By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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In previous years, I have not written about my personal family life. I was worried about how much to share about my wife, Rebecca and two children, mainly due to preserving their confidentiality. However, this year I have changed my mind for two reasons.
Firstly, now that I have been writing blogs for a few years, I am not as concerned about maintaining a strict separation between my personal and professional life.
Secondly, and more importantly, I think it is important to acknowledge the crucial value of being in a stable, loving marriage with two healthy children. My wife, Rebecca, is exceptionally supportive and provides a context from which I can work full time, plus write this blog, produce a podcast, and take on additional pieces of work.
She takes care of our home and does a great deal of organizing in relation to the children. She does a disproportionate amount, which frees me up to focus on pursuing professional and personal interests, such as this blog.
A couple of years ago, our friend, Toni Mayo, bought me the book ‘Fair Play’ by Eve Rodsky (2019) for my birthday. Reading this, I learned about the term ‘mental load’, ‘the never-ending mental to-do list that you keep for all your family tasks’ (p.11).
Tasks such as washing, ironing, shopping, renewing house insurance, paying for the kid’s activities, such as football and scouts, filling out registration forms, purchasing clothes, uniform and shoes, responding to children’s birthday invitations, buying presents and cards, organizing play dates and social activities with friends, getting cards and gifts for extended family for birthdays, and many, many more other activities.
In addition, she works three days a week in a busy front-door child protection team as a Team Manager.
I have been reflecting on whether my contribution to home life matches the intensity of my contributions to my professional pursuits. Since I left child protection case holding in 2017, I have been able to take on a more proactive role in our children’s lives, mainly due to increased availability and flexibility in my work.
However, there are still areas in taking care of our home where I need to take greater initiative and responsibility, and that is one of my commitments in 2023.
Related to the above, I am worried about giving false impressions on the blog, podcast and on Twitter.
In some ways, this is unavoidable because we always seek to represent ourselves favourably.
However, given my use of the blog and social media, I think it is important not to lean into this too heavily. Morgan Housel, in this excellent article, explains the limitations of only sharing certain aspects of ourselves:
Most of what people share is what they want you to see. Skills are advertised, flaws are hidden. Wins are exaggerated, losses are downplayed. Doubt and anxiety are rarely shared on social media…Most things are harder than they look and not as fun as they seem because the information we’re exposed to tends to be a highlight reel of what people want you to know about themselves to increase their own chances of success. It’s easiest to convince people that you’re special if they don’t know you well enough to see all the ways you’re not
Bath and North East Somerset Council – Consultant Social Worker
I remain working at Bath and North East Somerset Council, entering my 7th year here and my 12th year of social work. I am proud to work for BANES and feel privileged to work with dedicated, hard-working, child-centred and considerate social workers, team managers and leaders. I am humbled and inspired by the impressiveness of my colleagues.
As part of the role, I complete parenting assessments of children and families.
I draw heavily on Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation and utilize several attachment procedures, including an Adult Attachment Interview, Parents Interview, School-Aged Assessment of Attachment, Child and Play Assessment of Attachment, and CARE-Index.
Without a doubt, the DMM and accompanying assessment procedures are the most valuable tools I have yet to encounter in my endeavor to help children and families.
I receive clinical supervision from Rebecca Carr Hopkins, one of the UK’s leading attachment experts. She is one of the most exceptional people I know. I have benefitted personally and professionally from her wisdom, compassion, incisive intellect into psychological and relational issues, and ongoing encouragement.
Completing assessments of children and families is the most meaningful and valuable piece of work that I do.
At times in the past year, there have been times when I have focused less on assessments and more on workforce development. I quickly became idealized and romantic about what social work should and could be.
Spending time with children and families and making recommendations that have life-changing consequences for them allows me to remain connected to the messiness of relationships within the child protection context and the agonizing difficulty in making decisions for children and their families.
I have noticed how easy it for those who step away from practice to become critical about social work practice, including myself when I have done it even for a short time. It is easy to believe when judging others work from a distance that I would act in a more desirable way.
This is probably explained by the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the tendency to describe other people’s behaviour due to their traits rather than the context or environment.
In other words, as bystanders of social work practice, we can quickly strip away the context and emotional complexity of working with some of the most troubled and disadvantaged members of our society within a statutory context and assign ill intent towards practitioners failing to live up to certain practice ideals.
Therefore, writing assessments invokes humility and compassion for colleagues undertaking this stressful, emotionally demanding and cognitively complex role. Also, it is the part of the job I enjoy the most; spending time with children and families. It is the area, I believe, that lends itself to my strengths as a social worker.
Towards the end of this year, I did Motivational Interviewing train-the-trainer with Professor Donald Forrester and Dr David Wilkins. I look forward to training our workforce in BANES in MI, as I think it is the most effective approach for child protection practice.
In-Practice Researcher at Cambridge University
I have continued to be part of the Applied Social Sciences Group at Cambridge University, led by Dr Robbie Duschinsky. I have loved being part of a research group and the opportunity to work with Robbie, whose work and work ethic I admire tremendously.
I have been frustrated and disappointed with my lack of progress in completing the research. I am attempting to write a piece of qualitative research exploring ethical dilemmas and the challenges of relationship-based practice within a child protection context. I have loved the reading and researching it has entailed, and I have learned much.
I intend to complete the paper during the first quarter of 2023. After that, I would like to apply for a pre-doctoral fellowship.
This is my 3rd year writing a blog. I have not been as consistent as I was in the first couple of years. I have written 14 blogs this year, which is 11 short of my desired amount. Part of this is due to having opportunities to write elsewhere.
For example, I have written a chapter in Insiders Outsiders, edited by Siobhan Maclean and Mary Carter, a narrative review of parental peer advocacy with Dr Clive Diaz and colleagues, due to be published next year, as well as other blogs, such as this one on the implementation of new child sexual exploitation guidance.
Therefore, while I am disappointed that I have not written as many blogs as I would have liked, I have been writing, and I need to remind myself that is the main point.
The blog has seen an increase in followers, from 580 to 875. I am unbelievably grateful to everyone single person that follows or reads the blog. I am still always astonished that anyone ever reads them.
The three most popular blogs in 2022 are:
- Thematic Analysis, 6,692 views
- 5 points about the tragic death of Arthur Labinjo Hughes, 3,150 views
- 3 reasons why direct work in child protection is challenging and 10 principles to overcome them, 2,876 views
Two of those I wrote in 2021. If I only include the most popular blogs I wrote in 2022, they are:
- 3 reasons why direct work in child protection is challenging and 10 principles to overcome them, 2,868 views
- 5 books every front-line social worker should read (working with denied child abuse), 2,599
- A summary of key ideas from ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ by Gabor Mate, 2,122
Pleasingly, the blog has at least 350 views per week, which has sustained momentum even when I do not write a new blog for a few weeks. In 2022, it had 41,000 views and 26,000 visitors from over 60 countries.
Writing a blog is the most impactful activity I undertake, personally and professionally. Very few areas of personal and professional life are not enhanced or improved by a regular writing practice.
Writing the blog also directly informs other pieces of work. For example, in the webinar Ian Thomas and I presented, I drew heavily on a blog I wrote.
This webinar is one of my proudest achievements in 2022, mainly because of the opportunity to collaborate with Ian Thomas, whom I greatly admire and deeply respect. A charismatic, wise, intelligent, and thoughtful individual.
I would also like to make a special mention to Siobhan Maclean, who is a great inspiration to me, and has been incredibly kind and supportive when I have worked with her, and her team on various webinars and book.
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments this year has been to set up a podcast, unoriginally titled, Rich Devine’s Social Work Podcast.
I have wanted to do a podcast for about 3 years. I spent hours and hours researching the software and equipment needed. The more I researched, the more confused and overwhelmed I was.
During October I spoke with a close friend, James Strachan, about my desire to set up a podcast. I initially thought I would make it a new year’s commitment. He was insistent, in the most encouraging way, that I start now. The gist of his message was: Don’t wait for a future moment. Act and make it happen.
With his strong support, I contacted Vicki from Social Work Sorted (who was incredibly kind, generous and encouraging). I used the editing software and publishing website she recommended. I jumped straight in and recorded and published my first episode within a few days.
My intention for the podcast is to share information and have conversations that support frontline social workers in their role. I am creating the podcast I wish I had as a case-holding social worker.
So far, the feedback has been incredibly positive and encouraging. The least popular podcast has been downloaded 76 times, and the most popular 208 times. In total, it has been downloaded over 1200 times.
I have no idea how these numbers compare with other podcasts, so I cannot gauge whether these are good numbers. I’m slightly curious about how it compares, but at the same time, I am also delighted with the number of people who have listened already.
The podcast, like the blog, is a long-term project. My intention is to publish an episode every week for a year but anticipate that I will develop this over 3-5 years. The critical components for ‘success’ are consistency and patience.
I must remain focused on the process, not the outcome.
The process needs to be as enjoyable as the outcome. As is this case with many things in life, the process, is the outcome. It costs money (approx. £30 per month) and time (min of 2 hours per week), so it needs a worthwhile journey.
A highlight of this year has been the opportunity to collaborate with Tim Fisher.
Tim and I met a few years ago. Along with my then manager and Service Leader (now AD) Leigh Zywek, we attended a conference held by Camden Council, and organized by Tim Fisher called ‘Relationships Make the Difference’.
This was a conference like no other I had ever attended. It involved a diverse group of people, including social workers, assistant directors of other Local Authorities, and parents, who were also expertly leading workshops.
The coalescing of these different people produced highly engaging and dynamic conversations about relationships and the challenges of the child protection system.
It contained a richness, rigor, and depth that I had not come close to encountering in the 10 years I had been a social worker. It provided a window into new possibilities for how we work with and help families in child protection.
I only spoke to Tim briefly during the day. I will borrow a description of Tim, by Polly Curtis, whose definition of him in her excellent book, Behind Closed Doors perfectly captured my first impression of him, ‘he’s a smiley man with floppy hair and a laid back, slightly hippy demeanour that masks a fierce intellectual focus on transforming the social work system’ (2022, p.243)
I was captivated and inspired by his leadership and ability to collaborate and integrate ideas such as love, activism, and art into social work. His approach struck me as transformational and transformative.
Although I could see how our values aligned, his approach could not have been further away from mine. After attending this conference, I was compelled to find a way to remain connected to Tim. I found excuses to e-mail or reach out to him, recognizing that I could learn a lot from him.
We invited him with other key relational activism accomplices, Becca Dove, and Clarissa Stevens (both of whom are phenomenal in their own ways), to a conference in BANES in 2019.
Since then, we have kept in touch. This year we began collaborating, and we produced four webinars:
- Implementing Parental Advocacy within Local Authorities
- Transforming child protection services using co-production and co-design
- Activating lived experience in child protection work
- Weighing the evidence… peer parental advocacy in child protection work
We have been delighted by the turnout of these webinars, often over 100 people have signed up.
When we first started, we were worried if anyone would turn up at all!
Although we were pleased by the quality of the content, we revealed our technological ineptitude at times, which compromised the overall webinar presentation. This is an area we will be improving as we move into 2023.
In addition to improving the technological aspects, we intend to double the number of webinars. I believe we have a cracking lineup of webinars in 2023.
We intend to produce regular, high-quality, evidentially robust, practically useful, captivating, and thought-provoking webinars on various topics organized around coproduction, co-design and relational activism.
Reading and Audiobooks
In my previous annual review, I set myself a target of reading 20 minutes per day. As I noted before, 20 minutes a day doesn’t sound a lot, but it amounts to 2 hours, 20 minutes per week; 9 hours, 20 minutes per month; and 121 hours over a year.
That is at least 3 weeks of full-time work a year of reading.
I have read about 20 books this year, which is similar to last year. I have also started several, which are unfinished, either because I got bored or another book has interested me.
I tend to read two or three at the same time (books on the left are what I finished and books on the right are unfinished).
I think reading is one of the most powerful self-development exercises we can do.
I tend to read books about social work. I think that if one book improves my ability as a social worker by 1%, that’s a decent outcome, especially given how important and life-changing some of the decisions are that we make about children and families.
My three favourite books this year have been:
One-line review: A fascinating and captivating book that captures the emotional complexity of child protection, from forming intimate relationships with abused children, negotiating with hostile or resistant parents, and making challenging decisions.
The idea of intimate practice also seeks to capture the humanity of the encounter, the fact that it involves facilitating and listening to children’s disclosures of any harm that has been perpetrated on them, how they feel about their parents, themselves, their pain and pleasures: discussing their experiences of abuse and arranging medicals that involve the removal of clothing to enable examinations; dealing with the anguish of parents who have harmed their child and may now lose them into care forever; or helping those adults to develop their capacity to care and be safe, nurturing parents…Not nearly enough attention is given to the detail of what social workers and other professionals actually do, where they do it and their experience of doing it (p. 4)
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of service users in social work and child protection: those who go to professionals for help because they have a problem; and those to whom professionals go with help because they pose problems for others or themselves – voluntary and involuntary clients. Although this puts the matter rather simplistically, it does have the virtue of distinguishing between cooperative and uncooperative service users. Social work literature has been quite poor at making this distinction. Most is written as if the service user is voluntary and stresses the importance of respect for them and their rights and ’empowerment’. In the childcare literature, this is frequently expressed in terms of the goal of working in partnership’ with parents and families. As Ruth Pearson (2009) has shown, this has resulted in limited analytical attention being given to the complexity of the work when risk is high and the parents do not want a service and try to avoid and deceive workers (p. 164)
One-line review: One of the few books I have read that acknowledges the inherently conflictual nature of relationships between statutory social workers and parents that also provides invaluable insights on how to navigate conflictual dynamics successfully.
The problem with the unqualified importation of counselling psychology methods into social work is that much of social work practice cannot be considered therapeutic in the narrow psychological sense of that term. It follows that the formation of a relationship which aims to facilitate (psycho)therapeutic change may be neither fundamental nor even desirable in certain circumstances. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the involuntary client. With clients whose sole reason for social work contact is because of external constraint, the very foundations are knocked out from under the ‘helping relationship’. How realistic is it to assume that the client is motivated to solve the problem when he or she may not even accept that a problem exists? What sort of mental gymnastics is required to convey unconditional positive regard and a belief in client self-determination when the very relationship between worker and client may mean the difference to the client between freedom and imprisonment? (p. 44)
One-line review: A fascinating and paradigm-shifting book on the efficacy of psychological treatments that reveals how different treatment modalities achieve similar outcomes due to shared properties within each modality; this finding that has important implications for social work practice models.
Rosenzweig (1936) speculated, ‘All methods of therapy when competently used are equally successful” (p. 413). In the 1970s and 1980s, the evidence From initial meta-analyses were consistent with Rosenzweig’s conjecture. In the next 30 years, exemplary studies and methodologically sound meta-analyses unfailingly produced evidence that demonstrated that there were small, if not zero, differences among treatments (p. 156)
I have listened to few audiobooks this year because I cancelled my subscription. In the only fiction book I read (listened) this year, I loved ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Absolutely Fine’ by Gail Honeymoon.
It is about an intelligent, lonely, traumatized, and alcoholic woman in her 20’s called Eleanor, who is ‘absolutely fine’. She finds love with a colleague at work, Raymond. Through this relationship, she begins to discover herself and, towards the end, embarks on a change process.
I also listened to Radical Candor by Kim Scott, which had lots of great insights and ideas in managing people, and thus aided me with the additional managerial responsibilities I have taken on this year. If you have a role managing people, then I highly recommend this book.
At 35 years old, it occurred to me recently that I am approaching an age where I have spent the same amount of time in adulthood as in childhood.
Yet, I am still learning about how I was conditioned and how the unconscious beliefs developed in childhood affect my emotions and behaviour. This speaks to how powerful early experiences are on later functioning.
Earlier in the year, I did a programme called HeartSpace with Concorde Institute. Here is a piece of writing I produced to try and encapsulate what the experience offered me:
It is hard to recall the precise moment when my heart was broken. I suspect, however, that it was at the time when my dad relapsed and began using drugs and drinking alcohol. My life before his demise into self-sabotage, self-loathing, shame, and addiction was characterised by love, stability, and innocence. Self-protective preservation of the heart had not been required.
Events following my dad’s relapse would change that. The love, care, and attention he had showed me up until that point slowly and increasingly withered away as he was swallowed up by the addiction that had plagued him all his adult life, except for the several years he achieved abstinence when I was born. At 16 years old, my dad died. The doctors said he died of cancer. I think he died of trauma and shame. To me, psychologically at least, my dad died 1000 times before he physically died. Whenever I approached him or sought comfort or attention from ages 8 until 16, and he was unavailable or rejecting our relationship suffered a blow, and my heart hardened.
Heartspace offered the possibility of discovering what I had lost – of creating space so that my heart could be in relation to the magnificence and beauty of oneness, the infinite. But I was scared of letting go of the protective casing that whilst kept me disconnected from experiencing life fully, shielded my psyche from conscious awareness of the pain, hurt, and feeling of rejection I experienced as a child. It was a trade-off in which I massively underestimated the cost of – the cost of openness, oneness, love, and spontaneity. I didn’t read the small print of this contract I had made with myself.
On the third day of Heartspace, we examined our relationship with our father. I spent the morning enduring a pounding headache and nausea. In the past, when dealing with unbearable feelings that I couldn’t easily inhibit or suppress – for example, around the anniversary of my dad’s death – I would turn to alcohol. I always felt connected to my dad during these moments. Connected by shame and our desire for self-annihilation. The symptoms I felt on the morning of the third day were the same symptoms I experienced following episodes of emotion avoiding alcohol use. After lunch, we sat and meditated. As we sat there quietly, peacefully, and attentive to the moment, tears began to fill my eyes. For the first time since my dad died, I cried. I experienced the sorrow, sadness, and sense of rejection that I hadn’t been able to acknowledge for all these years, let alone process.
It was a beautiful kind of pain.
Whilst engulfed in emotion, I could still hear the fading voice of my ego berating me for being weak, pathetic, and embarrassing – it was still clutching on for dear life, concerned that the expression of emotion would open us up to be hurt again. For the first time ever, I was able to let that be. I didn’t need to attach any meaning to it nor allow myself to be influenced by it. It was the ‘just so’.
Allowing space for the forbidden emotion shed light on the relationship between the death of my dad and the closing of my heart. By opening up my heart to process the painful feelings tied to this loss, I also shattered the casing that had for too long diligently armoured my heart.
I subsequently shared this experience with others in the group – confession, recapitulation.
To confess involves a need to speak out and be heard, so that whatever is compressing one’s heart/mind, troubling one’s spirit, can be received, and witnessed. It is something about a need to move out of one’s self-centred prison and trust that by sharing whatever it is that deadens one’s being there can be a release and renewal. It is something about acknowledging and uttering forth that which corrupts and destroys our capacity to love and be loved’. (Partington 2012 p. 66)
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, I explored in communion with others the limitations of my father, including his unresolved trauma, addiction, and death, but also his admirable qualities, such as his love for me, his intelligence, and capacity to overcome adversity and transform, even if only for a short time. Denying the pain that his functioning and death incurred on our relationship also denied me access to what else he had offered. More fundamentally, being at war with myself denied me access to the present moment. Freed from this inner battle to prohibit the expression of emotion, I could experience a new space.
What was left? Presence. Uninhibited presence. Love. Unbounded love.
‘Love is something new, fresh, alive. It has no yesterday and no tomorrow. It is beyond the turmoil of thought’ (Krishnamurti 2010 p.88)
A space for the heart.
If I were not the subject of my experiences, I would find it hard to believe that it could take anyone 15 years to process and resolve some of the feelings about the loss of their dad. Yet, that is how long it has taken me.
More generally, I have felt more content this year than any other year.
Last year, I wrote about a resentment for the level of self-care required to keep self-defeating, self-sabotaging beliefs at bay. I have accepted this now, partly because it has been integrated into my daily routine.
Meditating, journaling, taking a cold shower, exercising and eating healthy are what I need to do on a daily basis to avoid slipping into despair or allowing unhealthy thinking patterns to dominate my life experience.
However, they are also what support me in fulfilling my potential.
As far as I can tell, contentment is not bliss or happiness but rather the absence of inner distress and dissatisfaction.
I have been striving towards freedom from the ego’s persistent and unrelenting control on my life experience. An ego that wants me to feel inadequate, worthless and ashamed; an ego that perpetuates those myths persuasively, despite a life that no longer warrants those beliefs about myself.
To some degree, the work I have done over the years has begun to pay off. It is not that I feel happy (although I certainly have happy experiences), but I experience periods where I am not preoccupied with feeling unhappy.
And that is a kind of bliss. At least relative to how uncomfortable and painful it can be when you experience life through a particular lens.
Two concluding reflections that I am contemplating on moving into 2023
1. Return on investment. 2. Achieving potential
1. Return on investment
This year, I have taken on additional work outside my day job. Some of these I have been paid for (although, often not much relative to the time commitment), but the vast majority has been unpaid.
However, financial remuneration is only one frame of reference when thinking about worthwhile work.
At least two other variables are critical.
Firstly, the opportunity to learn, grow and change.
Secondly, to work with others who energize and inspire you.
I have certainly learned a lot this year and feel truly blessed with the people I have been able to collaborate with this year.
Furthermore, some pieces of work have a feedback loop that is not immediate. For example, I have been writing a blog for three years now.
In that time, I have produced over 60 blogs.
I have not been paid a penny; in fact, I have paid for the domain name and use of WordPress.
The learning has been immense. And, there is something profoundly satisfying about sharing learning and valuable (hopefully) material for free, without any expectations.
In 2023, however, I have some exciting projects that I would never have been able to do without the blog, or if I had not persisted with it over the years.
2. Achieving potential
In taking on additional work, I have extended myself. Consequently, I have been able to produce more than I thought I could, but it does have a downside.
I have found that I often feel like a perpetual failure because there is always a piece of work that I cannot finish (or even start!).
Yet, if I only took on what I thought was manageable, I would not reach my potential. I will illustrate this point using made up percentages.
If I only did what I thought was achievable, I think I would reach 80% of my potential.
By taking on more, for example, 110%, I am forced to up my game and probably achieve 100%.
That is 20% more than I would otherwise, but at the same time, I am always falling 10% short. This can be a painful experience because the other 10% is commitments or agreements I have made with others.
If I want to fulfil my potential, I am not sure I know of any other approach.
I have a suspicious feeling that if I dialled it down a notch, say to 100%, I would probably let my foot off the gas and only achieve 90%, which would not only undermine my potential but also still leave me with the 10% surplus of unfinished work that leaves me feeling anxious.
Any solutions to this predicament, please get in touch.
By Richard Devine, 03.01.2023
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I *intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma. Or you can read previous blogs here.