Prof June Thoburn who was recognised for outstanding work as a social worker and in support of social workers.
Like many people the closest I get these days to social workers is looking at the ‘Clare in the Community’ cartoons in the Guardian by the incomparable Harry Venning. I was reflecting on this on Friday night when it was a great honour for me to present an award at the Social Workers annual award event.
You would think I’d meet social workers occasionally. I am the Deputy Chair of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board and I spend a lot of time looking at the problems we face nationally with regard to social care, especially of the elderly. I am the opposition member on the Liverpool Heath & Wellbeing Board which looks at the same problems locally. I know about the number of children in care; the financial crisis we face; the huge problems of coping with aged and infirm. I know all the statistics but I know little of the people who struggle with those statistics to try and bring help to some of our most fractured and disturbed people in the Country. Of course they look after a lot of other people as well but always people in stress. People coming out of hospital with little or no support; people with severe learning difficulties who have trouble coping in the world particularly so as their parents get older.
So I know the big picture but within that it is easy to forget that the big picture is made up of little pictures. Little perhaps but pictures which can literally be life or death to those who depend on the services of social workers and others within the caring support sector.
Social work is a job that I just could not do. But it is a job that most people think that they could do. For most of the time we are blissfully unaware of the work that they do day in and day out. But we hear about them when a crisis hits the newspapers usually about a crime or terrible happening caused by someone that social workers were trying to look after. Then everyone could do the job! “Any fool could have seen that this man was a danger to society/himself/his family/the public at large”, opine the couch potatoes who ring in to the radio phone in programmes or who become entirely professional after four points of lager in the Rat and Ferret. It’s certainly true that we can all be wise after the event but those who think it is easy clearly have no idea about the complexities of a social workers life.
So how do you go into a clearly stressed family or deal with a clearly stressed individual and with 100% accuracy decide what should be done? Perhaps we could double the number of children in care? Perhaps we could keep far more people in specialist institutions and hospitals? Perhaps we could take away the liberties of everyone who looks iffy? 20% of us will at some time in our lives have mental problems so that might just include you and me! Perhaps we should just leave it all to the ultimate social workers – the police and prison officers who have to tackle some of the hardest problems when people move beyond the competence and legal range of social workers. At what stage should we lock people away, which might make them worse, and at what stage do we provide appropriate support for the majority of the 20% who come though their problems and re-emerge fully into society?
Of course when you look at it like that you cannot be 100% accurate. Many mental problems most clearly manifest themselves inside homes and within families. Those families themselves are, in many cases, protective of the individual and try to provide support. Sometimes they fail to act because of the shame that will surround the family as a whole. Sometimes they are themselves conditioned to problems particularly those who are children who consider unorthodox life styles to be orthodox.
Social workers have to work within very tight financial constraints. This has always been the case but the money is more tightly controlled than ever with demand rising and finance contracting. On a daily basis they make agonising decisions about who to help; who to monitor and who to not help. They know that sometimes not helping will lead to more problems later but they have only the resources to deal with the problems of today.
How do they manage their own lives when they spend the day dealing with other people’s problems? How do they empty their own heads and minds of the suffering of others, especially children, when they go home to their own families? There is a tremendous burn out in social workers with many leaving the profession after a few years.
The prize that I presented was to Professor June Thoburn. She entered the profession as a front line social worker dealing with preventative child and family work. After about 20 years at the front line she became an academic providing a wide range of support to front line social workers. Like the best of academics she had walked the walk. Like the most excellent of academics she continued to walk the walk to ensure that her academic research and teachings were relevant and useful. She has devoted her life to caring for others yet is incredibly modest. As she came to get her award on the stage she whispered to me that she was really a back room sort of person!
On Friday night we celebrated young social workers entering the profession and older ones who have had the rough edges knocked off them – the survivors if you will! What I saw from everyone in the room was a huge compassion for the underdog and fierce determination to redress some of the country’s many wrongs. They are far from overpaid, they are definitely underappreciated! They are indeed the forgotten heroes!
I suggested to the award organisers on Friday that we needed to take the celebration of that event out into councils and communities. We all should know more about the social challenges that society faces and the front line efforts of our magnificent men and women who deal with some many of them. I have already asked our own Director of Adult Services to get me out and talking to our front line social care staff.
What I will definitely do though is talk about the profession more and support them more especially when they are being slagged off in public. It is no surprise that they sometimes make mistakes. The big surprise is that they don’t make more mistakes. So my voice will be heard next time to put the case that they cannot – that they are working in incredibly difficult circumstances with all the cards stacked against and insufficient money, resources and support to do their jobs fully. They are indeed the forgotten heroes of our society caring for those which society would largely prefer to forget. On Friday I was proud to be one of the outsiders to the profession who could salute them and their work