I’m reading  Barbara Taylor’s ‘The Last Asylum’. The book is part memoir and part history of psychiatric provision/approaches.  Many parts of the book have struck me so far but today’s reading is poignant.  Taylor discusses the inclusion of service users in the community, which of course is something that’s central to Social Work, however Taylor raises an uncomfortable truth about thi:/  ? approach.  Due to cuts, Taylor suggests ,( I agree), and the stigma still present around mental health many people end up sitting “alone in their flats with only a television to keep them company”.

Taylor quotes a man who finds that “It’s just like being on a ward again, except there’s nobody else there”.

So where does care in the community come from if there is no community and no care?

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The Alan Wood interview in today’s Guardian appears to have the world of Social Work up in arms again..I say again as we seem to have our arms up in the air a lot recently. Why are those arms up again? Alan Wood ‘s comment regarding ‘crap social workers’ namely they he doesn’t “take kindly to all these academics turning out crap social workers writing letters to the Guardian…”

Now how do we take this? Yup being called crap isn’t the biggest ego booster admittedly..however I’m reading it that it’s more of an attack on the divide between being an academic and being in practice. I can’t help but think Wood is saying that if you want change in Social Work that writing to the Guardian isn’t going to achieve it..to be honest I kind of agree with him.

Now before you jump on me for going along with the idea that social worker’s are crap..he didn’t say they ALL were and (we have to face it) there will always be some social worker’s who may not make the grade and aren’t suited to the profession . This happens in all lines of work and we’d be naive to suggest that Social Work is an exception. Wood states that 200 of the Hackney Social Workers were assessed across competencies and “a quarter either left before being tested or were told they had not made the grade” and that some staff told him “thank goodness someone is doing something about those bloody crap people who are doing no social work at all.”

So before we jump on him for calling some social workers crap maybe we should ask why he thinks that? Would WE want a crap social worker working with our families, working with us? Reading on I read that Wood is about “reclaiming the hearts and minds of social workers as to how you deliver an effective service” and wants innovation and for smaller staff owned practices. I’m not saying these ideas aren’t without issue but surely if someone wants to give the future of social work back to social workers then yes you’d want them to be at least competent ones?

So what is our issue with in regards to this much tweeted line about ‘crap social workers’ is it about social work or is it about academics being responsible? Should teaching academics take some responsibility for this, yes they should from admissions, to retakes, to quality placements, for student support throughout the process there is responsibility there to be had. Should they take all the responsibility for quality? No they shouldn’t, systems and processes can grind workers down, lack of support in LA’s, in the private sector all shoulder some responsibility.

I agree ‘crap’ isn’t the most insightful constructive criticism of Social Workers (or the education system that supports it) but at the same time why are we only picking up on that part of this article where there are bigger issues within it?

I think Social Work is big enough to get over such a comment, I’m confident enough to know I’m not crap and besides if we constantly have our arms up in the air over every comment that is made about social work, people will stop noticing when suddenly we’re drowning.

There may be a lack of flow to this piece but my head is still jumbled from this encounter, so forgive and bear with me..

Today started out as expected, we were all tired from 2 days of running/attending a  Minecraft Build but today was the finale and so my children were off to Margate and I had 3 hours to myself.  Thinking it’d be good to just sit in a coffee shop and work on an essay, I dropped them off at 10am and proceeded to walk into the town. I had only walked for about 5 mins when a young man approached me and asked (very politely) “Excuse me could you tell me the way to Margate?” (a bit strange as we were standing in Margate), “We are in Margate” I replied.  The young man explained he’s got a bit lost and that he had to meet his Foster Carers in the high street, he mentioned he’d come down from (let’s call it suburbia), .  Thinking that he was a recent move to the area (and as I was heading that way) I offered to accompany him to the high street and so off we went.  From here on the sequence of events and information I was told becomes confusing and even now I’m trying to unpick all he said.

The young man explained, whilst walking, that he had been moved here to make a fresh start and that he had only just arrived in Margate and had spoken to the foster carers on the phone and they had told him to meet them near Greggs and MacDonald’s at midday.  Feeling concerned yet?  I was…What on earth was an unaccompanied child doing meeting his new foster carers in the middle of town? Why had he travelled from Suburbia unaccompanied?  The young man had said he’d left Suburbia quite early, I worried he might be a bit hungry and it was chilly out and so when we arrived at MacDonald’s I offered to buy him a breakfast and a hot drink, he refused at first as he said it’s be ‘rude’ to accept, but I said I didn’t mind and that I didn’t want him to be left alone wandering by himself.  We sat in MacDonald’s and I tried to get some more information regarding why he was wandering the streets of Margate.  He told me his name, we’ll call him M.

M told me that he’d been in care most of his life as his mum had left him when he was very young and his dad had left even before that, he explained that he kept getting into trouble with the police and that he did it because it was boring in Suburbia and these activities gave him an adrenalin rush.  He had been living in a children’s care home, was home educated due to being excluded from school and had only been placed with foster carer’s once before but apparently they had been unable to foster him any longer.  M said that he was turning 16 next week and that was why he’d been moved to Margate, apparently the police had warned him that his constant arrests would eventually lead him to being placed in prison and that he would benefit from a clean break.  M told me that this morning he attended the police station, spoke to his new foster carers on the phone and was taken to the train station by a policeman who paid for his ticket, gave him a pep talk and told the ticket inspector to keep an eye on him.

I questioned M about being unaccompanied and he replied that they had allowed him as he was nearly 16; I restated that this was still inappropriate as he was still essentially a child.  M mentioned that he was placed by a company called ‘Family Matters’ (don’t bother googling or telephoning them I’ve tried this all day), I offered to telephone them to find out the situation was his foster carers but he said that it was fine and that he would meet them at 12.  I asked M about his Social Worker, he said he liked her and that she took him out to lots of places. M also spoke a lot about his grandmother, apparently there had been a court order stating he was not to live with any members of his family and he was only allowed supervised visits with her, this Grandmother originally lived in the Margate area but had moved to Suburbia to be closer to M (keep this in mind).  M also mentioned that he had a younger brother who lived in Kent and that this younger brother lived with his mother, who had now turned her life around (bear this piece of info in mind for later) I asked him what he hoped to do now he was in Margate and he said that he wanted to stay out of trouble and mix with good people.  M began to look a bit uncomfortable and asked if we could go outside.  I was still not happy with him wandering around on his own and so offered to keep him company until midday, M seemed happy with this and so I walked around the area with him and he just talked.  One thing struck me, he didn’t have a bag of clothes… or any bag in fact , I asked him about this and he said they would be sending his stuff (a bit strang, yes).  I asked him when he would be seeing his social worker next and he said she would be coming down to see him in a few days and that she had made him an appointment at the local job centre just after his birthday.  I also enquired about the foster carers, how would he recognise them, how would they recognise him? I said they had described themselves on the phone, apparently they were in their 40’s, one of them was a largish man with a red face, and they had a border collie and a Landover.  I asked him why they hadn’t met him from the station he said they had told him they couldn’t as they were busy in another part of Margate until 12.

As we walked he mentioned other family members who had come from Kent, particularly the Margate area, he talked about his mistrust of the police and every time we walked by any he instantly became paranoid about them watching him and said this was because his local police in Suburbia had started to blame him for things that were not his fault.  He talked about his experience in court and that he had been to the magistrates court and had been elevated to the crown court, that he wasn’t allowed to speak up for himself, that he had been placed upon remand.  The time was ticking by and soon it was 11.30, not long before his foster carers would turn up.  It was at this point he decided he no longer wanted my company; I tried to convince him to let me stay with him until they arrived but he declined.  I walked down the road a bit and stood at a vantage point to the meeting place and rang Suburbia Social Services LAC team, I told them what had happened, gave M’s name and the date he had told me his birthday fell upon.  The team did not have anyone by the name of ‘M’ with that birth date, I heard her call around the office to her colleagues, he hadn’t wanted to tell me his surname and now Suburbia Social Services sounded a bit shirty a me for not knowing it, I informed them of the Fostering Company but still no joy. Without a surname they couldn’t help me, so I said I’d try and keep an eye out and get back to them if I found anything else out. As M had mentioned the policeman accompanying him on a train I rang the central police line and gave relayed the situation to them, they stated they would pass this on to Suburbia station.

I wandered around looking for him but to no avail and then I had to go back to my children.  M’s constant references to family of Kent origin has now made me feel he may have run away to find them, he didn’t have a Kent accent so I do believe he has come from out of area.  M was very much a young 15 yr old and quite baby faced, he was very polite to people and on one hand trusting and yet paranoid of being watched.  I don’t know what to make of it; I’ve heard nothing back from any agencies.

I’m still untangling everything he said to try and understand what happened today and I just hope I did all I could.</p>

Social Work –A journey not a race

For the past year I have been involved with discussions regarding the new ‘Frontline’ initiative for Social Work.  My involvement has been mostly in such forums such as twitter, as Frontline itself has not attempted to engage in full discussion with current students, therefore this blog post is an addition to personal opinion pieces I have tweeted.  I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece for a while, but my thoughts aren’t just about the approach or background of frontline, there are enough thoughts about those (mostly with which I agree).  I am concerned that Frontline has ignored the experience of current students at its peril, as it’s my experience as a university based student that will make me the better Social Worker for all the right reasons.

Before I move onto my worries regarding Frontline let me introduce myself more fully, let me share my experiences as a Social Work Student to date, let me show you what benefits I have been given.  In this way I can then move onto the weaknesses I perceive in Frontline and its care of its prospective students, as I feel in its rush to expand Teach First Concepts and leave its stamp on Social Work it is forgetting the wellbeing and potential experiences of its recruits.

I’m a tortoise not a hare:

My name is Natasha and I am a 39 year old Part Time MA Social Work Student.  Social Work is a path (and it is a path, a journey, not a race or stepping stone) that I came upon after a combination of life experience, work within unions and working in schools.  It combined my belief in social justice, my belief in change, my belief in community and my belief in people.  This may sound obvious but I have a great belief in the capacity of people, people are amazing, not all realise how amazing they are, some are never given the opportunity to show it.   So I had the beliefs, I had the life experience, I had the work experience, I even had a great academic record but did this prepare me for Social Work -absolutely no way.

My time as a part time student saw me questioning as to whether I had it in me to continue the Social Work Journey.  I sat through seminars that cracked open old wounds, I read government policy and newspaper articles, I met disillusioned professionals all attacking social work.   I wondered if I had the capacity to be able to break through the walls that bureaucracy had built to be the kind of social worker I would want to have, for my children to have, for my parents to have -a social worker who knows that people are amazing.   So how did the university experience keep me on the road?

My Wonderful cohort:  I sat in a room of strangers in September 2011 and they soon became people that I debated with, that I questioned, that I asked for advice that I advised, they became my fellow travellers.  Our seminars provided a safe space in which to work out our beliefs, to question others views to understand what we felt was social work in our eyes.  We shared our knowledge and experiences and it made the journey richer and so colorful.

My supportive tutors:  I’m sure that Social Work, along with every academic social work, has egos but I’m glad to say not on my course.   I have been able to talk openly to my tutors about my experiences, good and bad, many of them also practice still and have brought social work to life but at the same being able to place their work in theory, legislation and legislation and are therefore able to encourage my discussion of social work in all its domains.

My Practice Educators: I have had two voluntary placements (50 days on both) and have therefore had offsite PE’s who are responsible for helping me apply my theory to practice and to grow in my abilities.  My first PE would run group and individual supervision sessions, so I was able to meet with other students also on other placements (a mixture of BA and MA) and we would discuss good and bad experiences, apply theory to practice and generally support each other.  My PE also arranged for us to observe therapies in practice, helping us to make wider links.  She was an amazing woman, but I still fell out with her…yes I fell out with my PE, it felt explosive at the time, but you know what we got over it, and this is the point.  I had the space to fall out with her and still come back to build a supportive relationship and she set a standard for future PE’s.

My Practice Managers:  With two voluntary placements I had non-social workers as my managers and they have brought so much to my practice for that very reason.  My managers were open to the learning experience a student social work placement could bring, they both have a wealth of experience in the voluntary sector, both professional and personal, they sat and answered all my questions and yes here’s that ‘space’ word again, they gave me space to learn about the sector, it’s interaction with statutory agencies,   I have made so many contacts in all areas (voluntary and statutory), I have made my own networking opportunities, I was allowed to develop my own work direction/projects, I had my belief in the capacity of community reaffirmed through these agencies, I have been given a wider view by these placements, I have worked with amazing people from all backgrounds.

I am about to enter my 3rd year, I have had placements with children, with adults, with communities, with families, in mental health, working with those with learning and physical disabilities…yes all from two placements!!  I will have a statutory placement next so my journey will continue and I will apply what I have learned to any environment I am placed in, but I know I will still have all the support I’ve spoken about above and I will still have that space to learn and grow.

So this is my concern for the Frontline cohort, where is their learning space? Where is their growing space? Where is their space to question? How can they grow as Social Workers and what will this mean for Social Work? Are these the ‘leaders’ we need?

Frontline‘s language already concerns me as it outlines what it sees as Social Work with Children and Families: “You will be working with Challenging families, with schools, with courts, with the police”…..Instantly we are given a view of how Frontline see Social Work, not as work to support families, not building communities, not working with families to help them reach their potential.  If this description attracts people to Social Work, it’s surely could be attracting people for the wrong reason.

“99% of us would run in the opposite direction”- yes including the founder of Frontline, which should then make us ask why is he so keen and how he is he able to have this influence over an area in which he himself has ‘run’ away from.  Social Work is a privilege, we enter into people’s lives, we are part of others journeys, Frontline makes it seem more akin to Dante’s Inferno.

Frontline believes it will produce ‘Leaders in Social Work and broader society’, however Frontline learning is entrenched in already pre-formed belief in regards to what is ‘right’ for social work, the cohorts will be expected to practice in a way already defined by Frontline..For me leaders are innovative and free thinking, not mass produced.  In extension to this what is ‘right’ for Social Work, Frontline supporters seem to be free to tell us what is wrong with social work..Yup that’s it…us, dear current students!

Apparently many of us do not have ‘strong communication skills’,  Social Work is apparently currently ‘instructive’ in its approach- a worrying comment from a social work academic whose students (past and present) must be amongst those he’s criticizing.  In addition apparently our placements involve ‘sitting next to Nelly’ (a twitter comment from another SW academic from the same uni).  I would say that those who criticize the journey in this way are those who are no longer on the journey.  Rather than trying to bring change within the current structures of Social Work Education (hey I never said it was perfect) some believe it’s preferable to attack the current system (whilst bizarrely still in a Uni SW department), unconstructively might I say, why not work with what you have?  I can’t help but feel this whole project has careerist intentions as it’s foundations.

Considering these initial flaws it is hard to believe that Frontline has executed the ‘extensive consultation’ it mentions (indeed from comments across the internet it’s hard to see who was consulted. Were you consulted? Were any students consulted?

Frontline has designed a student experience without any student experience, I hope their recruits get the support they need, the experience they need on their race to the HCPC registration, and at this point I don’t think they will.  Their journey will be very different to mine, I’ll be a very different Social Worker and I’ll be forever glad of that.  So here’s to all of you still on the journey, sharing your maps and providing directions, for those of you who lead without needing to be ‘produced’ as a leader, I, for one, thank you.

When article’s like this appear it’s time for all those who work in Social Work to consider their values, there is a reason why we do not work with ” categorising, stigmatizing, laying blame” not least because it is unhelpful to workers and families but also, and most pertinently, it is oppressive.As Social Workers we are not there to blame, we are there to “protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers” (GSCC CoP).  Working with each family, each person as an individual, not utilising blanket tags or beating them with their own issues, this would tantamount to “Abuse, neglect or harm (of) service  (and) carers” (GSCC CoP).  The GSCC is to replaced but these are the codes we signed up to.  So I ask you where do we as Social Workers and Student Social Workers draw the line as we see evermouting attacks on families, the disabled, children the mentally ill, the elderly..the list goes on.  I will not be aligned to a policy that utilises such narrowed definitions, that seeks to” get the broom cracking on a lot of folks” this is not the state I wish to be an agent of.  These are people’s lives and they are people, not categories, not statistics, so referring back to the Codes of Practice is it not time that we use established processes and procedures to challenge and report dangerous, abusive, discriminatory or exploitative behaviour” as this, my fellow Social Workers and students, is what this Govt is practicing.

I’m nearly at the end of my first year, the end of my placement beckons and as such I am finishing writing up my portfolio.  Key Role 2 has bothered me a little for a while, at first I was worried I wouldn’t have access to the direct practice needed and then, suddenly, the experience came all at once.  The cases I now have do help complete my portfolio and yes I should be glad that I’ve been able to have the experience..so why do I find myself feeling deflated in my mood?  They came too late.  I’m not by any means saying they have come to late for the cases to be resolved, maybe by someone else, I’m saying that they have come too late for me to see them to any form of fruition, for me to take forward and, I suppose, for me to make a difference.  On reflection I know I sound selfish, after all Social Work is not about me feeling accomplished, however as a Student Social Worker you often have the luxury of more time to spend on face to face time, more time to research and I wanted to use this luxury of time to make a difference.   In many ways of placement I have made a difference, I have added to knowledge, I have hopefully empowered families and I have met so many many inspiring people.  There is a difference, it must be said, to seeing a family in an organizational setting to seeing a family in the heart of their crisis, in the home that’s not a home, in the life that is not being lived and the requests for help that go unmet.  This is the difference I mean, I worry that no one will have the time, that lives will stay unled and well, it breaks my heart a little as I’ve been a witness to it and should therefore help.  But my placement ends and so does my involvement, I feel guilty and sad that I am limited in what I can achieve.

I have to remember that I can’t change the world and, yes, small changes do count, but my heart still feels as though I’ve failed somehow.

A discussion today on twitter (which I did not partake in but followed with interest) focused upon an ongoing issue, namely student Social Workers being told by professionals that in the ‘real world’ it’s not about the theory.  As students the use and application of theory is impressed upon us, it defines how we begin to approach our assignments and our case loads.  We begin to find our own favoured theories and they become our lenses, through which the world of Social Work is seen.  I won’t go into what my favourite theory is (it’s systems theory by the way) as that’s a post for another time.  What I will say is that I wonder how these non-theory using Social Workers decide how to assess and intervene? How do they support their decisions?  I understand that theory is not the only tool, there are personal tools, legislation, protcols, guidelines..however how can you see a case amongst all these other factors without a lens or theory to drown out the competing noises?

I have not experienced the non theory using social worker (or NTUSW) so I cannot answer these questions, can you?  If you can please comment, however I will continue to hold up my theory lens or, as Milner and O’Byrne describe it, my map.

Milner and O’Byrne’s ‘Journey’:

For which social workers need to select the most appropriate map if they are to get to their destinations quickly and efficiently.  We do not believe that assessment can be easily separated from intervention-change happens at all stages of the social work process-but we do think it dangerous to read a road map while driving…..Should they get lost on the way or should the service user not meet them at the destination, they will then need to consult the maps again”. (2002:4)

Milner, J and O’Byrne, P (2002) Assessment in Social Work, Basingstoke:Macmillan