done to support children through these transitions. If a social worker is leaving, a proper goodbye should be organised. The social worker who is leaving should introduce the child to the new social worker and the child should be given the opportunity to say how they liked to be spoken to and what they’d like the social worker to know about them.

Establishing strong relationships with personal advisers is also key. I, and many care leavers I know, didn’t meet our personal advisers until a week or two before we left care. It would have helped to meet them at an earlier stage.

I was asked to attend a social work training meeting to speak about my experience of homelessness and child exploitation. This was an amazing opportunity for me. Not only did it help me work on my public speaking skills and gain confidence, but I felt I was really being listened to. Knowing that social workers wanted to hear from a care-experienced person showed me that the team were serious about making changes.

During the training session, I focused on the effects of trauma. I had seven foster placements over a two-year period, which left me with rejection, trust and behaviour issues.

Understanding the impact of trauma

I refused to bond with the carers for fear of not being ‘the perfect child’ for them. I feared they would ‘give me back’, so to feel I had some control, I would reject every foster carer and misbehave. I could handle them getting rid of ‘bad, misbehaved, Lauren’, but I couldn’t handle the thought of someone getting rid of me for me being my true self – like I believed from a young age that my parents had done. Due to my behaviour, I was continuously moved to new placements and the horrible cycle continued.

Foster carers couldn’t understand my feelings, and I’m not convinced social workers identified and explained my needs to foster carers and why I behaved the way I did.

Children and foster carers should receive help to work on their relationship instead of children feeling like they need to run away. The goal for every child should be to flourish into a healthy and happy independent adult, despite trauma.

By fully understanding children’s needs, showing empathy and an interest in who the child is as a person, social workers can make a huge difference. While it was a simple gesture, being given that tennis racquet by my social worker was one of the kindest things an adult had ever done for me and eleven years later I still remember the happiness and gratitude I felt.

Lauren Parker is a care-experienced consultant at Coram Voice and is a senior officer in the looked-after children’s team at Croydon Council. Lauren is also a former finalist in the Voices creative writing competition for children and young people in care and care leavers.

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10 Responses to ‘Why social workers need to show children they care’

  1. Debra Gibbs October 28, 2021 at 1:47 pm #

    Well done Lauren, and thank you for reminding us all the pressure Children and Young People looked after by ‘the system’ are under, to be the perfect child. I hope that you know by now, that there is no such thing as ‘the perfect child’ and that your seven moves were not your fault. We, as an organisation are working hard to put a collective arm around Foster Carers, Kinship Carers, Special Guardians and Adoptive parents so that they can feel the confidence to give their Social Care Experience children and young people the time and love you all need and deserve to pursue activities, make friends for who you are, and take back some control of your life. ‘You’ are special people, ‘we’ must not forget that.

    • Marie O’Calllaghan October 28, 2021 at 10:12 pm #

      I whole heartedly agree with what you have said Debra!

      Laura you are an inspiration and trigger my passion to provide care and compassion in every interaction with a young person and their family .

  2. Gaynor Kinloch October 29, 2021 at 5:29 pm #

    No truer words have been said. The difference every person who supports a child or young person in care can never be underestimated and so I also hope as many professionals read Lauren’s article and ask themselves the question – what would the child you are helping say about you?

  3. John October 30, 2021 at 9:26 am #

    I agreed with the article that social workers need to spend enough time to get to know the child and show that they care. It is easier to show care when you have 25 children in your caseload, but not 45 to 50 children with endless paperwork and constant demands from the managers.

  4. Bionic Woman November 7, 2021 at 1:52 am #

    Month 1: Goodbye, this is your new social worker
    Month 3: Goodbye, this is your new social worker
    Month 5: Goodbye, this is your new social worker
    Month 7: Goodbye, this is your new social worker
    Month 8: Goodbye, this is your new social worker
    Month 10: DITTO

    I wonder what the problem could be?

  5. Debra Gibbs November 9, 2021 at 8:54 am #

    So, John, you obviously feel (as do many) that caseloads are too high, what needs to happen, to reduce caseloads / increase workforce? Is there a role for the voluntary sector here?

    Bionic woman, you highlight a sad reality that far too many people move in and out of young Social Care Experienced lives, what would you suggest? Can we propose an end to the practice of handing children and families to a new team at various stages in their care-lives, such as assessment / reception / short term fostering / permanence / adoption? How would this work in practice?

  6. Claire November 9, 2021 at 9:21 pm #

    Maybe caseloads are too high because we are doing the wrong kind of social work?

  7. Bionic Woman November 10, 2021 at 2:44 am #

    Debra, I’m highlighting what’s happening in reality to children in care, even when they remain in one team. The ridiculously high staff turnover leads to multiple changes, (not taking into account changes due to transferring from one team to another). The system is broken & the problems run deep due to decades of stripping resources & seriously overloading workers who have no commitment to stay, only to burn out.

    Lauren’s article was really good. To achieve what she talks about what’s really needed is one consistent nurturing adult to be available as a constant support, to hold a child’s hand throughout his/her journey through the care system. This is essential as relationships are built on long term, consistent, positive engagement, getting to know a child, sharing their interests, supporting friendships, social activities & positive experiences. This is so important. It’s not possible when social workers are bound up in bureaucratic management systems & seriously overloaded. Direct engagement with children & their families is the bread and butter of social work. What’s urgently needed is for us to go back to a time where the admin work/pen pushing is minimised & for someone else to do the bulk of this work & realistic case loads. Social workers should have the time to do what they came into social work for. We would then be able to achieve far better outcomes for our children.

  8. Debra Gibbs November 17, 2021 at 12:35 pm #

    Bionic woman, I totally agree, one long-standing adult ‘to hold the hand’ of a child/ young person as they journey through the care system would be ideal, this is what we hope for by placing children in Foster Care. For the Social Work involvement, as Lauren identifies, spending quality time together, doing an activity or just talking together is life changing, but John, I take your point, when you have 45 children instead of 25 who’s wishes and feelings they expect you to keep in mind, it becomes overwhelming.
    Can I just check with you both, and anyone else that wants to join in, what you think about dividing your case-load by three (forget about the cost for now) having three Social Workers, potentially from different disciplines, maintaining the stability of at least two familiar faces at any one time and making Social Work the same as other intensive services (Police, Fire, Hospital) from 7-3, 3-11 and 11-7 so to have more time available for children and young people outside of school?
    This is the foundation to APAC #4 suggestion to The Case for Change Independent Review due to be submitted in early December; please tell me what you think?

  9. Bionic Woman November 24, 2021 at 1:57 pm #

    I’d need to know much more of the detail of APAC #4 to the Case for Change Independent Review to really be able to comment upon what exactly is being proposed.

    It’s difficult to see how one could replicate a system used in hospitals in social care. Eg when there’s a shift change in a hospital there’s a ward meeting between early & late shifts for handovers & it’s easier to coordinate as the care is in one institutional clinical setting. Management of the whole staff group is usually under one ward manager/nursing sister etc However social care is community based & spread across different teams dealing with different aspects, so out of hours teams deal with the whole County and are restricted to non case holding emergency input only on cases. The proposals would entail a major restructuring, implementation of a shift system and daily handovers of each shift. I can think of similar major restructuring when services moved from generic to specialised teams in the 1990s. Such major changes would need wide consultation.

    That said, there’s certainly something positive to be gained from the sharing of responsibility and round the clock support for children, as their lives don’t neatly fit into services only being available 9am-5pm. The main issues would be good cooperation between case holding professionals, agreed plans/objectives and consistency in approach & handling of children’s needs. I can think of scenarios where there can be disagreement between professionals on how a child’s needs should be met and such conflicts would have to be managed carefully with a good deal of input from the Child & parents or wider family & other important people such as Foster carers for it to work. Furthermore, regular and timely Review to monitor progress of such systems, tweaking the system & how to ensure a seamless process & deal with complaints..

    Also this system would also Change current keyworker systems going from one person to at least two or more. Such changes would need careful and much wider consultation with professionals on delivery and management of services.