Thursday, 13 February 2014

Lessons of the trade

A thousand apologies to anyone I'm lucky enough to have as a regular reader: I have been struggling to manage the stresses of the job and the resultant exhaustion I feel coming home after a day's work, that, and managing my personal life which includes making sure I have time for the simple pleasures in life (like wearing a onesie), is the reason this is a little later than I'd hoped.

Let me update you on what I have been learning during the past 2 months of blog silence.

Since I started I have definitely developed as a practitioner and grown a thicker skin and can say I have learnt the following lessons...

Lesson One: Don't be a hero

In the early weeks of my job I must admit I felt pretty tired. The reason was that every single case I had, and all of the challenges and struggles those families were facing, I saw as my responsibility to "fix". I'll give you an example:

A teenage girl with a history of running away and putting herself into risky situations that left her vulnerable to sexual exploitation.  Even after being raped, she still continued to do so. Her relationship with her mum had broken down and both often ended up in physical fights with each other, resulting in mum kicking her out of the house. I get a call one day stating that her daughter had become physically aggressive towards her and the police, and that I needed to come and talk to her. Deedeenatter to the rescue I thought..I got into my car and rushed over. I walked into the house with the general feeling that it was completely my responsibility to change the situation, I felt responsible for the actions of that girl as well as her mother and thought, I must make a positive change right now and leave the family with something they can hold onto and use, something that was almost tangible. I took that to the point where, when that girl ran out of the house and began to fade into the distance, my instant reaction was to run after her down the street to try to find her. 

That evening although I had found her, I couldn't help but question whether I had done the right thing.

After several discussions with my colleagues and some time to reflect on my actions in the situation, I realised my feelings were right. Taking each case as your responsibility not only puts a heavy load on your conscience, but it damages a families ability to be resilient and strong in the face of struggle, it takes away the opportunity for a mother, to run after that young girl, in order to not only protect her, but more importantly in this case, to show her daughter that she cares. It turns out that deep down this girl misses her mum, and all the verbal abuse, risky behaviour, running away, was all her way of shouting "Mum! I'm here! Look at me!" in the middle of her step brothers and step sisters she had gained as a result of her mothers new relationship. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting that we're all to just let people get on with it, otherwise the idea of a social worker would never have been born and suggests that social workers are pointless beings, which for obvious reasons, I would never believe.However, it became obvious that, that girl didn't want me running after her, she wanted mum, and mum needed to not only see and understand that, but show her that she cared by going after her, sounds simple but you'd be surprised how many of us get it wrong. 

This type of 'superhero' mentality I had however, can disempower families from changing their own situation, and reinforces the distorted perception of social workers being the miracle workers, the ones that are here to 'fix'...everything. Actually no it's not my responsibility, it's yours, I can show you the way, but I'm not doing it for you.

Once I had learnt that, I was also able to step back from cases more and view them objectively, this of course meant that I was not taking things so personally and felt a little less anxious and therefore less exhausted (ish).

Lesson Two: Be the difference

This leads me on to how I learned the value of what social workers do, and the difference this makes to children in particular. When I first started I went through a period, up until recently, feeling that I could never make a genuine difference to families, that I was making suggestions at best, but never instigating that change that some families need to turn a child's life around.

Don't under estimate the impact you have on someone's life, even if you feel you haven't done much.I learned my lesson with the little magicians case.

Little magician had been a very violent 7 year old boy, with tendencies to physically hurt his mum, punching, kicking and attempting to take his own life. I began direct sessions with him to try and unpick the reasons for his behaviour and gain an insight into his world. It turned out he actually had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Once he had started his medication, he was a changed young boy, a happy, focused, loving boy and there was no longer any need for my involvement. During my sessions with him I never really thought I'd made a difference or that he even enjoyed seeing me, so when I abruptly ended them, thinking he would be pleased to see the back of me, his reaction was a sad and disappointed one which took me by surprise.

It made me realise that as a social worker, you're in a unique position where you can actually make a difference to a child and be the difference that will change their direction in life, do not look past that and let yourself get bogged down with the politics and everyday chores of the job, do something that matters. Some people might think it's enough to just be a social worker, but being is more than just having the title, it's actively and whole heartedly stepping into that child's shoes for a moment, be it 16 years old or 8, looking past the labels they have been given "Brat","Spoilt", "Attention Seeker", "Aggressive" and think, how did they get here and what would I want if I had been dealt the same cards and had arrived at the same place, what would make me happy? Some of that might mean changing the parents approach to bringing their child up, it might mean shattering and putting back together the distorted image the child has of themselves and make them realise they can actually be whatever they choose to be with a little help. It also might mean holding a mirror up in front of a parent and showing them the reality of their actions but as a result being the turning point in their actions.

Never underestimate the impact you have on any given situation, use it to make a difference.

So two valuable lessons in the bag, I look forward (and partially am in fear of) learning a few million more.

Next post I should probably talk about it being my assessed year of practice for you social work students, in case you wanted to know about what it actually means. Stay tuned folks.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ironing out the kinks

Today, I felt like I was drowning. Several skipped lunches and long drives travelling to various locations taking young people across the county, feeling very drained.

17 cases to my name, those of you in other teams might be thinking, 17?! that's nothing!
But the nature of our team means we must work intensively with families seeing each family almost every week, and sometimes this means working with a teenager separately from their parents, which might mean two or more separate visits a week for one family... it's difficult squeezing 17 families in only 5 days of the week.

For those of you interested in what it is I actually do in my role, here is the composition of the bulk of it:

Crisis Management 

Responding to urgent calls and being ready to drop everything whilst staying calm, patient and clear-headed.


An assessment must be done when a referral comes in and is allocated to you.

This may be an Initial Assessment: which must be done within 10 days and involves ascertaining what the immediate needs of the family are as well as the views of other professionals that have been involved.

Or a Core Assessment: This must be done within 35 days and involves a more in-depth analysis of the situation. Often, initials become cores when you're beginning to run out of time... coincidentally.

Case Notes

Writing up all that has been done. Any home visit, phone conversation, email, text message, direct piece of work and assessment must be written up and put on "The System".

Planning and Research

Researching evidence-based practice techniques. Looking at research into what works for a child or family and planning future work.

Direct Work

Actually carrying out direct work with children and teenagers including therapeutic work to help with trauma, behavioural techniques such as rewards charts, risky behavioural work, working on broken relationships within the family, exploring the wishes and feelings of very young children (harder than it might seem) and being spontaneously creative; not being afraid to get mucky with paints, chalks, pens and play dough (not to mention working with children!). Then there's the work with the parents, improving parenting skills, looking at routines, improving mental health work. Or just plane being someone to talk to.


This includes Child in Need meetings and reviews, placement meetings when a child comes into our care, case transfer meetings, multi-agency meetings (the hardest to organise) and case closure meetings.


Finally, attending training sessions on everything you could possibly think of and would be interested in as a social worker but never have the time to book yourself on.

One thing I noticed being in this job is that you tend to focus less on the planning and research and direct work bit, and more on the assessing, case noting and meetings bit. Which makes me think, what are we actually doing for families?

During supervision with my manager I stressed that I felt more and more like I was assessing and writing and making calls but the actual 'doing' part which achieves change for families and gets them out of crisis is becoming increasingly difficult to manage, sad to say. It should be ALL about the direct work and NOT the bureaucracy, but if you look through all that must be done within the role of a social worker, you start to ask the question...How can I get it all done?

That's why I feel so very over-whelmed with it all. At the moment I have a huge backlog of case recordings to do and assessments to write up, and whilst I make sure I visit families regularly (sometimes this means seeing 4 families in 1 day), evidencing what I am doing has fallen behind.

I am very sorry for those of you student social workers getting a sense of hopelessness from reading this. I hope you don't reconsider; despite the stress I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. Bear in mind I am new to this, and I will get better at managing my time.

Tips that might help you:

Having a 'day to a page' diary (for those lovely to-do lists)
Having a good manager (you may not have a choice)
Having a good team and colleges willing to help (bribery helps)
Using all at your disposal to stay organised: folders, dividers, reminders, diaries, outlook, highlighters, staplers, post-it's and those lovely note pads.
DO NOT write notes from a phone call on random bits of paper, YOU WILL forget where they came from and when you need that crucial bit of information it will be perched hopelessly on the concrete floor just outside a family's house, along with your sanity.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The naughty kid

I'm a bit late with blogging this week, a reflection of how busy it's got and me not being bothered to write I guess!

The theme of this week is child development. The cases I have now (16 in total) mostly revolve around broken childhoods and parents struggling to manage the behaviour of their children as a result of their troubled younger years.

When I say behaviour I don't mean shouting and swearing, I mean running away, I mean strangling mum to the point of passing out, I mean punching kicking and violent behaviour towards little siblings, I mean troubled children who try to hang themselves. You might be surprised that I'm talking about children no older than 9.

It's easy to label a child as naughty which is often the case in schools, understandably when having to manage hundreds of kids all at the same time. Social workers however are trained to look at the reasoning behind this behaviour, to look at the child as a product of their environment and experiences in order to understand why they do what they do, so that we can plan how to change this behaviour, and pull the family out of crisis.

This is not to place blame on the parents, what is often the case is that parents or guardians have gone through a damaging time themselves and tried to do the best that they could do at the time given the situation, but that best at the time, may have protected their children physically (or not in some cases) but their minds were slowly and steadily learning behaviours, sometimes in order to protect themselves, because they didn't know any different.

In most of my cases, the reason for this behaviour is as a result of what's called attachment disorder.
For those of you that don't know what this is, my best friend Wikipedia describes it as:

disorders of moodbehavior, and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary care giving figures in early childhood, resulting in problematic social expectations and behaviors. Such a failure would result from unusual early experiences of neglectabuse, abrupt separation from caregivers after about 6 months of age but before about three years of age.

I know I literally copied and pasted it but aren't I helpful.

In my cases, attachment disorder came out from sad to say, dad coming in and out of the child's life, creating a level of anxiety beyond control. It meant that the child was unable to learn how to trust the adults meant to protect them. That's not to say that if kids have been raised by a single parent, step-parent or guardian that they will have attachment disorder, it's not about blood relations or having two parents, it's about allowing the child to learn about trust in a safe way, about allowing them to feel safe.

So my opinion is that a child is better off growing up with one parent who has allowed that safe learning process enabling them to thrive and form a strong positive attachment with that one parent, than experiencing both the nurturing parent and the turbulence of an absent unpredictable parent. But perhaps some may disagree with me on that one.

Kids are like sponges and take in everything, even the slightest little thing they may learn when they were younger becomes part of their thinking. An example I can give from my childhood, my mum absolutely hated the actress Julia Roberts, she said her mouth was too big especially when she laughed (don't ask). So I grew up thinking yea I really don't like Julia Roberts she's annoying, and often said so whenever I watched movies with her, thinking it was my genuine opinion. The epiphany I had was when I watched Erin Brokovich and thought oh my god, she was amazing in that film! it suddenly hit me that I had no problem with Julia Roberts, or her oversized (according to my mother) mouth.

Although that is a slightly odd example, it really does show how much we pick up from our parents, learned behaviours that became ingrained in us from the age of 6 months to 3 years old when our brains are making those connections. It makes me really think if a child can pick up something so insignificant like that, you can imagine how effected they are by more damaging behaviours.

Not to scare anyone thinking about becoming parents, but what a responsibility!

Anyway the good thing is that if you do get it wrong, it's never too late to change the learned behaviours with a little help from someone like a social worker, therapist or psychiatrist, not that it's easy.

There is no formula or right way of doing things, bottom line is they need to feel safe, loved and nurtured.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

And so it begins

Mid-week and the pace has definitely picked up.

I was given a few extra cases this week and I stupidly decided to do 3 home visits with the intention of carrying out initial assessments, all in one day as all were fairly urgent. Big mistake, at least for a newbie anyway.

The first visit was about little lionheart who was given up for adoption by a mother with a drug addiction when he was a little baby. I went to visit his adoptive parents who are struggling to cope with his behaviour in school, he lashes out at people aggressively because he has a sight impairment and struggles to see and understand things. He also had a tragic accident when he was a toddler which left him mentally scarred, has severe attachment related issues and can't cope in noisy and crowded environments. I left that house an hour and a half later, after mum poured her heart out about her difficulties and his complex needs; it seemed she really needed someone to talk to other than her husband. I felt a little drained after the meeting but confident about certain pieces of work I could do with the family as well as school to help little lionheart communicate his feelings and understand what's going on around him.

Visit two almost made me cry, luckily I went with one of the student social workers who, despite being inexperienced, knew his stuff and actually put me at ease. Mum had experienced domestic violence and after being held prisoner with her daughter by this man, plucked up the courage to stand up to him and boot him out, leaving them with nothing. The damage had been done however, and it was clear even in this first meeting that mum had no self esteem and felt worthless and ashamed. Mum appeared frail having severe arthritis and is barely able to care for her self, so daughter blueyes is caring for her almost full time alongside school and has become unable to cope, self harming in the process. The point that got to me most was when the student and I commended them both for being so brave going through so much, and coming out at the end of it still fighting, to which she remarked that no-one had ever said that to her before. She broke down.

Final meeting, which resulted in me coming home at around 9pm: a mother with depression who was not adequately caring for her daughter, a daughter who previously claimed she single-handedly looked after her two little siblings, bathing them, feeding them, as well as cleaning the house, and as a result was struggling with her school work. This claim was something that I was advised to be weary about without getting both sides of the story, though I had a gut feeling that she was telling the truth.

Upon the home visit mother openly admitted this to me and following a claim from the daughter that she had been regularly hit by mum, I challenged mum on both parts. This I found surprisingly easy to do. As the evening progressed and I saw the girl alone, and then the parents, I began to get a clear picture of how resilient this young girl had been, because she had to be. What finally set the tone of the evening was mother stating that she believed this resilient young girl had been sexually abused by her violent ex partner when she was a child, who was eventually discovered to be a paedaphile. She had not discussed this with her daughter, nor had her daughter disclosed this information. This happy, bright, resilient girl had become so resilient that she had fooled everyone, including herself, into thinking that she was ok, that she would be the rock for everyone around her and everything would go on as it was.

She did not see how people had failed her, including those closest to her, she could not see what I could now see.

Having gathered all the relevant information from my visits, I prepared mentally for the initial assessment process on my drive home, thinking about the case notes I had to write, and what the best plan of action would be for all 3 cases. I had no idea where to start and knew I needed my manager and colleagues for support.

I couldn't help but feel powerless to change lives for the better. I thought to myself: the damage has been done, what can I do to help someone turn their life around, what can one small person like me realistically do?

As I pulled into the drive I took a breath and suddenly felt overwhelmed, I knew I was emotionally drained from the day's meetings and remembered being told to try to distance yourself from cases as much as you can. But I also remembered wise words someone once said to me, when you stop caring about a case, when you start to truly emotionally detach yourself from your work, that is when you need to leave the profession.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The "Induction Week"

So I've reached the end of the week (Sunday), alive and with a sense of accomplishment.

I was quickly welcomed by an extremely friendly and strangely funny team, quick to tell me about each of their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies and quizzing me about mine, to which I shyly responded with a couple.

The week started off slow, a few introductions and getting my head around the case note system.
Then suddenly it went into warp speed, being given 3.5 cases to start off with, one of which not even my manager could get her head around entirely, to which she said "welcome to the team".

I was secretly happy that I was already trusted enough to be given a caseload even though I was meant to be case-free for 2 weeks, but I wasn't sure if I would be regretting it at a later date.

Being new, both to the team and as a social worker, I noticed a couple of things which although I was aware of previously, felt strange seeing it and experiencing it face to face.

One: the fear and dislike of social workers by families, even though as a team we are about "strengthening families" and do not necessarily deal with child protection cases unless we need to take one to conference.

Two: the need to protect ourselves as social workers, as a result of this fear and dislike by our families, to the point where I felt the need to lock my car with me inside it, as I was fiddling with the satnav outside a youth centre after a meeting.

I shadowed in total about 5-6 home visits and meetings this week and in every single one, there was an exclamation by a family member that they hate social workers, and two incidents where there was potential for the safety of a team member to be compromised.

It made me think: is this worth it?

Having to think about what car you should be driving in case it gets broken into or damaged, where you should be parking when you do home visits, making sure the door closes and locks behind you whenever you enter the office, remembering how to de-escalate a situation, particularly when you're on your own, thoughts that don't really cross your mind daily in other professions.

Saying that, another thing I noticed from my colleagues was the love of what we do, working with children and parents and seeing how the work you do can actually be the difference between a broken family, disappointed in themselves, broken hearted parents and feelings of abandonment for the child living as a child of the state, and a strengthened family unit, with a deeper insight into the successful functioning of the family, with thriving children.

I'm sure there will be many moments where I will be questioning my reasons for completely changing my career path to become a human punch bag, but I also know that although families and children may not want us, they do need us, and most eventually do come round to realising this.

Next Week: My first independent home visit and two initial assessments!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A foot in the door

Having graduated from my undergraduate degree and working 2 years in the magazine industry analysing and projecting sales figures, I decided I no longer wanted to be the little minion in the corner with no voice, and no ability to make a difference in peoples' lives, as cheesy as that sounds, I thought what is the point in all of this?!

Lucky for me I got the kick up the ass I needed to make the move when I was made redundant, a seed was planted, so when I was offered another role pretty much doing the same thing, I thought..screw it I'm going to do this! so I turned it down, and I haven't looked back since.

So the journey into social work began, first building up enough experience needed to get onto the course, then finding a university that would take me, and finally surviving the gruelling 2 years of essay writing, being organised (which I really wasn't) and learning about the complexity of people.

It's been 4 months since I successfully qualified as a social worker and I have to be honest, the hardest time were these last 4 months.

4 months of long applications, selling myself, smiling like I've got a hanger in my mouth, and 4 months of trying my dammed hardest to get my first job role as a social worker.

It got to a point where I thought I was never going to get hired, each employer telling me I have a strong application and good interview skills but that I just didn't have enough experience....WELL GIVE ME THE BLOODY EXPERIENCE THEN! I thought to myself...quietly.

Finally, after about 20 applications I was offered a role in a strengthening families team, and I start in 2 days time.

Despite the obvious excitement I feel about this opportunity, a big part of me is nervous, feeling like it's my first day at school. Despite all the training I have had, including actually working as a social worker, giving counselling sessions, attending endless child protection meetings and working with different mental health conditions, I still find myself asking:

Will my team like me?
Will my families like me?
What if I realise I've made a huge mistake and I'm not cut out for social work?
What if I'm actually terrible at my job?
What if I can't take being in one of the most hated professions?
What if I get shot, or stabbed or killed?

I try to convince myself that I'm being ridiculously irrational and that I'm fabulous... to no avail.

I guess we will just have to see then won't we.