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.
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.