I have been a social worker for about a decade in children’s services and have seen many portrayals of child protection social workers on TV and in films, none of which present a believable social worker of today. The person knocking on your door in your hour of need is more likely to be a Fiat 500-driving, twenty-something, in ill-fitting clothes, from the 10lbs she’s just gained compliments of her promising new career.
I say “she” because social work is something of a female utopia. There are some men around but not many, and if they’re single and straight they clean up as far as dating in the workplace goes!
Not all social workers are young but many are and that’s because they tend not to stick around long
Not all social workers are young and new but many are and that’s because they tend not to stick around long. Which is hardly surprising. Child protection social work is rated as one of the most dangerous jobs in this country. Caseloads in some areas are in excess of 30, with the national average sitting at 16.1. Many social workers report feeling overwhelmed and unsupported when gathering information and making recommendations that are, at times literally life and death decisions. Social work managers like me often take the fall for this lack of support. But what about everyone else?
The public’s opinion of social workers tends to range from “I couldn’t do your job” to “What were the social services doing to prevent (insert horrific incident inflicted not by the social worker)?” And it doesn’t end there. The other professionals we work with tend to take a dim view of our interventions too. We’re being too punitive or being too lax. You are fighting in a no-win situation all the time and the criticism is ubiquitous.
Imagine going into a line of work wanting to protect children and support families and, instead of being hailed as a pillar of the community, you are criticised at every turn. You go out to a family in response to a referral and are met with hostility. Some of the families we meet are extremely dangerous and, unlike other professionals coming to visit them, we come with the added bonus of being able to take their child away. That often puts us in a sticky situation when armed with nothing more than an ID badge branding you as the enemy, a 100 year old phone, a note pad and a pen. Where are your stab vests, I hear you cry!
Then you totter back to the office to be told by your manager that the data returns have come in and you have a dozen outstanding tasks that need to be done by the end of the week. You look at your phone. You have six new voicemails, each one from someone demanding your undivided attention. Then you check your email. There are 25 in there, much the same as the voicemails. Someone from admin comes in and says a very angry young person (not all young people are angry but the ones that frequent social care office receptions tend to be) has come to see you and has been throwing plant pots around until your return. It can be a bit of a nightmare.
Don’t get me wrong, I love social work and I feel a massive sense of privilege to have been granted access into people’s lives, with the task of helping them through hard times. I have learnt just as much from the children and families I have worked with as I have from my colleagues and superiors. But to anyone who reads this, who has any interaction with a harassed looking social worker, understand that they are trying their best, they have no life outside of work and have probably been told in some way or other that they’re not doing a great job that day.
* Name has been changed. Look out for more from Lila Halliday in coming editions of Big Issue North