Afternoon with a Social Worker

This blog first appeared on Birmingham Newsroom on 7/10/2015. 

Last week I did the probably the most valuable thing I have done in a long time – I spent an afternoon shadowing one of our social workers.

This is something I’ve done once before, some years back, but was itching to do so again. I try to visit offices regularly to see how things look through your eyes, but wanted to get out again to see things on the frontline. Knowing what happens in theory is one thing; looking a grandmother in the eyes as she’s told her daughter may never get her children back is something else.

I spent my afternoon with my chaperone, a senior practitioner in South, and we started out at a Child in Need review. A mother had recently left her abusive partner with her children, and seemed to be flourishing.

I was bowled over by the sheer scale of what she had to cope with – education appointments followed by medical appointments, squeezing in parenting classes, not forgetting domestic abuse recovery sessions and social worker visits. The range of people involved in her family’s life was extraordinary, but – crucially – they all seemed to be working together.

And, very importantly for me, it wasn’t just the children getting help, it was the mother too. The Allens Croft Project had been helping her get herself and her children out of the abusive relationship, and helping her, amongst all this, to find the time she needed for herself. The meeting finished with everyone agreeing that, if all was still on track by the next meeting, her children could come off the plan.

The meeting just showed me how far we had come.

When I took on this role three and a half years ago, Child in Need plans were almost unheard of in Birmingham, something Ofsted rightly took us to task on. What I saw last week was them not only happening, but in this work truly making a difference. And that’s a credit not just to BCC, but to everyone who participates them from all agencies.

The second part of my afternoon was rather different.

We went to visit a grandmother who was looking after her daughter’s children. The children had been there a year, and had been served by a succession of social workers, with none of them holding the case long enough to know and help the children properly. It was a simple case of drift.

My guide had been given the case and to sort out, and that day it meant having a very frank conversation with the grandmother. A case review was coming up the following week, and there the hard decisions would have to be made.

The grandmother complained about how long the family had been in limbo, and neither of us could blame her. She asked if her daughter might get the children back- my social worker couldn’t lie, it wasn’t looking good.

The hardest part though wasn’t talking with the grandmother; it was playing with the children.

I’d been told before we went in what they had been through- helping a little girl dressed as a Frozen princess make paper toys, it was simply impossible to imagine how her mother could have let her see what she had.

Chasing after a toy horse with her little half brother, I wondered if he (of, for that matter, his mother) would ever find out who his father was. Most of all, I wondered what on earth they’d made of the last year, and whether we could ever make up to them for that lost time.

I sit in meetings and worry over recruitment and retention and timescales, and this is the reason why.

When I get told how many staff have turned over in the last quarter, behind every worker leaving are children like these whose story we have forgotten a little more of. When I get told that caseloads are rising, I know that children like these will have to wait a little longer each time to get the attention they need. I don’t blame the workers who go- I blame us, when we don’t make it possible for them to stay.

We have a long way to go still in Birmingham. For some time we will have to carry the legacy from the times when we didn’t help children enough, and the little ones I met that afternoon are part of that.

But, we should pause for a moment sometimes and look over our shoulders at how far we’ve come – the Children in Need meeting I went to simply wouldn’t have happened a few years back. The recruitment and retention picture is improving. The budget is better. The timescales for children to get the help and attention they need are reducing.

My social worker asked me as he dropped me off if I was thinking of going into his line of work – I had to tell him I’m not.

The respect I have for the work that you, all of you, do with our children was already enormous, and by the end of that afternoon it couldn’t have got much higher – and it was very clear to me that I simply do not have what it takes to do your jobs every day.

But what I can do is give you the space, time, and support you need to work with children the way I know you want to. And, together, we will carry on striving to give Birmingham’s children the service they deserve.

This week I bumped into my social worker and he told me the children I’d seen had gone into foster care the day before. Things are moving for them, and they will for us, too.

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