Denise Green is a Senior Social Worker in the Disabled Children’s Team at Barnsley Metropolitan Brough Council. Having qualified in 1996, Denise reflects on her experience of practice during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and how the needs of the children and families she supports have changed during these profoundly difficult times. She shares important advice for social workers to avoid working in isolation and stay connected with colleagues.
I was a mature social work student; I was 37 years old when I qualified. After my divorce I was a stay-at-home lone parent with two young children on benefits, so I understood how difficult life can be. When my daughters were at primary school, I became involved in Homestart as a volunteer, using my parenting and life-skills to support other struggling parents. I soon realised that this was something I could develop and make a career from. I took an Access to Higher Education course, then a Social Work degree and Diploma in Social Work (DipSW) at Sheffield Hallam University. My own life experience was an asset as a mature student. I felt better able to cope with some of the more emotive elements of social work training as I was familiar with many of the issues families were facing.
I joined Barnsley Council in 1998. I love working with the people there, they are stoic, down to earth, generally just “get on with things” and the Barnsley sense of humour always shines through. The Disabled Children’s Team I’ve worked in since 2005 is quite large. We cover the whole of the Barnsley Local Authority area, supporting families who have a disabled child and trying to help them manage the impact on their lives. There’s a range of statutory duties involved including Child in Need, Child Protection, Children in Care, court work and of course providing various short breaks for families and children.
There are challenges of course, but that just makes the job more interesting. Thinking about the moments that stand out, it is always good to see a family learn that they can manage things without us. I’m quite proud of the day when a family says, “thanks, but we don’t need you anymore, we can do this” or when a child smiles because they are no longer living in fear or apathy.
Families need support more than ever
I’m a clinically extremely vulnerable person so have been instructed to shield during the national lockdowns. This has made being a social worker especially challenging. It means that most of my work has been through virtual visits and telephone contact. My colleagues have been very supportive and carried out physical visits to my families when I couldn’t, so I have tried to cover as much as I can from home for them.
Working from home has been wearing for all of us, but we have been needed more than ever to help families keep their lives ticking over. This is especially the case where their disabled child has been at home and “kicking off” because their routine changed, and they can’t express their anger and confusion any other way. Our team gives families a space to discuss what is happening for them as well as advice on managing what is happening for their young people. There are additional resources we can offer such as extra short breaks, direct payments, regular phone calls and visits just to ‘touch base’. We also ask other agencies to support, for example Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
During the pandemic we have helped with practical tasks too; referring families to food banks, delivering food parcels and even picking up prescriptions when people weren’t allowed out of the house! In some cases, we refer families to welfare rights agencies and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure the correct benefits are accessed. Where there’s been domestic violence and child abuse, we work with the Police, Pathways and Victim Support. This would always be the case, but it is happening more often because of the changed lifestyle we are all experiencing.
Getting through a difficult case or bad day
I can see the experiences of the past year having a lasting impact on the social work profession, I think the old model of having an office base is unlikely to return to full normality. In this digital age, we have had to learn to be more agile and use new technology. Unfortunately, this can have a negative impact on teams as the everyday human contact with colleagues is no longer available. That informal case discussion with teammates and managers is missing, as well as the banter which helps us to offload when we have a difficult case or just a bad day.
My own team has used WhatsApp as a group to stay connected. It gives us the chance to support each other and even have some banter using silly gifs and comments at times! Every week, colleagues also have the option to dip in or out of our digital catch up on Microsoft Teams. It is essential that teams have this space as working in isolation can be soul destroying. You carry so much emotional ‘baggage’ from your families that without being able to moan about the bad and celebrate the good, you would soon end up being ill from the stress of it.
As we continue to work through this period, my advice to social workers is:
- Always make use of the support you are offered from managers and colleagues. Never be afraid to say, “I’m not coping today”.
- Don’t try to work in isolation or you will find yourself burning out very quickly.
- Don’t beat yourself up for not always managing to finish that call or write that report all in one day. You will finish it tomorrow.
- Take care of yourself as well as others. Be as good as you can, but remember, you are human too!
To read more advice for child and family social workers during the pandemic, hear from Sonia Mahay, Service Manager in Wolverhampton, about maintaining wellbeing while working remotely.