For social workers, the little successes make it worthwhile

Following World Social Work Day, Janet Murray spends a day with two newly qualified child protection workers and visits some of the families in their care

Joe Brown, a social worker based in Wandsworth, south London is worried. “It looked like we might be starting to make progress, but things have slipped again.”

Brown is concerned about Emma, a troubled teenager with a history of not attending school. At home she is verbally and physically abusive and he suspects emotional neglect may be to blame. Having helped get her on to an alternative education programme at school, which seemed to be going well, an argument with her mother has knocked her off course. She hasn’t attended for days.

Brown is one of around 40 social workers who make up Wandsworth’s six children in need teams. These teams work with families where – after a referral and assessment – children have been identified as being in need or at risk of harm. The council has agreed to allow SocietyGuardian to shadow two of its newly qualified social workers for the day, but both Brown and his team manager are concerned about this particular visit. Emma’s behaviour is unpredictable, and they are worried the presence of a journalist and photographer could unnerve her. “If she tells you to get out, you must leave immediately,” Brown warns. But at her flat, which is a 10-minute bus ride away, there is no one at home. When Brown calls Emma’s mother, who has already put back the appointment by a couple of hours, she says she is at the vet with her cat. He is used to families cancelling appointments at the last minute or not being in when he visits. Does it bother him? “Not really,” he sighs. “It’s all part of the job. But in a case like this, you do find yourself thinking, ‘What’s more important: a pet or your daughter?'”

Although the family wasn’t in, a report on the visit will still need to be logged. This is as much to protect Brown as anything else. “It’s sad it has to be this way, but there is so much bad press about social workers … you have to make sure you are accountable for your actions,” he explains.

Writing reports and doing paperwork is a time-consuming but necessary part of his job. Although he tries not to take work home, Brown admits he spent a whole day last weekend writing assessment reports on the 12 children and families he works with. He estimates that around 40% of his time is spent with the families and 60% dealing with administrative work.

On the day we visit, the front page story on the Metro, the free London newspaper, focuses on the inquest into the death of an 11-month-old boy, who starved to death despite being known to social services. “It’s difficult because social workers always seem to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons,” says Brown. “You almost don’t want to tell people what you do.”

A government review of frontline child protection by Eileen Munro, professor of social work at the London School of Economics, aims to tackle this. It is hoped that the final report, due to be published in full next month, will – among other things – focus on how administrative tasks can be managed more effectively so that social workers spend more time with children and families.

Brown’s next appointment is with Lisa, who has a seven-year-old daughter and recently spent time in rehab as a result of alcohol addiction. Although she is recovering well, some of the mothers from her child’s school have been following her on the walk to and from school, making abusive comments. Brown has arranged to meet the mother at her flat so he can walk to school with her and see how the problem might impact on the child and interfere with Lisa’s recovery. While she has made excellent progress, Brown will need to be satisfied there is no risk to the child before he can close the case.

Creative support

Lisa, a single parent, is proud of her tiny flat, which is impeccably clean and tidy. Brown recently spent an afternoon putting together a new bed for Lisa’s daughter, which he admits is “not in the job description”, but gave him a chance to do some intensive work with her. “Creativity” is a word that comes up frequently throughout the day. For Brown, devising ways of working with different families is one of the biggest challenges and rewards of the job. Lisa has had social workers in and out of her life for as long as she can remember and was initially resentful of his involvement. This is not uncommon, says Brown. He smiles as he recalls the first time he was introduced to a family as a trainee social worker. “The dad said, ‘I didn’t realise you had to have training to be a bastard.'”

When Lisa talks about the drink-driving conviction that led to the involvement of social services, she starts to cry. “It’s horrible when you have someone come into your life, asking questions about your personal life. I was so scared they were going to take my child off me.” But she grudgingly admits that Brown is “all right” for a social worker. “I resented him at first, but he’s a good man. He’s helped me a lot.”

Next we join Leo Selleck, another newly qualified social worker who is off to see a mother with four young children. Sarah has recently been re-housed after spending several months in a homeless persons’ unit after experiencing domestic violence. Her children are by two different fathers, both of whom have been abusive towards her. One still has occasional contact with the family. Now she has a new partner and Selleck is worried how this might be affecting the children, who have all witnessed violence against their mother. He is also concerned about the fact the oldest children are not attending school, and that there is a general lack of routine.

Inside the house, there is an overpowering smell of damp clothes. A single lightbulb burns in the hallway. In the sitting room there is no carpet on the floor, no curtains at the windows. The only furniture is a TV and two settees. Both are battered and stained. Selleck, who is just six months into his social work career, admits he is still shocked by the conditions some people live in. But this house, he says is “palatial” in comparison with some.

In the kitchen, where a single greying net curtain hangs in the window and mould creeps across the walls, Selleck and Sarah sit at the table and try to talk. There are constant interruptions: the children squabbling, requests for drinks and doughnuts and the dog barking. The most disconcerting interruption is the two-year-old, who is constantly trying to suckle at his mother’s breasts. Some days he will shun food completely for breastmilk, says Sarah wearily. Her chest is bruised and scratched from trying to stop him and she has no idea how to wean him. Selleck says he will ask a health visitor to come and see her. After an unsuccessful attempt at home education, Sarah says she is trying to get her children back into school, but the headteacher seems noncommittal about whether the school has places. Selleck promises to follow this up.

Sarah is also concerned about the behaviour of her eldest child, who she says has been hitting the family pets and stealing from the supermarket. Selleck, who suspects there may be a mental health issue, is keen to explore how the other children feel about their sister’s behaviour. “Pissed off,” says the eight-year-old, and Sarah giggles before halfheartedly reprimanding her. Selleck talks to Sarah’s eldest child and tells her about the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and how it might able to help her. Like Lisa, Sarah doesn’t see why she needs to have a social worker and says she resents the intrusion into her life. But she does like Selleck, who she says is calm and caring – not like her last social worker who told her off “for not having matching bed linen”.

Emotional challenge

Exploring ways to work with Sarah’s family might be something Selleck will discuss in his fortnightly supervision meeting with his team manager. All newly qualified social workers in Wandsworth have protected caseloads, which means working with a maximum of 12 families (more experienced social workers have around 15) plus a morning’s training a month. Selleck feels he is lucky to work for Wandsworth, which has the maximum four-star rating from Ofsted for its children’s services. “Some of my friends from our master’s degree in social work [at Kingston University] have double my caseload,” he says. And while Wandsworth has been asked to find savings totalling £55m over the next four years, frontline child protection services will be protected.

Selleck, who is 24, admits he still feels nervous every time he knocks on someone’s door. “It doesn’t matter if you know the family or if you have been a social worker for 20 years, I guess there is that slight hesitation because it’s such an unpredictable job.”

His last visit of the day is an unusual case, involving Diane, a single parent with terminal cancer, and her 11-year-old son Casey. Selleck’s job is to try to find someone to care for Casey, who has complex health and education needs, after his mother dies. While Diane has lots of family, none have so far offered to care for her son long term and Selleck is keen to avoid the alternative options (such as long-term fostering or adoption) at all costs.

He admits he is finding the case emotionally challenging, particularly as the mother doesn’t seem ready to make arrangements for her death. Selleck is keen to get all the family “round the table” to see if they can come up with a solution for Casey’s future. Of all the families we meet, Diane and Casey are most grateful for the help from social services. “It’s just lovely to know there is someone to listen, that someone actually cares,” says Diane, who admits she has called Selleck in tears on occasion.

Even with their protected caseloads, Selleck and Brown regularly work late – they are supposed to work 35 hours a week, but typically do around 40. Selleck says he tries to finish on time as much as he can, but this isn’t always possible. “The best social workers I have seen are the ones who have very clear boundaries between their personal and professional lives. That provides an emotional stability because they know what their limits are,” Selleck says.

Before he heads home for the day Brown calls with good news: Emma wasn’t at home because she’d decided to take herself off to school – proof, he says, that “although there can be more bad days than good, it’s the little successes that make the job feel worthwhile”.

Some names have been changed.