Social Work, Covid-19 and Being Human



Social Workers have our own version of the old joke – how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is, and always will be, ‘one, you’. We change the light bulb, we don’t refer on for someone else to sort. We need to be there when everyone else has gone home.  When we need to, we come to work in our scruffy clothes to help someone clean their flat before moving, to help them get their bond back. We get stuck in, on our hands and knees with the person, scrubbing, chatting, laughing. Doing. That’s what brought many us into social work in the first place. We are good at it. We get stuck in where and when it’s needed.  Like now.

There is of course the statutory side of Social Work. We have to do that. The regulations, statutory guidance, Court applications, legal safeguards with confusing names (CoP3, CoP10, DoLS Form 6) and of course there is the glare of the pinkest of papers and the ruminations of the latest Jones. That’s vital. But if you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you know in your heart that isn’t really fully you, that you are awkward in the role of administrators,  not really feeling comfortable in your skin, it’s time to don the scruffy clothes.

Social workers instinctively know what LJ Munby meant when he said the Local Authority is ‘a servant, not a master’. We are steeped in public service. Our interest in community led social work is because we are proud that it means going back to our roots and being of the communities we serve. We don’t want assessment forms. We are creating our own paperwork which records good conversations we have with people and reflects values and respects their wishes, feelings and beliefs. We enable people to be supported to understand risk, retain the relevant information, weigh up what being safe means to them, and communicate what they want to do as a result. Social Workers know in our hearts that the shift back in recent years to social workers being community practitioners, not simple brokers of care packages, is right.  Community led social work is our social work values, our social work ethics and our moral purpose made real.

Like most of the Country, we have been watching our news feeds and TVs and listening to our radios as they filling up with the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  But we are also human, we have families too and it is important to rest, have fun and spend time with the people we love and it is important for us that our families feel safe.  So thinking about Covid-19 is not easy because it doesn’t make us feel safe.  As Social Workers, an academic discipline grounded in social theory and the social model, we are worried about what will it mean for society over the coming months.  As practitioners in a profession which is activist by nature, we are thinking about what we can do to be helpful (yes, it is a professionally taken for granted assumption here that we can be helpful…).   The next few months will be a time when community led social work could really make a positive difference.

A lot of social work attention in the coming months will be on supporting our NHS colleagues, working collaboratively and collectively to ensure that clinically skilled nurses and Doctors are able to prioritise and concentrate on those who most need their care and it’s right that we do that. Social work has a long tradition of supporting people to stay well at home, or when they do need a stay in hospital, to help them get home with support and services.  Here at Social Work Cats the Blog, we will be supporting our commissioning colleagues to understand what support people need to do this, and whether any of the needs we see when we meet people are changing and different to what they might have usually needed.

So, we are starting to mobilise and work out how we can do our bit on a professional and a personal level.  Here’s a few things we here at Social Work Cats the Blog Site will be doing over the next few weeks at work and in our own communities, please let us know if you have other suggestions to add to this list:

  1. Visibility – People may need to see, speak to and hear from social workers more than usual over the coming months. We are planning to be much more visible to the people we support than we have ever been in the next few weeks.  Now is a good time to get up to date with advice about how to minimise the risk to yourself and the people you support from Covid-19.  BASW have really helpfully collated the national advice into a single site which we will be checking daily as the situation is changing on almost a daily basis –  If we cannot be physically visible for some people we must ensure contact. For us it means ensuring communication with the people in our communities who we know and have supported to live lifestyles that are on the edge, often outside of social care, the people who other often think we are doing nothing for (when in supporting them to live their lives we are doing lots). Our conversations could be vital.
  2. Contact between families and friends.  Article 8 ECHR is the right to a private and family life with a circle of good friends.  This is the heart of social work. There are lots of ways to make sure that if best interest decisions are being made by providers such as care homes about protecting people’s Article 2 right to life by restricting access to the setting, there are lots of ways to cheaply work with the provider to ensure they take action to keep families connected and prevent the well documented impact of social isolation. There are loads of modern technologies out there that can help do this – Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp are all easily accessible and we are encouraging Care Home providers to get these set up now.  As more people are taking social distancing action, self-isolating, including our own parents and grand parents, we will keep talking about how we support non personal contact using new technologies than ever before. We have our own family Whatsapp groups and we are planning to visit our family members, taking sensible precautions.  We are reviewing care and support plans over the next 2 weeks to ensure that how families are supported to stay in contact with loved ones is documented and agreed where the least restrictive option is for a setting to restrict access.
  3. Shopping and Food Banks. We have contributed to food banks through fund raising, sleep outs and on a weekly basis donated to in our weekly shop as we walk past the trolly in our local supermarket.  In our offices we keep small boxes of enough stuff to help people get home from hospital, or set up their first home, with a couple of meals of stuff in the cupboard. We help families access local food banks.  For right or wrong, food banks are part of our lives and provide essential items to people regardless of income, disability, access. This is ensuring social justice, our central mission as a profession which is encoded into the international definition of Social Work.  So it is not a surprise that this week our social work colleagues have been telling us that they have been out to see their neighbours and ask do they need any help with shopping, and giving them their personal numbers inviting neighbours to contact them if they need help with this in the next few months.  We will be talking to the people and families we support over the next few weeks about shopping. Is there something they haven’t got?  Have they the resources to be able to stockpile a fortnight worth of resources.  If someone only eats garlic bread, or ice cream or drinks Cherry fizzy pop, we have gone out to make sure that they have a supply of these in at a time when supermarket shelves are emptying faster than they can be filled by the stores. Many of the families we support won’t be able to afford this so we will be looking to see if the food banks can cope with the pressure and agitating for resources to be made available to help.
  4. Our local area has already set up facebook community action groups which we have joined so we can help support our neighbours.  We are talking to people and families we are support over the next few weeks about whether they have something similar they can connect to, and do they have a good neighbour to help them from becoming isolated.  Local community centres, Mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, parish or town councils all have positive contributions to make and social workers are pooling what we know about the communities we are part of and how we can access these resources to support people who are worried, self-isolating and may need some help.  We are asking ourselves a challenging question – social work assumes it is helpful, but we only know who we know. Most people don’t choose to invite social workers into their lives.  We are thinking about who do the corner shops know? Who does the library know? What about the bookies and the local cafe? We are making sure that they know us and feel that they have a relationship which means they would pick up the phone and ring us if they think someone needs our help over the next few months.
  5. We will be speaking to people and families who manage their own support and use a Direct Payment to arrange for Personal Assistants about their contingency plans over the next few months.  Would they and their PAs be interested in talking to other families who live near them, or whose children attend the same school, about whether they might be interested in pooling their PA support as part of planning for cover.  We will be encouraging PAs and families to keep up to date with government guidance about personal protective equipment to sign up to webinars being arranged by organisations set up to support self directed support such as this one

We are, of course, taking care of ourselves too!  We are human, we have family members we are worried about, we can’t always be as reassuring as we would like to be (we get worried too). We will be using our professional supervision, our friendship groups and our family networks to talk about the personal, about how we feel and about what is happening so that we also get the support we need if and when we need it.

Social Workers will be led by their employers and national guidance as it becomes available. We all have plans to follow and there are good reasons for this.  We aren’t a blue light service. But we will get into our scruffs, we are down into the hole with the people we serve helping give each other leg up.  We are human, not care managers.

The Ghost in the ATM


A few years ago, when I was a Team Manager, I chaired a meeting about a man who the Local Authority had recently placed in a care home. During the meeting I noticed that the man’s mother Sheila was becoming increasingly frustrated by the meeting, in particular she became fidgety as the Social Worker insisted that he go carefully and line by line through (what was then) Community Care Assessment. The Social Worker patiently explained to Sheila that he had to make sure he had captured all the information appropriately and accurately and so that everyone’s views were incorporated. Sheila stopped the meeting and said ‘Can I tell you something? I work for a bank and I’ve studied commerce. You know mini banks? Cash machines? When you put your card in and you want to withdraw cash, what happens? Take me through that process’ Uncomfortable silence ensued. No-one spoke, everyone looked down not wanting to make eye contact with either me or her. After a few moments of awkward silence, she continued ‘Ok. I’ll tell you. You type your PIN in and then you issue your instructions to the machine. It asks you if you want information about your balance, receipt and then finally you get cash options. You choose what amount of cash you want. But the crucial thing is that the machine doesn’t give you cash straight away. First it gives you back your card and then and only then it gives you your cash. That’s deliberate. Does anyone know why?‘ Again, nothing from the stunned MDT. ‘It’s because you’ll forget your bank card once you see the money because that’s what you came for. You will take the money from the machine and turn and walk away and you’ve forgotten about the process because it’s not important. The card will then come out of the machine and the machine will bleep loudly to remind you to take it. If it didn’t you would be down the road counting your money and planning on what you’re going to do with it. We have research in commerce that evidences that this happens on 90% of transactions we’ve tested it. The product is always the thing, not the process. You’re assessment is a process but it doesn’t mean a thing to my son or me. We want action‘.

Sheila went on to explain that the ‘action’ for her son was the care and support, that was the outcome. The process (the assessment), as she saw it, was for us not her and absolutely not something for her son. This observation had quite a profound effect on me. I reflected on earlier that week I had been to see my GP. Although I recalled answering the GPs questions and listening to the GPs observations about what I told her, it was her diagnosis and her intervention that really mattered to me. That’s what I was there for. That was the action. Whether I was there for the prescription, or the referral on or the sick note or the something else, I was there for outcome and not really that interested in the process about how she got there. The GPs assessment was just that – the GPs. I didn’t need her for an analysis of my life to date and the environment I lived in. I was the expert of my life and my circumstances, I’d lived it! I just needed her to make the next step happen to help me stay healthy.

By this point in my career I had been schooled in assessment and genuinely believed in their merit. Even in my first qualified social work post I had the job title Social Care Assessor. I had showed off to colleagues at the hospital team that as Social Care Assessor covering older people’s mental health wards. In a typical week, I brought 6 cases to funding panel for placements in care homes. I worked hard on producing the assessments. I learned to write lots. They were huge. They covered everything. I wanted to show just how person centred I was so in every assessment I included a pen picture of the person making clear how much research I had done on to understand their younger days, their likes, their culture. The assessments were approved at panel. The CCG had copies. Prospective care homes received copies. And eventually when the person went to the Care home the assessment accompanied the person. As a Social Care Assessor, I would then see the person again in six weeks to see if they had ‘settled in’, which is essentially Social Care code for ‘have they given in and accepted the Care home and all it entails’….

But faced with Sheila I found my faith in my assessment wobble. I went home that night and couldn’t sleep, my mind churning with questions:

  • Who cares about the consequences of the product when we’ve got the process to do?
  • Were the assessments I undertook as a Social Care Assessor ever read again?
  • Did anyone other than me read the carefully researched person centred pen picture?
  • In processing the person through a conveyor belt of assessments was I really being person centred?
  • Did any of my assessments lead to anyone being better off?

I didn’t sleep well for weeks after meeting Sheila.

My assessments were produced after a huge amount of input, but in reality they consistently resulted in a very simple to arrange outcome – the Care home says yes, they’ll take him, send them the Care plan we can settle him in ready for the evening meal round. Ultimately the success of the product was invariably what the care provider made of made of the person I had processed towards their final resting place. The long term happiness of the person entirely dependent on the quality of the individual provider, my assessment recording a point in time which faded into the past as it was superseded by a plethora of new documents to process – support plans, med charts, meal charts, visitor logs.

I genuinely cannot recall a single 40 odd page assessment that ever genuinely informed my view on things like eligibility, need and what the right support would be. The skill of the social worker is in recognising the value of a cuppa and a chat, a frown or a joke, the mention of a relationship, a loving glance between family members. Social Workers shine for me when they celebrate that they are experts in human interaction.

So, let’s embrace our humanity and the humanity of the people we serve such as Sheila and her son. Sheila and her son were the experts of their lives. We are there to understand environmental and sociological issues and place those in a context of their human rights. That’s our role. Let’s stop wasting time spending days in the office typing up pages and pages of assessment forms and case notes which no one will read. We are the PIN number, the bleep in the machine, the questions about balance on screen and whether receipts are wanted. We are the action, not the assessment.

Winter – Part 3

Each year the headlines going into the NHS winter seem to forecast a bleaker outlook.  

Whilst the 1st October still feels very autumnal, the build up to this years NHS winter is underway.

Which is worrying if you are responsible for arranging services for people who will need some extra support from adult social care to help them home from hospital.  In adult social care we rely on so called winter monies to fund out of hours, home care, intermediate care and transitional beds, all of which get people out of hospital and back to their communities so they can complete their convalescence and recovery.  This winter however the signs are that these funds won’t reach social care.  The NHS winter is biting and hospitals are needing every penny health commissioners can find.

This is further destabilising fragile social care providers, many of which are small local businesses who are really struggling to make things stack up.  As reported by the Kings Fund & Nuffield Trust social care providers face huges pressures in terms of retaining staff, maintaining quality and staying in business.

social-care-for-older-people        Social Care for Older People (home truths)

Our experience is that small, local providers are full of caring, passionate people who are trying to make social care work despite the challenges.  People like Mark, whose story from 5.05 minutes into this video about what happened on Boxing Day 2015 when the River Calder broke its banks left me speachless when I first heard it.

Mark and his team faced the worst that winter could throw at them.   But driven by deeply held convictions that it was their job to care, they are made social care work in the most challenging of circumstances.

Going into this winter we are anxious, but we haven’t lost hope.  People have an incredible capacity for caring and to find humour and happiness in the bleakest of circumstances.


So going into the social care winter 2016 here are our suggestions:

1.  Remember why you work in the social care sector.  You care.  If you didn’t you could earn more somewhere else.

2. Nevet forget you are a guest in people’s lives and this is a huge privilege.  The minute it stops feeling that way it is time to move on.

3. Create space with your friends and coworkers to talk about the people you are here to serve and support.  Every person is a bright spark of colour in your life.  Sharing those sparks might catch a fire to keep you and your colleagues warm during the darkest of days when the pressure is on.

Someone to Safeguard

The referral was pretty bog standard these days. The neighbours didn’t get Elsie’s permission for any of her details to be referred to Social Services. In truth it had never crossed their minds they’d be asked for this. When pushed by the call centre about the issue of consent they said that they didn’t think they needed her consent and that this was a matter that ‘the Council must take seriously for everyone’s sake’. And then behind the thinly veiled threat to act the neighbour stumbled upon four little words. Magic words. Words that suddenly change the meaning of everything and words that seemingly come with their own legislation, procedures, judges and juries. ‘It’s a safeguarding issue’. And boom, there it is. Elsie, aged 87, never known to the Council, never having failed to pay for council services or any other tax that propped up with welfare state that she didn’t really partake in, was known. Consent overridden. Case opened. Within moments Elsie had an electronic file. Elsie had a Reference Number. And Elsie would receive an automated letter thanking her for contacting the Council and she would receive a call within the next seven days. All done within five short minutes from the start of the phone conversation. Within ten minutes Elsie was on waiting list of other Reference numbers waiting to be allocated to a Social Worker and sat on the computer screen of the Manager. Whether Elsie used services or not, from that moment on to the day of her death, nothing was clearer – Elsie was a Service User and there was a record to prove it. There was, as far as everyone was concerned, someone to safeguard.

The social workers went in twos to the address. No-one was quite sure why. The referral mentioned that Elsie had got cats but there wasn’t any belief that the cats were dangerous. Perhaps the second social worker was there because social workers love cats. The referral said the house was ‘dirty’, ‘things everywhere’, ‘cluttered’, ‘soiled pads in the garden’ and Elsie, although not seen for some weeks, was wholeheartedly felt by the neighbours to be dirty herself. ‘She’s self neglecting’.

Having knocked at the door and getting no response the social workers pushed slightly at it and the door opened. A cat ran out and then back in again. No sign of Elsie in the hallway. The social workers called her name, walking gingerly through the hallway, past a sideboard with some framed pictures of a moustachioed man with the ‘Geraldo, King of Swing’ emblazoned on them. Calling out her name and holding out their ID badges the social workers continued inward.

Elsie was in the kitchen. She smiled when she saw the social workers and beckoned them in still further. The social workers introduced themselves and whilst doing so Elsie kept on smiling before raising her hand as if to stop the second social worker saying their name. Elsie bent forward and placed her right ear up against what looked like a radiogram from footage used to show listening to the broadcasts of Prime Minster Churchill telling them they wouldn’t surrender. Almost trance like Elsie’s smile remained fixed as she listened to the radio. Elsie probably listened to the radio for a full three minutes, to the social workers, observing the cats, the newspapers (one from May 1991 with a picture of Paul Gascoigne on) and moving their feet on the sticky floor tiles, the three minutes felt like a lifetime.

When Elsie moved away from the radio she asked the social workers ‘who are you again, love?’. The social workers explained who they were and said that they were there to see if ‘she was alright, you know, see how things are’. Elsie said she was fine and asked if the neighbour had asked for them to visit. ‘She’s lovely, like that. Looks out for me’. Elsie explained that she had lived in the house all her life. Her parents, who she said ‘died recently, in 1971 and 1975’ had left the house to her. The social workers listened. They wanted to be respectful, they had questions of course (and they had lots of boxes to tick) and had already decided that things ‘weren’t right’ but they listened nevertheless. Half way through talking Elsie’s eyes suddenly lit up. ‘John!’ she said. Within moments Elsie was back to the other side of the kitchen, head propped up against the radio, same expression on her face, which now to the social workers seemed almost rapturous. This time a longer a wait. Five minutes. Elsie broke her concentration just once, to beckon the social workers to sit down. Neither did. Elsie didn’t notice or care.

Elsie said that John worked for the radio. He was in his late forties and his job was a ‘broadcaster’ and that each day John ‘either announced the news or introduced big bands… sometimes both’. Elsie said that John was based in London and he still lived there. She said John sometimes slept in the radio station and sometimes broadcast during the night, but not usually. The social workers continued to listen but really wanted to talk about the cats and Elsie’s ‘daily routine and keeping clean’. More in an effort to wrap the conversation up about John and move on to the matters at hand, the self neglect, one of the social workers asked a question. ‘John sounds lovely. Is he someone you have actually met and know’? And with that the tone of the conversation changed. Elsie explained that John had spoken to her on the radio for over 60 years. He was her man friend and he was engaged to marry her. Her betrothed. John had promised Elsie that one day he would drive up from London in a white Bentley car and marry her. Their plan was to live in London and take Elsie away from all this, including the cats. Elsie said the social workers could have the cats if they wanted them.

On walking to the door with the social workers Elsie thanked them for coming but they had to go now as John liked to ‘talk to her alone’. Elsie smiled as she shut the door behind them. The last thing the social workers heard Elsie say as the door closed was that John was her man and ‘was not for sharing, goodbye’.

The social workers weren’t inexperienced. One had just become an Approved Mental Health Professional and the other had worked with older people for years. But as they walked to their cars and drove back to the office the silence between them spoke more than any words of completed boxes on the safeguarding form. ‘What was all that about?’
Safeguarding referrals can be complex. The social workers knew that. They also knew that to ‘help’ Elsie they had to get to know her, build up trust etc. So the visits continued throughout the next week. On each occasion Elsie spoke to the social workers but continued to ignore any questions about her health, her wellbeing, her cats and the state of her house. Most questions were met with ‘I know love. John’ll see to it’. All conversations were interspersed with long periods of Elsie listening to the radio and smiling with occasional, knowing nods and some ‘ah’s’ aimed at the social workers as if ‘John’ was further confirming plans that would need to be relayed to the social workers. For the most part the social workers just heard the hiss of the untuned radio. For them there was no voice, no programme and without doubt there was no John. However what bothered the social workers more than this was that there was no progress. No getting Elsie to see what state she was in. No getting Elsie to consent to sorting the house. No getting Elsie to realise the safeguarding issue. The self neglect. The abuse.

Safeguarding doesn’t allow for stalemate or for someone to continue to be abused. It identifies the abuse and through a list of ‘outcomes’ it makes the social workers do something. For the social workers things needed fixing for Elsie. She had a choice. Either Elsie worked with them to ‘improve the situation’ or they would ‘Refer to other agencies’. The case notes were clear. Elsie wouldn’t engage. She lacked capacity to make the decision. It was all in her best interests. The risks were unmanageable. The hoarding was a fire risk. The cats were underfed and the RSPCA would be cross. She needed safeguarding. If only she could see it! She was a problem. The problem needed fixing.

The social workers didn’t seek Elsie’s consent to refer to other agencies. In Elsie’s case the ‘other agencies’ was the Mental Health Team. Elsie was visited by a Community Psychiatric Nurse, who within hours visited again but this time with the Psychiatrist. The social workers received a call ‘How has this gone on so long? and ‘she’s in a terrible way, totally delusional, paranoid ideation’ and is ‘refusing all treatment because of this bloody John thing’. The next call was to the AMHP. Pink papers in the bag, the Mental Health Act Assessment was to take place that evening.

The Ambulance couldn’t stay and eventually the police were called. 87 year old Elsie was escorted out of her property by two young police officers. One of the police officers had to switch the radio off during ‘the incident’ in the house. He at least had the foresight to give the radio to Elsie and reassured her that she ‘could hold it’ in the back of the car. It was the only bit of humanity Elsie ever witnessed either that evening or throughout her entire dealings with the ‘support’ agencies.  Section 2 completed. Safeguarding outcome achieved. No more self neglect. Someone had been safeguarded.

The first thing Elsie did on the ward was to find a plug for the radio. John was there. Reassuring her and helping her to stop crying. And that’s how things stayed for a number of weeks. The medication was taken, Elsie complied. The nurses moved on to the next person, Elsie listened to John. There was no more worry about Elsie from the neighbours, the problem had been fixed. No more self neglect, no more self to neglect. Elsie’s care plan said ‘needs all cares’. And that’s what she had. All cares attended to and a continued love affair with John.

The discharge planning never once considered home. Home was where the ‘multi-disciplinary team’ had felt that the bad thing happened. Home was where the cats had had to be removed and where the social workers had found Elsie’s love letters to John, which had ensured merriment on the ward due to the details that she went into about her feelings for him. The self-neglect would re-start at home and why risk things? Elsie was happy enough. Everything was fixed, apart from the John thing.

The Care Home never fully read the care plan about Elsie and the new social worker had not really written much up about John and what had happened at home. The radio didn’t go with Elsie to the Care Home. Elsie noticed this on her first day at the home. However instead of asking for the radio Elsie screamed for 8 hours. In the end she was given medication. The Care Home didn’t call the hospital or speak to the psychiatrist about how distressed Elsie was. They made one phone call that day, which was to the social worker requesting more funding ‘due to the screaming’ and the impact this was having on other patients and staff.

Over the next 3 months Elsie moved into two different care homes and was returned to hospital following a fall. The radio was never switched back on.

Elsie died in a care home. It was four months, five days and 6 hours after the phone call from the neighbour.

Lord Justice Munby stated ‘what is the point in making someone safe if it merely makes them miserable’. In ensuring Elsie was miserable, we were unfit to even ensure her safety. John did exist for Elsie and we never saw that. John was the risk management plan. John stopped Elsie self neglecting, not the other way around. Elsie was the expert in her own situation and had an 87 year start on the rest of us who tried to study her and fix her within weeks. John was her flickering light of hope which we extinguished in the name of safeguarding people from themselves. I hope she saw John again somehow.

The elephant in the room in adult social work is often a cat

elephant in the room

Firstly, thanks to @Harr_Ferguson for the title which was inspired by this tweet:

I remembered this tweet today whilst driving home and reflecting on having heard several stories this week from amazing social work colleagues where pets featured in a critical role.  The colleague who, having tried to engage with someone through their letter box had the dog set on them.  The parents who were walking the dog every night past their son with a learning disability who was living independently in his new home to reassure them that he was OK.  The mum and son with very complex communication needs whose face lights up when he sees the family dog come into the room.  And finally, the amazing colleague who was planning to finish for the weekend only after they had sorted out 11 cats and 3 dogs so that the person they were supporting could feel safe enough that their pets were cared for to accept a period of convalescence and recovery from a period of acute ill health.

Social care is full of evidence to suggest that pets are associated with psychological and emotional well being.  Something that we could perhaps pay more attention to in adult social work.  Dr Sara Ryan (yes Connor’s mum) has written a really thoughtful paper on how pets are important members of the families they belong to and yet how often they are unseen by the “professional” in the room – it’s here if you want a read:

Sara’s paper reminds us that as social work practitioners, it is far too easy for important family member to become invisible when they are sat right in front of us – an observation which Harry Ferguson has written about in his brilliant piece about the unbearable complexity of social work decision making in the British Journal of Social Work.  See here:

In our induction for Newly Qualified Social Workers, we often talk about a real case which we got very wrong.  The lady had 20 cats.  We thought we knew best.  We thought we could see something as professionals that she couldn’t about her life and experience.  We took her away from everything she knew, everything that was important to her in her life.  The result was that she deteriorated very quickly.  It is telling, that when we talk about the lady with the cats, we only talk about her cats as a passing, almost jokey remark at the start of the story.

And if you want to know just how wrong we can get it in social care – see the case of Fluffy the Cat whose 91 year old owner was removed from his home and unlawfully deprived of his liberty in a care home leaving his beloved cat behind.

Today, pets have featured heavily as we have reflected on this week, appearing in several of the stories which I have heard being told as part of the end of week come down.  All social workers will recognise the end of week come down.  It is the really important bit of the week when social workers take care of each other and the complexity of the decisions they have supported people to take.  It is the moment where social workers use story telling to reflect about the week which has past and as the social work office winds down, it is the process which enables practitioners to go home without carrying the weight of every potential risk with them into the weekend.  Without that moment of story telling, social workers, the best social workers, the ones who will be back fighting for people’s human rights once they have rested and recovered, will often spot the small things they have missed during the heat of the busy week.  That is the time when the pets emerge.

Today, as we told our end of week stories, we heard of that we had seen 11 cats and 5 dogs.  We spotted something we didn’t know before, something we didn’t previously notice about what is important to the people we are supporting.  And when we next speak to them, because of that moment of insight, we will be able to include in our conversations with them that they have another member of their family that we are interested in.

And crucially, we had a moment of laughter and mutual support which came out of that recognition – because we are pet owners too and we know what our pets mean to us. In that moment you become less professional and more human and you are closer to the person you are there to support.  Which is a really good thing.

This week, however, I am left with unanswered questions which I leave me unsettled – what happened to the lady’s cats?  What if we got it wrong?  What if it was being removed from her beloved cats that was the tipping Point?

Honestly, I will never know what happened to the cats.  But we do know what happened to the lady with the cats, we moved her, leaving her cats behind, she became very distressed and after a long and lonely 6 months on various hospital wards she died.  It was traumatic for all concerned.  Including the social worker who has never forgotten her.   To quote Professor Ferguson “The powerful impact of unbearable levels of complexity and anxiety on social workers requires much greater recognition.”

Have a safe weekend to all our EDT and hospital weekend colleagues working this weekend.







Hold the front page

Mary PoppinsThere is a scene at the end of Mary Poppins where the Banks Family go to fly kites together.  It is a joyous scene, celebrating a family with a renewed identity, purpose and open to possibilities about many exciting futures.  But it’s also really quite sad as it marks the moment where Mary Poppins realises how much she cares about the Banks Family just at the point when they don’t need her any more.  She gathers up her bag and quietly floats away presumably to another family in need.  The mix of emotions on display are really familiar to social workers.  As is the decision to walk quietly away from a successful intervention, leaving the family or the person to determine how they frame telling their story to the world.

For several weeks now there has been a lively debate taking place about the media image of social work following an episode of Dispatches featuring a Social Worker calling themselves Vicky. There are concerns within the profession that the constant barrage of negative media images about social work is resulting in people leaving the profession.  Some voices argue that we must step up and that individual social workers should tell their story about why they entered the profession and what it is that drives them.  The thing about Mary Poppins though, is that you never find out her back story, and crucially, that never detracts from the movie.  You never stop and think, oh if only there had been a bit all about Mary.  As deeply frustrating as it is that the media continue to only tell negative stories about social work, that doesn’t mean that individual social workers should be rushing to fill the press with their story.

There are lots of factor which influence retention within the profession, level of professional autonomy, access to resources and CPD, the professional relationships between agencies in the sphere of practice that social workers operate and most importantly alignment of the values of the employing organisation with social work values.  Media image however, there isn’t much evidence that negative media has quite the effect many appear to be assuming it does.  Given the extent of media coverage of the role of social workers in the cases of Victoria Climbie, Baby Peter, Winterbourne View, Stephen Neary, Connor Sparrowhawk and in the most recent of tragedies Liam Fee, it would surely be hard to find any social worker who has qualified in the last 10 years who wasn’t aware of the media image of the profession when they joined.

The thing that Mary Poppins reminds us, is that it isn’t our story to tell, it belongs to the person we are there to support.  If they choose to include in how they want their story telling that a social worker was involved, then we should be honoured to respect their decision.  However, the really hard thing about social work is that in most cases, the real test of the success of the social work intervention is that the person no longer wants or needs to acknowledge the social work. Good social workers get that.

A while ago a script writer made contact who was looking at making a six part TV drama ‘about social work’. The conversation with the writer was fascinating.  She wanted to know stories ‘about social workers doing social work’ and the impact it had on them. We decided that we couldn’t help her.  Our ‘best’ social work stories were essentially not ours to tell. Social work stories include the family in absolute crisis following a ‘honour killing’ which claimed the death of one family member and the incarceration of many others; a young mother admitted to hospital under a section following the death of her baby; a man ‘escaping from a care home’. These were stories and experiences that were vivid, powerful influences shaping our practice.  But they weren’t what the writer wanted. She wanted to know the impact on us of being involved in complex case work, what we felt and our role in ‘dealing’ with the pressure. Whether its part of social work training or our particular approach to practice, this isn’t something that we could articulate. It wasn’t important.  The effect of experiencing other people’s lives genuinely didn’t feel like a story we could tell.  Only the people we have worked with know if their lives were any better as a result and only they have the right to tell their story however they chose to frame it. People who experience social work are the ones who should be telling the media what social work is, both good and bad.

A palliative care social worker told us that good social workers are like chameleons. They blend in. You don’t often see them its enough for people who need social work to know they’re there and that’s enough recognition for the social worker too.  Thinking about it, Mary Poppins had chameleon like qualities, her carpet bag of social work having moved on from the traditional contents (day care, home care, respite, supported living) to a more exciting range of  modern options (Direct Payments, Individual Service Funds, Personal Health Budgets, Integrated Personal Commissioning).  You can still find if you look deep enough into the bag her spoon full of sugar.

But social work isn’t about looking down a deep hole at someone, turning on a blue light  and inviting the paparazzi around to film the drama unfold.  Social work is about getting into the hole with the person to give them the leg up so they can wherever possible scramble out of it clinging onto whatever dignity remains. If the person tells someone of the great work of the social worker then that’s great, if they don’t then that’s great too. It doesn’t lessen what the social worker did.  Social workers have their moments of fame. They know their worth. They are honoured at least one night every year when they have an award ceremony. The Queens honours list regularly includes social workers. But for the rest of the time they are OK going under the radar acknowledging that ‘their story’ was never really theirs in the first place.

If we are really critically reflective, is the desire to sell positive social work through the press really about us trying to get a message out that ‘we are here, please fund us?’. If it is then lets be honest. In times when food banks are reporting increased usage, records of people are requiring mental health care & the numbers of safeguarding referrals are reaching epic proportions we need to rejoice and celebrate social work. Our unseen, unheralded social work, is keeping more children and adults safe and alive. But hold the front page, we don’t want it.

Mary Poppins intervention in the lives of the Banks was mesmeric. But in the end, only the Banks knew about the magic she brought into their lives.  Having made that difference, she blended into the background and floated off.   No headline required.