'Nobody goes into social work wanting to split families up'
Talking about her job as a frontline child protection social worker, Jennifer speaks cautiously.
‘Social workers are often portrayed as the bad guys,’ she explains. ‘People think our one intention is to take children away, or that we miss stuff and fail to remove children when it’s right.
‘They don’t realise the work that goes in, and the success that we have is never measured. I can’t believe how hard we work. It’s unbelievable.’
One of 30,700 children’s social workers in the UK, Jennifer* is newly qualified and currently works for a children and families team in the south of England.
As part of her job, she manages child protection plans, where parents aren’t able to meet the needs of their children. This could be due to their own difficulties or external factors, like county lines exploitation, where children are coerced by gangs into transporting drugs.
On paper, 33-year-old Jennifer’s role is nine to five – but often her workload takes her into the night.
‘This week I’ve been in court on three different cases,’ she says. ‘I’ve got low level meetings about people with mental health issues and child in care review meetings about children already in foster care.
‘I’ve got visits, team meetings, reports for court and investigative work I need to complete. I’ve got research to read and I’m helping a teenager with her college and housing applications.
‘Between all of that I’ll visit children at the 11th hour and get told to f**k off. Sometimes people don’t want to see you, or they’re out, or they’re hiding. But that’s the nature of the job. It’s an interesting, exciting, intellectual and rewarding career.’
Women make up 86% of the UK’s children and families social workers, with the majority being white and between the ages of 39 and 49. Last year a study found social workers each had an average of 16.9 cases on the go at any one time.
Part of Jennifer’s role is to recommend to the court whether a child needs to be take away from their family. On one occasion she removed two children from their mother, as they were homeless and couch-surfing at the time.
The process of removing a child can be incredibly emotional, admits Jennifer, even when she knows it’s for their long-term benefit.
‘On a practical level, you think you’ll just whip in and put the children in the car, and off you go,’ she says. ‘But in reality there’s a lot of fumbling around in suitcases and awkward silences.
‘That case was in no way pleasant at all. You’re leaving the mother there on her own, hearing her harrowing cries and it’s really emotional.
‘She had a panic attack afterwards. The mum knew my decision was right, but she must have seen me as the enemy. I sat there and held her hand through it. That sort of thing is really strange and very difficult.’
One of the children later sent Jennifer a thank you card. Knowing her actions made a positive impact is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.
She notes that she has developed strong boundaries to try and keep a work-life balance – although the pandemic has caused some of the lines to blur.
Jennifer’s workload grew in lockdown, with home visits increasing from fortnightly to up to three times a week. Now, she’s also mostly working from home.
Jennifer says: ‘In the office you could bounce off others and reflect on things together. At home you’re quite alone actually, it’s a lonely job.
‘The work is also in your house. You have to kind of figure out how to shut it all off. I’m lucky enough to have a little office to go into where I can shut the door at night.
‘We also seem to be ramming in more meetings because we don’t have to rush off.’
Inez* has been a child protection social worker in Yorkshire for more than 10 years. In that time she’s watched austerity and Universal Credit delays push families into poverty – with the pandemic now exacerbating their situations.
Like Jennifer, she is assigned long term cases, and once every four weeks her team goes on duty covering a section of Leeds.
In this time, she might pick up several new referrals, such as a child going missing or reports of historic sexual abuse at a school.
‘There’s been a massive cut in support services over the last 10 years and a rise in people using food banks in the last five,’ says Inez.
‘My role never used to involve referring people for food parcels, but it’s definitely now a massive part of our job because it’s legitimate, children are going hungry, or they don’t have gas and electricity. It’s a very real thing.’
Brexit has also had an impact on Inez’s workload. She recently helped a victim of domestic abuse secure EU settled status after her partner went to prison.
Her years of experience mean she’s become accustomed to the situations families find themselves in, often through no fault of their own.
‘You don’t have time to reflect and think, “this is an awful situation”. You’re more focused on the here and now, like what are they going to eat tonight? Are they going to have gas and electricity?,’ she explains.
‘I’m under pressure to get a family what they need but my manager is also under pressure to save money. Most local authorities haven’t got any money, especially at the moment.’
Inez’s parents fostered children when she was young and her dad worked in social care. She was brought up to be aware of social injustice and discovered a passion in advocating for society’s most vulnerable people.
She believes wanting to make a change is integral to social work – but over time has had to accept her role as a ‘small cog’ in the process.
‘You have to develop coping mechanisms,’ she admits.’ Before coronavirus, I used to sort of zone out on my drive home and reflect on the day. Then I’d leave it in the car. You have to be really mindful of yourself and your mental health.
‘But I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been certain cases that hit home harder than others. I’ve had time off sick because I’ve just felt overwhelmed. With a lot of families there is violence and sexual abuse, it’s almost like secondary trauma.
‘It’s about knowing I can’t take a magic wand and make everything better for people. You have to accept you can just do small things which have the potential to make a massive difference.’
Inez is sometimes involved with children until they find adopters – although she emphasises this is a last resort and she’d always rather place a child within their own family network.
She says: ‘We know that’s better for the child’s identity. The judge will want every avenue explored with family members before you go to adoption.’
Her job often overlaps with children in care social workers, like Emma, 35, who works for Birmingham Children’s Trust.
She is allocated to children from the first infant care order hearing and given 26 weeks to plan for all three different outcomes – returning them to their birth family, placing them in foster care and adoption.
Her role involves a lot of organisation and joint-working between teams, and Emma’s responsible for compiling and analysing all evidence from the services and presenting it in court to be cross-examined by a judge.
‘From the offset, it’s very intense,’ she says. ‘ While you’re carrying the assessments, you’re also trying to build a rapport with parents, who’re often angry and don’t trust social workers at this point.
‘You have to work well at a fast pace, you’re planning all the time. Once assessments are agreed we get ordered to do them in a certain timescale. It can be difficult when parents don’t engage. You’re always mindful of not extending the proceedings because it’s not fair on the child.’
It’s rare for a parenting assessment to be entirely negative, Emma says. Most cases involve the ‘toxic trio’ of substance misuse, domestic violence and mental health, she explains.
Due to the pandemic, she now attends court remotely – which she believes makes parents feel more comfortable. The accessibility of video calls has also helped bring foster carers and adoptive parents closer together.
This year she supported a boy, two, in his adoption – with the whole process completed virtually during lockdown. The adoptive family did their assessments before the pandemic but weren’t matched with him until this year.
‘He was a troubled little boy who had physical disabilities from his exposure to heroin in his mum’s womb,’ she says. ‘He’d gone back and forth to his birth family a several times and was quite aggressive, biting himself and head banging.
‘His adoptive parents just said they fell in love. It was amazing from start to finish. We started off with the foster carers having a video call with the adopters and they’d tell him: “Say hello, these are my friends”. It was very personal and natural.
‘They then progressed to watching his routines over video. The foster carers put photographs of the adopters on the wall and referred to them as mummy and daddy.
‘They had little teddy bears with the voices of adopters inside. It went better than any of us could have hoped.’
Like Jennifer and Inez, Emma emphasises that the threshold for adoption is ‘so significant’ and demands social workers provide solid evidence of significant harm.
Her role gives her more work-life balance than child protection work, as she can go to bed knowing the children are safe in foster care.
She says the best part of her job is seeing a child with a traumatic background go into a loving family home – although the adoption process is often bittersweet.
‘Nobody going into social work wants to split families up,’ she insists. ‘It’s always sad when you conclude a child is going to be separated from their birth parents forever.
‘But at the other end, you’ve seen a child go through this horrific early life and you match them with parents who are dedicated and committed to giving them a loving home; you just know they’re going to have better outcomes.’
Once a child is matched with a family, they’re referred to a post-adoption support team – where Cassie works at Birmingham Children’s Trust.
She carries out adoption support assessments to understand any problems families might be facing, and can access therapeutic interventions or assistance for them if they need. At present, she has a caseload of over 20 families, and is contact with at least half of them in any given week.
‘My job is really in recognition of the fact that adoption is a lifelong thing for families,’ Cassie explains.
‘Interestingly, when children are newly adopted, you find things are going well to begin with and there isn’t a particular need. Sometimes we have families coming to us seeking support five or 10 years into a placement.
‘It might be that they’re struggling with the child’s emotional or behavioural needs, which can be common in with cases involving past neglect or abuse.
‘Those children find it difficult to trust adults to look after them, or reject their new families to try and keep themselves safe.
‘It’s hard for adopters to ask for help. It’s a big step,’ she adds. ‘They’ve often been hanging on for a really long time, sometimes at the cost of themselves.’
Families facing challenges can benefit from dyadic developmental psychotherapy (DDP), a form of relationship-focused therapy which aims to build emotional connections between parents and children, Cassie explains.
Others may need sensory integration therapy, which helps children interact with the world, theraplay sessions, which builds relationships through games, or non-violence resistance training, for when children are aggressive.
Cassie adds that adoption breakdowns are very rare – but can be incredibly difficult for both the children and parents.
‘That’s why we exist,’ she says. ‘The earlier we can get support in place, the more we can prevent breakdowns from happening.’
She notes that the most satisfying part of her work is witnessing the strength and commitment adoptive parents have towards their children.
‘It always feels like a privilege to work alongside them.’ says Cassie. ‘You watch them achieve more stability and develop a child’s confidence and self-esteem. Observing those relationships strengthen is always fantastic.
‘The work we do is long-term. There’s no quick fix and there can be a lot of ups and downs. Our role is also about supporting adopters to look after themselves and helping them to recognise their own needs too so they can stay strong and healthy’.
*name has been changed
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For the next four weeks, which includes National Adoption Week from October 14-19, we will be speaking to people who have been affected by adoption in some way, from those who chose to welcome someone else’s child into their family to others who were that child.
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- Why we’re talking about adoption this month
- How to adopt a child – from how long it takes to how you can prepare
- The most Googled questions on adoption, answered
- How long does it take to adopt a child in the UK
- Adoption myths that could be stopping you from starting a family
- How to tell your child they are adopted
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