'We have a limited armoury'
I am a social worker involved with young people who
have committed offences. On a daily basis, I see the direct consequences
that domestic violence, substance abuse, parental emotional and mental
health issues, poverty, poor housing, and a negligent education system
have on the antisocial and offending behaviour of these children. Unlike
the many people who are quick to judge the young people on the basis of
their behaviour, I am well-meaning and, in undertaking what is often one
of many assessments, seek to make the links between cause and effect. I
also aim to identify how I can employ what, in my view, is my
experience, training and evidence-based practice, but what in the
families' eyes is often seen as power, negative judgment and
I can understand how the families view me when I
suggest that Johnny needs a breakfast before he can be expected to sit
still in the classroom. I see their mistrust, and sometimes the pity in
their eyes. The reality is that we both know it is going to take more
than food in a child's belly to help them to come to terms with traumas,
experiences of neglect, and lack of routine, safety, love and warmth to
be able to first make sense of their world, let alone concentrate on any
form of learning - even if there is money in the pot to regularly buy
the breakfast cereal.
Far from being a middle-class professional from some
perfect childhood, I have come from a deprived background in terms of
poverty, sexual and emotional abuse. I have seen the negative
consequences of this background through generations of my family. Coming
from this background is my own experience, so I do not assume that I
know what it is like for my clients, which is why, during the
assessments, I am always asking how my client sees or feels something.
It is a well-meaning attempt to understand them.
What rang true for me in Anne Andrews' account in
Society Guardian (October 18) of her deprived childhood was that, on
reflection, she could not say what she would have wanted from social
workers and other "well-meaning" professionals at that time. On a
regular basis, I too question whether my "interference" makes life more
difficult for the children or simply has no impact.
As Andrews concluded, it is an indisputable fact that
it is the parents themselves who can change the environment for their
children. If they have issues, it is only when they can face up to that
reality and seek out the assistance - assuming that is on offer, of
course - that the outcomes for their own children will change
significantly. The role for a social worker is to try to engage that
person to face up to this reality, and only then will things change.
In the meantime, we "well-meaning busy-bodies" lose
sleep, energy and can sometimes risk our own emotional and mental health
stepping into the breach to try to shore up the gaps within families to
keep children safe and to increase their life chances. We have a limited
armoury, ranging from removing them to a care system to as little as
advising families where they can go to get support. It is not enough -
but what is the alternative?
Sarah Jones (a nom de plume) is a social worker in a
youth offending team
1 November 2006