A Reflection on a long career in Social Work

Preface by Richard Devine: This is a guest blog by Ruth Martin, a recently retired (mostly!) Social Worker from Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES). She wrote a reflective piece on the changes in social work since she qualified in 1977, an impressive 42 years ago.  She very kindly agreed to share it. I think it’s a fascinating insight into the perspective of an experienced practitioner into how practice has changed. I found it inspiring, thought provoking, full of wisdom and thoroughly interesting. Reflecting upon the history of our profession provides us opportunity to consider what has changed, reflect on the implications of those changes, and as Ruth points outs at end, think about what aspects of practice that we currently admire that in a further 40 years we may look back on with shock!

Last week I celebrated my last day as a social worker in employment (I will continue to do some fostering assessments in my free time). I have been reflecting on my early career and the differences between now and then.

I haven’t commented on the years in between the late 70s and now; I left social work for 13 years from 1980 to bring up 4 children (that happened a bit more then) not returning until 1993.  These are based on my memories; it is 40 + years ago and although I feel this is correct there may be some areas I have not remembered accurately. Needless to say it is a subjective account.

Ruth social working in her 20’s in the 70’s

I qualified in 1977 at the tender age of 21. In retrospect far too young with very little personal life experience.  However in my defence I had grown up in Poplar and Bow in London’s East End and my mum had worked as a Health Visitor in Tower Hamlets for many years so my eyes were open to poverty. In urban areas there was a lot of talk about radical social work but in practice this did not trickle out to the rural areas.

I firstly worked for 3 years for a Shire County’s Social Services Department.  It was in the early days of Social Services, post the Seebohm report in the early ‘70s. 

We were called Generic Social workers and on my caseload were families, the elderly and (first shudder) people who were then called “handicapped people” i.e. those who were physically and/or learning disabled as well as those with mental health issues.  All of that with no specialised training apart from a general degree course and social work qualification.   The rationale behind this was that so many people had a variety of differing needs within their families and had people working with them from a variety of disciplines; the idea was that one person would support and advocate for the family rather than many differing teams.  Good idea but not workable.

Oh and we had to join the county’s Emergency Duty Team (EDT) on a rota basis and could get called out in the middle of the night anywhere in the county.  I hated that and was pleased when that stopped after a few months.

Positives

  • We had much less paperwork to do than in more recent times. It was all handwritten and then typed by admin. I worry about the quality of the recording of those days; I am sure I would shudder if I saw some of mine. I think it would have been rather judgmental. 
  • We actually had time to form relationships with people and were encouraged to be proactive to support them.  We did a lot of advocacy and got people rehoused and sorted out their benefits etc. 
  • We were able to do lots of hands on work with children and parents rather than commissioning someone else to do this.
  • I don’t remember actually planning visits; most of our clients (as we called them) didn’t have house phones (nor did I when newly qualified). I remember most of my clients lived in one particular area and so I would cruise around in our lime green Ford Escort seeing who was in and giving practical support.  A recent turn on the COVID duty team in BANES where we adjusted our approach and provided much more practical/material help slightly reminded me of those days; as I found myself going off to find baby milk/collect a prescription for some families.
Ruth Martin’s lime green Ford Escort
  • If you had an idea it was more possible to get on and do it; we had a lot of flexibility to do group work, community work and preventive work.  I remember one of my colleagues organised a group for young teenagers on the verge of getting into trouble and used to take them camping.  However there were no DBS’s in those days!  

 Negatives

  • I remember that if a child came into voluntary care and was in care for 6 months we could write a one page memo to the social services committee who could assume the Parental Rights for that child.  And I don’t think we even batted an eyelid about that.  There was a terrible power imbalance and I’m shocked to look back at this.  Could the parents appeal? Probably.  Did they? Not as far as I remember. These wrongs were righted in the 1980s when the 1989 Children Act came into force.
  • Not much supervision and what there was took place in a smoke filled office (bleugh).  I well remember being sent on a Mental Health assessment in my first 6 months after qualifying (we all did duty and it covered everything). 
  • My lovely colleagues (nearly all middle aged women who were probably about 20 years younger than I am now) found out after I’d been sent that the person lived in a remote farm and had a shotgun.  The team insisted the manager should go to support me; they wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
  • We had very few foster homes as far as I remember.  Those that existed tended to accept babies and young children.   There was one senior social worker who performed the Family Placement Team function but almost all of our children went into children’s homes.  I remember a family of 5, 4 of them,under 10, sweet kids, and they all ended up in residential care in 3 local children’s homes.  And again, I don’t remember trying very hard to find a family for them. On one occassion, I was sent to Germany to interview the father of two young girls to see if they could live with him; he had been in the Army then stayed in Germany with his new wife; it went well and they moved there.
  • As far as I remember babies coming into care who were not relinquished but had been removed would end up in long term foster care thus denied the opportunity for what we later would call a “forever family”.  I remember very little adoption taking place; only for relinquished babies.
  • These were the days of child protection being solely focused on what was called the “battered baby syndrome”.  Only a few years after the death of Maria Colwell in, I think, 1973 and physical abuse (coupled with neglect) seemed to be the only reasons younger children came into care.  Older ones were deemed to be out of the control of their parents and often then ended up in large institutions. 
  • When I trained (1973-1977) I don’t remember even a mention of sexual abuse.  This was of course before Cleveland and other scandals of the 1980s. Sexual abuse was not never considered in practice (although I remember a whisper about “incest” at one time in one case)
  • I feel that social work was much more risky than it is now (and I know it is risky today). I think that is because we were less accountable and could be off the grid without contact for hours. We had lots of Army families so ended up around the country sorting out where children would live after parents split up where dad was in the army. I was sent to Yorkshire on one such case; staying in Bradford when the Yorkshire Ripper was active. On another occassion I was sent to Scotland ON MY OWN (aged about 23) to bring back 5 children whose mum had done a runner.  We flew back to London and we were picked up there. No mobile phones of course. We didn’t seem to do joint visits with the police; in fact I remember very little working together with the police.
  • I confess I knew exactly nothing about attachment and trauma informed parenting until about 20 years ago when I did my PQ. We had skimmed over Bowlby at Uni but when I first heard about attachment it was like a light switch was turned on and I thought “Of course! That makes such a lot of sense”

 Conclusion

My experience was limited to one West Country Shire County for 3 years in the late 1970s.  I then left to have my first baby (he turned 40 a couple of weeks ago…). So I acknowledge that my experience will have been very different to social workers working in in my home area of Tower Hamlets at the same time.

Looking back I think that the information and knowledge we have now (Attachment, trauma, understanding of family care vs residential, I could mention so much) eclipses the freer style of practice of the 1970s.  Yes we had much more freedom in what we could do and how we could do it but poor practice was more possible and not regulated. We were also much less protected and supported by supervision with no understanding of reflective practice.

So on balance…I’m glad I have experienced both sides of the coin but today’s experience of social work, with all the downsides is a better one in my opinion.

And I wonder if today’s ASYE social workers may look back in 40 years shocked at the practice we admire today!

Ruth Martin 10.06.2020

Ruth ready for her new adventure.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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