A day in the life of a social worker

The Safeguarding 2.0 project has made a leap in the right direction in its work with social workers. We know that keeping children safe is high on everyone’s list, but it’s social workers, out there every day on the frontline of child protection in communities nationwide, whose views we must seek if we are to make real progress in safeguarding children and young people. We needed to hear and see at first hand what frustrations or stumbling blocks are faced by those with  one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

What do social workers want and need from the statutory organisations which charge them with keeping some of the most vulnerable safe from harm? What do they think would make a difference to their work? And what could they tell the project about using web technology effectively in safeguarding, for easily sharing key information and improving communication ? This is what ThinkPublic set out to research.

Westminster Council has been blazing the trail when it comes to working with technology. They currently use SharePoint to enable their social workers and their partners to share vital information on the children and young people they support. Safeguarding web 2.0 are learning from this and the locality team to take this even further.

With Westminster City Council backing the project, we were able to talk directly with their social workers who offered ThinkPublic some real food for thought with fascinating insights into what their working week truly involves. They highlighted the difficulties and problems of helping children in danger and dealing with families falling apart, but social workers’ obvious job satisfaction, commitment to vulnerable families and their clear determination to win the very best outcome for them in the face of mounting pressures, were all evident.

ThinkPublic’s Jess O’Keeffe set out on one of the most fascinating and important phases of the project – to record a day in the life of experienced and dedicated social worker Jeffrey. He invited Jess to shadow him and create a documentary film about his work, minute by minute, hour by hour and she created a series of revealing snapshots into the way things work for him.

Jeffrey laid to rest the myth that a ‘thick file’ is seen as demonstrating ‘seriousness’ – Jeffrey, and probably many others, finds such things off-putting and indigestible.  Everyone likes to think they will be praised for doing a good job and delivering quality. Jeffrey also talked about the importance of getting support and supervision in such a stressful job, particularly in view of the natural build-up of emotions in dealing with often painful situations. It’s a key factor for local authorities across the country that are struggling with shrinking budgets and increasing case loads, yet trying to ensure recruitment and retention of social workers.

Workload issues are well-known. The need to put things on record takes up time which could be spent working with families, a frustration for those who go into the job to work with people, including health visitors from across England who have talked to Jess about backlogs of semi-serious cases which could easily become more serious if left unattended because workers were constantly running hard just to stand still.

Social worker Jeffrey confessed to his main frustration being with ICS (the Integrated Children’s System) because it treated him and his colleagues as if they were ‘stupid’. It was seen as patronising and an insult to their rigorous professional training because it enforced a particular model of practice by embedding it in software – not trusting them to record what was important and use their common sense.

Jeffrey wasn’t the only professional with strong views captured on film. A GP said he didn’t have time to attend meetings and that, anyway, the law prevented him giving information on patients. A health visitor felt too much responsibility was being given to those who did not have the training to cope, while midwives talked about relying on faxes to make referrals while admitting the information was sometimes delayed because the machines didn’t work. There was frustration across the board over computer glitches.

After a day with Jeffrey, it was clear that if one thing could make things better for him, it would be having fewer cases so he could do more good for those he was working on. “Being with him was a real eye-opener for me”, said Jess. “People like Jeffrey have so much stress in their job it made me think how difficult it is for them working under pressure with extremely vulnerable people on top of the restrictions of how the job is organised.”

The film will be shown as part of a multi-media presentation at the first-phase round-up meeting of Safeguarding 2.0 alongside work by team partners Headshift whose Amy Wagner and Felix Cohen are leading on the use of web technology in collective, and effective, intelligence gathering within social work.