‘Being non-judgmental encourages people to engage and change’- mental health social worker of the year

Social Worker of the Year Awards winner John Leavy’s kindness and compassion enable him to achieve change with adults and families often affected by trauma, say colleagues

John Leavy, mental health social worker of the year, 2021
John Leavy, mental health social worker of the year, 2021

A core focus of children’s social work is safeguarding children when their parents are experiencing the so-called “trio of vulnerabilities”: mental health problems, substance misuse and domestic abuse.

But what about those parents?

Helping them is what drives John Leavy, recently crowned mental health social worker of the year at the Social Worker of the Year Awards 2021.

“When it comes to the very vulnerable clients, those who suffer from [domestic violence], mental health and drug and alcohol, when all those three are present, sometimes they get a raw deal,” he says.

Passion and advocacy

“And I’m passionate about helping them, so I advocate for them and try to use my influence to get the support and a care package to them, which saves them distress and the various agencies involved resources too.”

Leavy applies this approach as the only adult mental health social worker at Achieving for Children, the social enterprise that delivers children’s services across the boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Windsor and Maidenhead.

He works within the families first team (previously the strengthening families team), which delivers the government’s supporting families programme (formerly the ‘troubled families programme’). It helps families with multiple problems tackle the challenges they face, be they the trio of vulnerabilities or unemployment, poor housing or school exclusion.

The team, which covers Kingston and Richmond, includes a psychologist, domestic abuse workers, for both victims and perpetrators, and employment advisers.

Leavy, who has worked at Richmond council and then Achieving for Children for nine years, primarily offers support to parents experiencing emotional distress- whether diagnosed as a mental health problem or not -In all cases, the families’ children are also being supported by children’s social care as children in need or on child protection plans.

Resistance to involvement

The parents Leavy supports have frequently experienced childhood trauma and can be resistant to professional involvement because of previous bad experiences.

“I think that some of our clients are suspicious of services because of the impact that previous services have had on them,” he says.

Addressing this requires time to build relationships and adapt his practice to the person’s needs.

“The first month with a new client can just be building a rapport with each other, gaining their trust and proving that you are going to do what you tell them you’re going to do,” he says.

Working out of hours

“I really like to think that I will do what I said I will, and if I can’t, then explain why that won’t be the case.”He says his managers give him the freedom to take this approach – which is significant in the context of child protection cases – but he also works out of office hours to help build these relationships.

The approach is also in line with the Signs of Safety model, in place at Achieving for Children, with its focus on working collaboratively with families and developing plans to keep children safe based on families’  strengths and resources.

Colleagues have praised Leavy on his enthusiasm to listen other people’s perspectives and implement them into his work.

“That’s been evident in the work he’s done with the adults and families he works with and because of that he’s been able to bring them on board for a change process,” says Roberta Evans, associate director for early help at Achieving for Children.

Collaborative and non-judgmental

“It’s a collaborative approach and a non-judgmental approach that encourages people to engage and change. It’s about being open to hearing other people’s points of view,” says Leavy.

As the only adult mental health social worker at Achieving for Children, Leavy is a source of advice and support for his children’s social care colleagues.

Evans adds: “John has a presence in the service that provides kindness and compassion for his colleagues but also for the management team.”

This has been of critical importance during Covid.

Evans adds: “He’s always brought an awareness of mental health and the impact of the pandemic on anybody’s mental health and that includes colleagues and also the families we are working with. With that there’s been a drive to make sure he’s available and flexible.”

Pride during Covid

Leavy says that the pandemic has exacerbated problems that were already there, leading to increases in anxiety, depression, domestic violence and drug abuse.

He says he is “proud” of how is team “stood up” during Covid, providing families with “a consistent and safe service”.

But he expresses greater admiration for the people he works with: “What actually is amazing is people getting through adversity and I think our clients have demonstrated, sometimes more than us, that they can move on, and we really have to be humble in what we see.”

Leavy, now 60, is now looking ahead to the next phase of his career.

“I think that with my age and this stage into my career, I’m still really enjoying and loving this role,” he adds. “I can see good outcomes with the people that I work with. I see a future for myself up until retirement.”

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