Social work – getting to grip with the challenges and being rewarded
Katy is a social worker in the Children’s Assessment and Safeguarding Service in North East Lincolnshire Council.She qualified in 2018 and has not long since finished her assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).
After completing her first degree in social science, Katy got into youth work as a family support officer for North East Lincolnshire Council. This whetted her appetite for being more heavily involved with families and helping them. Katy did this for ten years but often found it frustrating that her involvement with the families would end without finding out what happened next. “These people would trust you with their stories, share their life with you, and then I would just walk out of their life after 12 weeks. I wanted to be more involved and play more of a role in the decisions that were made.”
Katy then got the opportunity to get into social work when she had a secondment opportunity to the council social work service and was offered a sponsored social work degree course. She went to the University of Lincoln one day a week, continuing in her family support officer role the other four days.
“It was a real struggle because at the time my son was two.I still had a caseload.It was absolutely crazy at times, to be honest.I remember thinking ‘it will all be over and I’ll be a social worker and it will be fine’.It’s the best thing that I have done, and I am pleased that I did it.
“I loved my ASYE. I wish I could go back now and appreciate it for what it was. It was a steep learning curve but the advanced practitioners were just fantastic at supporting and nurturing us.Also, part of the process was that all the other newly qualified social workers on ASYE would get together as a peer group to share learning, give moral support, and bounce ideas off each other – it was brilliant. Now I’ve finished my ASYE I’m starting to get involved in more complex cases which include court work.
Building relationships is so important
“Reflecting on my university course it was good at preparing me for the formalities of social work like the reporting and assessment aspect but it didn’t prepare me fully for the relationship and engagement aspects of social work.
“For me the heart of the work is relationships and I genuinely don’t think you can teach people those skills to build relationships.In my practice when I first started to shadow people, I would cringe at the way some people spoke to parents. You can’t teach people to be a people person.
“It also doesn’t prepare you for the calls that you have with people who literally don’t know where to turn. Things that you don’t expect to have to help people with – like moving to a new house, picking up food hampers, doing their shopping, and lots more.
“There are also some things you could never be prepared for – you see the most horrific, harrowing situations and I don’t think anything could prepare you for that, but that is where having support around you makes all the difference. Sadly, I lost a child a little while ago now and I think when that happened my outlook on being a professional, a social work practitioner, in children’s social care changed completely. You have to try and take something positive out of every situation and now I can reflect and think well actually that’s made me a better practitioner because I have got those empathy skills. Although I hated doing reflection during my university course I find it essential now. It helps me find something good in every day because it is quite easy in social work to get bogged down with ‘you’ve done this wrong; you’ve done that wrong, you haven’t done that right’.”
That said, Katy feels that if you are kind, caring, friendly, realistic, and human, want to help people and generally enjoy a challenge, social work is definitely the job for you. “Even if you are in two minds, nobody can take your degree away from you and there’s such a wide variety of roles within social work today.
If you love variety …
“I love that no two days are the same.I never wanted a job where I knew what I was doing at 10 am on a Monday or 3 pm on a Thursday. I would hate that. I quite like the spontaneity.Sometimes I’ll go into the office for a paperwork day and then something happens, and I can be at the police station, hospital, school at any given point.I like the challenge of that.
“You also learn a lot about yourself doing this job and you realise what is important – family is everything and that is a big motivating factor for me. If we can keep a child within their family it is always the best way. As a bereaved mother, I could have gone one way or the other but because I had friends and family to support me, I managed. Some of our mums have nobody and I feel like sometimes I am their little cheerleader, cheering them on because they don’t have anybody else, which is really sad. Finding some common ground can be very useful in building trust and relationships.
“Although the rewards are often small, even the tiniest things go such a long way. Just being there to listen to somebody can make such a difference to them. It sounds really cheesy and a cliché, but you do make a difference and that makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes, children just need someone to give them a voice and we do that for them.
“Obviously, like all jobs there are challenges. For me trying to manage/work with scarce resources; working through what can be lengthy processes, and overcoming the misconceptions about social work as a result of years of negative media coverage are my main sources of frustration. When I became a social worker (even though I had been a family support officer for ten years) people completely changed the way they saw me.My sister-in-law is a teacher and I can see the panic in her face if her daughter falls over.I think she thinks I am going to whip out my ID badge and take her away!Trying to overcome that is quite a challenge. It’s changing that concept that we are against families when we are actually trying to work with them.We don’t do things to people, we do it with people, with the aim of supporting them to make positive changes.
“There are other things that help me deal with the daily challenges of work. Being organised and managing my time closely is important. It’s very easy to do a visit and not record it and then get yourself in a mess.I’m a bit anal about that.I plan my diary so that I do my visits and then have a day of writing up. You have to be realistic too. When you are at university, you have a deadline, you meet it, the pressure is off and you breathe again.I gave myself such a hard time when I first started because on a Friday, I wanted everything ticked off my list so I could sleep and feel relaxed knowing everything was okay.You can’t do that in social work, and I drove myself mad. Once you get your head around the fact that you will never ever be up to date then you will be fine.Now I accept there will always be another job that needs doing, a plan to update, or a referral to make. And be prepared to be let down. Sometimes when families break safety plans or something like that, I take it so personally. It is disappointing because you put so much hope into these people, you want them to succeed and it can be quite difficult when it doesn’t go how you thought it was going to go.That is human nature, you cannot take it as a fault of yours. That has been a really difficult lesson to learn but it is the nature of our job.
The challenges of COVID-19
“It has been really difficult balancing Covid-19 alongside my own family life because my dad is in a high-risk group and I have been really concerned about bringing stuff home to my child and husband.It is hard balancing that with still looking after the children on my caseload.I’ve been really lucky that I can work from home but go out and do my visits.With most of my families it is pretty much you knock on the door and ask, ‘have you got any symptoms, do you object if I come in?’.
“We have done a lot of virtual calls which is weird because it feels like it is infringing upon my personal life because it is in my home so I have done quite a few from my car parked in the drive!I have also been texting and WhatsApping a lot of the kids on my caseload and it’s nice because that is what they do.I’ll get a smiley or an angry face that opens up the conversation and has been beneficial for some of the kids I work with.
The importance of support from colleagues
“As always, my colleagues are my greatest source of support. We have a group chat every morning plus virtual meetings with managers and senior leaders and we get lots of positive feedback which is important and really helps. They know we are trying to do the best we can.
“At the end of the day, children’s social work matters to me because children often don’t have a voice.Adults have a choice; they can choose their lifestyle.A child living in that environment doesn’t have a choice.I’m sure they don’t want to live with a parent who uses alcohol or drugs but they don’t have that option so they need people like us who can go in, unpick what’s going on and make sure their parents understand how their behaviours are impacting on their child. My job is to educate them on what their child needs and supporting them to do that so that their child can flourish and, hopefully, do well in life – breaking the cycle.”
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