I received my social work qualification in the post just two days before I started my first ever social work post. New social workers, in the days before we defined Newly Qualified Social Workers, were just called a new social worker. The fact that you were newly qualified was never discussed. I was a social worker. I bought a new shirt for the occasion of my first ever day in the profession. It would have been ironed had one of the children not delayed me by being sick in one of my wedding (now work) shoes.
I met my first line manager in the first hour of the first day. She talked a lot and I was to listen. In fact she even passed me a notepad and pen as she commented that she was surprised I was not noting some of the things she was telling me. In truth I wont have been listening. I can’t listen when people give me instructions. If I get lost and ask people for directions I never listen to a word they helpfully try and give me. As much as I need their assistance I instead find myself concentrating on the kindly direction givers accent or slight whistle when they pronounce anything with an ‘s’ in it or I notice the expression of their passengers face. Whilst nodding and saying ‘yes, turn right’ after they’ve said it to give the impression I am listening I am wondering where they going themselves or where they have been. Now that I would listen to. But directions and instructions far less so. I expect my new superior was telling me about fire alarms that probably wouldn’t go off and the ritual of car parking or maybe even how to pay the tea club. I smiled and nodded and I remember noting something down in the pad she had given me. It will have likely to have been the last one I heard her say in order that it looked like I was listening. My guess is that it said something like ‘ok’. It may as well as said ‘turn right, yes’.
I remember my first ever social work client from that day. She was called Jean. She talked and I listened because she was talking about herself, her life, her ambitions, her present situation and her desires. Jean spent a lot of time talking about her cat. There were no instructions attached to Jean talking, and so I just listened. I asked questions from time to time, but crucially I listened and Jean just spoke. On my lap I had a Community Care Assessment. This, my boss explained, was where we wrote down relevant points about peoples lives to do ‘The Assessment’. I had heard a lot about assessments in my first morning as a social worker. They were described as the cornerstone, the purpose and the focus of our role. In truth I hadn’t had much in the way of training on assessments at university. There was some mention of Care Assessments and Care Plans but in three years of training, 24 separate 3000 word assignments, two 8000 word portfolios based on two practice placements I rarely mentioned assessments. My training was about our approach, our understanding of people, relationships, the dynamics of relationships, empowerment, advocacy and rights. Maybe I was on the sick on the day they did ‘assessments’? Either way, assessments were a form and forms came with instructions. I wouldn’t have listened.
Half way through week one the boss was clear that my work with Jean needed reviewing. I was invited in to the meeting room and asked to explain where the discharge planning was up to. With my paperwork in hand I began talking about Jean. I had completed the assessment through recording what I had heard Jean say. So half reading from the assessment document and half through memory I talked about my conversations with Jean. I talked about her background and her family, I talked about her husband Bob and his job and how when he retired he died shortly after robbing Jean of the retirement that they planned. I talked about how Bob had helped choose the new carpet that she had tripped on, causing the fracture that led to her fall and how she laughed at the thought that he was getting his own back. I talked about the grandchildren in Australia and how the letters and photographs kept Jean going as well as the 3am phone calls from her granddaughter Laura due to the time difference and how excited Jean felt when she was due a 3am call. I talked about Jeans cat and how when Bob had died and her daughter had gone to Australia it was the main focus on Jeans life. I listened to Jean talking about the life that Jean once had, the life she was planning to have and the life she had now. After I had talked about Jean I waited for the boss to speak. There was a long pause and then she spoke. ‘You may have well as assessed the bloody cat’. She went on to explain that what I needed to assess was the support Jean needed, not Jean herself and certainly not her long lost husband, far flung daughter and bloody cat. I needed to listen to how many times she needed the toilet during the night. I needed to hear if she now thought she needed to be in a residential home. I needed to hear how the care package was going to get her back home. I needed to listen out for who manages her finances and how much money she has. I was genuinely perplexed. I wasn’t trained to do that sort of listening. I didn’t like that sort of listening. That wasn’t the social work I was educated in and in truth I didn’t even recognise that it was social work. But this was my job.
I didn’t speak to Jean again or get the chance to listen to her. Our conversation was converted into an assessment by an experienced social worker. Apparently with a half decent nursing report and a functional assessment from the OT we could just about throw together an assessment that would help Jean be discharged as quickly as possible. The assessment documented that Jean needed four calls of home care a day. The calls would start anytime between 7am and 11am. Lunch was between 12 and 3. Tea from 3.30 to 7 and bed every night by 10pm. No mention of Bob or little Laura in Sydney or even Audrey next door. On the box that documented whether or not Jean had got any pets it said in bold capital letters NONE.