By Richard Devine (31.08.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
Originally I had intended to write a blog with 10 pithy lessons from my experience of being a social worker since I qualified in 2010. What I have done instead is write 10 lengthy (ish) lessons, each amounting to the equivalent of a blog. Therefore, given the length of each one, I am going to share one every working day for the next two weeks (hoping that I can finish the final two before next week!). I cover a range of topics from relationship-based practice to decision making and removing children and time management. Each of these topics reflects my current understanding after a decade of working as a children and families social worker. If I were to imagine myself writing this 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, I suspect I would be embarrassed at how little I understood. Therefore, I can only assume I will think the same about what I have written in these 10 lessons in a few years’ time. Some of you will be further along with your understanding than I am, and if this is the case I would appreciate feedback and critique. None of what I write about is static – they represent my best understanding of issues in a moment in time.
Lesson 1: Relationships Matter
This is perhaps the most obvious lesson that one learns as a social worker. I think effective relationship-based practice is as much about principles and values as it is about skills or techniques. In a previous blog, I have expanded on three ideas that I think are important. I will summarise them here:
Firstly, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is mostly a socially constructed illusion. Any observable difference in personality or psychological functioning is quantitative rather than qualitative (Plomin, 2018). In other words, we all have the capacity for violence, addiction, mental ill health, in the same way, we all have the capacity for love, connection, joy – our genes, environment, and culture shape and define which human capacities are expressed, as well as the intensity to which they expressed. No matter how destructive or harmful a parents behaviour might be, I can always see without much effort that I would think and act exactly as they did if I had their family background and experiences.
The second idea relates to being genuinely curious and empathic towards behaviours (Rogers, 1961), and the origin of behaviours that are causing the parent difficulty and perhaps harming others. Extending compassion to those that cause harm to others can be challenging because it can feel as if we are condoning the behaviour (Crittenden, 2016). However, providing space for a parent to explore their fear, disturbing thoughts, and harmful past behaviour, seems to be an antidote to those aspects continuing to find expression elsewhere.
Thirdly, social work is as much about a way of BEING as it is about DOING. Too often we get caught up in what we need to ‘do’ when we haven’t spent enough time ‘being’ with a child and/or family. Sometimes, ‘being’ with a child and/or family can be more meaningful than anything we ‘do’.
Our job is to position ourselves and our relationships, in such a way that emphasizes and brings forth pre-existing strengths and abilities. I think the underlying principles that govern our interaction with children and families need to be no different with our colleagues, whether that be your manager, the administrative worker, or a headteacher. In other words, you want to be strengths-based with your colleagues as much as you do with children and families. One way to do this is praise and express gratitude as much as possible and any time you observe and/or witness good practice – whatever someone’s position and profession, positive feedback is rare, and often delightfully received. If your manager has some positive qualities, tell them! If your admin worker, typed up your notes, thank them! If a teacher of a child offers you helpful information express gratitude that in the context of their insane workload they’ve done that! In my experience, you are only as successful as those around you, therefore you have vested interest in bringing out the best in your colleagues, inside and outside your place of work.
With that said, I have noticed that there can be a tendency for relationship-based practice to focus disproportionally on the individual social worker and their interpersonal qualities. This can place an unrealistic responsibility on a social worker to leverage their skills to instigate change (Featherstone et al, 2018). This creates a paradox. Every interaction you have with a child or parent has the potential to be profoundly important because you never know what conversation may lead to a shift in perspective that leads to action and change. Therefore, you treat every interaction with tremendous care. At the same time, the probability that as a social worker your relationship will make a substantial difference is low. A dose of humility and reflexivity is required. We are a representative of a statutory organisation that is threatening to many parents, and we are considerably bound by time. This deprives the relationship of two key ingredients: psychological safety and time. Our role then, in recognising this limitation, is to identify and facilitate relationships where possible with extended family (i.e. FGC’s) or with other professionals who are positioned to work long term with children and parents. It is surprising how many problems that children encounter can be resolved, or at least, considerably ameliorated by improving the QUALITY and QUANTITY of relationships.
I will conclude with a personal example. When I was 12,13 years old we had a Social Worker come to visit my family. I cannot recollect being told what the purpose of the visit was at the time but retrospectively I suspect it was linked to my dad’s drug and alcohol use. I met this social worker once and she never returned to our house again. After she visited however she completed a referral to an organisation called Young Carers. I attended Young Carers from the age of 12,13 until I was 16 years old and at that point, I was too old to access the service and so volunteered for them. I was able to access one to one counselling, attend a group every fortnight, and go on trips and residential weekends. This didn’t change my experiences at home, but it gave me access to a wealth of support and experiences that made them considerably more manageable. That social worker would have never known the impact she made on my life. When I am frustrated with the bureaucratic demands of our role and cursing the fact I am filling out another referral form, I’ll reflect on this experience.
Crittenden, P.M. (2016) Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation and Treatment,(2nd ed.) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
Featherstone, B., Gupta, W., Morris, K & White, S. (2018). Protecting children: A social model. Bristol: Policy Press.
Rogers, C (1961) A therapists view of psychotherapy: On becoming a person. Constable and Company Ltd. London.
Plomin, R (2018). Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. Milton Keynes. Penguin Random House UK.
By Richard Devine (31.08.2020)
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3 thoughts on “10 Lessons from 10 Years on the Frontline: 1, Relationships Matter”
I love your blog Richard and the way you can articulate complex issues so eloquently. I’ve been a SW for 16 years now and going through a similar process of re-evaluating what I know/don’t know! Makes me think about my own SW visiting me as a child & my own decision to enter this field. We are all complex beings as you say and definitely agree it’s a total illusion re them and us!
Paula, thank you for your lovely message and for sharing your experiences of social work involvement. I agree with you that ‘we are all complex beings’. Thanks again
I am absoloutely in awe of your beautiful writing. I am in child protection and I will now be consuming all of your articles with zest and a hearty cheers!!!!! Wow you articulate this so well