Secret social worker: home conditions

Lila Halliday on why social workers care if your house is dirty – but only so much

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Home conditions is a phrase we in social care throw around a lot. But what does it mean? And why does it matter?

Judging the cleanliness of someone’s home is deeply subjective. When a social worker comes to me citing home conditions as their main or only concern, I usually like to go and have a look myself. An untidy and unclean home is usually an indication of risk, rather than a risk in itself. It means other things are going on and other needs are not being met.

The difficulty we have as social workers is not looking at someone else’s home through the eyes of our home-selves. It doesn’t matter whether we could live in that house or even sit on that sofa – it matters whether it is messy enough to be a risk. Of course, if that is an area in which a family is struggling then we will help. We hire skips and cleaners, set goals and it can be a quick win to give a family the boost they need. But we just need to think really carefully about implementing safeguarding procedures because children are living in a dirty house.

I have been to houses where there have been carcasses of deceased pets under piles of washing, animal and human excrement on the floors and walls, and washing put out to dry on the radiator over previous piles of washing until it forms a brick that you have to prise away. When things are that bad and you’ve tried it all, sure, go and do something a little more interventionist.

The thing is, in many of the homes we visit the “poor home conditions” we see don’t mean poor parenting – they mean poor. What we’re seeing is poverty – families who have not a single carpet in their home, hardly any furniture, clothes that smell of damp due to poor housing, parents who don’t take pride in their home or cleanliness because they’re fighting a losing battle. There’ll almost always be a big flat screen TV, sometimes perched on the floor or a crate. “Priorities!” I hear you cry! Well a TV can be a salvation and Brighthouse don’t do carpets.

Being faced with this kind of tangible poverty and the children who live within it is challenging if you’re a young social worker who still lives in their parents’ lovely home or a social worker with children who wouldn’t allow their kids anywhere near that mess. Some children don’t live lovely sterile lives, in warm homes, with nice clean clothes and comfy beds and things to sit on. We have to accept that we can’t change broader social injustices, that some children are privileged and some children are poor and disadvantaged. It isn’t our business to save them and move them to a spotlessly clean house with families that resemble our own. We have to help people make the best of what they’ve got, without judging them harshly for making the wrong choice out of the limited and less adequate choices society has given them. A messy home is still a home.

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