This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
You haven't had a shit day at work until someone threatens to kill you and means it. Or until you've had to see to a tiny baby who's been burned repeatedly with cigarettes. Or until you've been so scared you want to call the police but can't in case it will get back to your employer.
Welcome to life as a children's social worker in London.
Child protection means working with children who are at risk of or suffering "significant harm"—i.e., something that will have a significant impact on their health and/or development: physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, emotional abuse. It could be indirect, too, like seeing or hearing someone else being mistreated. Or witnessing domestic violence.
I used to work in child protection, but now I work with "looked-after" children—when the local authority takes on some of the child's parenting. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children generally come under the category of looked after. These children can be placed with friends or family, but usually they're in foster care. Sometimes, they're put in specialist residential placements, in secure or psychiatric units, or what are, effectively, youth prisons.
Mostly, I visit children at home with their families. I carry out assessments and find out how things are. If there are risks to the child, I try to work out how serious they are and what can be done to minimize them. Things like parents using drugs and alcohol, or parents who are violent, mentally ill, or have a learning disability that affects their ability to take care of their children. These kids might be referred to us by police following the arrest of a pedophile or gang member, or by the school because the parents aren't managing. As part of the process we talk to teachers, doctors, and anyone who's relevant. If we're really concerned and the parent doesn't agree with us, we might need to go to court to have a judge decide what to do.
Parents are often anxious when you visit. That's understandable. Some go to huge efforts to clean up—reassuring on one level, but often not where the worry lies. I drink a lot of tea. Having a cup of tea with someone is like saying, "Let's build something together." Sure, if I go into a house with dog shit on the floor and a sink full of mold I might be like, "Oh I've just had one in the office, thank you," but usually it's a sign that the family is at least trying to be welcoming.
Other visits are awful, though. Most days I'll get put down. I was told by one parent, "It's ridiculous you think you can wear that cross—how can a person like you think you'll ever be close to God?" With some clients I feel physically sick before I have to go see them because they're so aggressive. Their hatred scares the shit out of me, but somehow I have to be professional. These are people the police would never go see alone, or without stab-proof vests, mace spray, and radio contact—but we're sent in with no one knowing where we are and armed just with a mobile phone. I've downloaded an app so my boyfriend can see where I am, for all the good that will do.
These are people the police would never go see alone, or without stab-proof vests, mace spray, and radio contact—but we're sent in with no-one knowing where we are and armed just with a mobile phone.
You have to remember that, in most cases, these people are victims themselves. When children are exposed to severe violence and drug use from their parents, they don't have a model to follow. There are parents who've been through such terrible abuse themselves that they project onto you. We're the focus of a lot of people's anxieties. There have been high profile social work failures but, really, those cases tend to be workers set up to fail, with unachievable case loads. None of the serious case reviews that I've read found the reason for a death to be solely down to incompetence. Incompetence in the face of impossible case loads is much more common.
I'm lucky that my borough is relatively small and that I have good managers. My case load isn't as high as some of the horror stories. In some boroughs that Ofsted has noted as failing, social workers might have 50 families at once. How can you do even the basic work, let alone be able to remember all the children's birthdays or what they need? Seventeen families is the most I've had, and there are times when that feels so overwhelming I don't know what to do.
At the moment, I have 15 children. With looked-after children, you tend to work with fewer kids, but they need more support. In one week, I had a teenager scream at me in anger because I didn't agree with her. Another cried because she couldn't go home for Christmas. Two ran away. Two threatened me with stabbing. And that's just the active ones. Trying to hold on to what the quieter ones need in all the chaos is hard.
I'm contracted to 35 hours a week, which is a joke. I often work 50 hours, but 60 is not unusual. None of that overtime is paid. We get two days off on TOIL per month, but that really doesn't begin to cover it.
There's a ton of paperwork, too, which is basically just done for Ofsted. With looked-after children there are seven forms we have to complete per child—some of them several times a year. The families don't give a fuck about the plans we write, though. They care about the conversations we have and the things we do, but there's no escaping it even if it is a massive waste of time. It's so, so frustrating.
A lot of the time, you can feel powerless to help because the thresholds are so high. There was one little boy when I was in child protection; the kitchen where he lived was unused for cooking, but filthy—with a greasy film over everything, a fridge three quarters-full of compacted ice, and no door on the oven. He was just being fed little snacks. The relationship between him and his parent was so bad. The parent clearly had serious mental health problems but it was really hard to pinpoint what they were because they wouldn't agree to psychiatric assessments. I found myself in tears, having nightmares about the boy. But the court wouldn't have agreed that was grounds to remove a child.
Another challenge with social work is that all children adore their parents—even when they're completely hopeless. If parent are angry with me, what will the children do? They have a loyalty to them.
When you look at the way social workers are portrayed on shows like EastEnders, you'd think it's easy to take away a child from their family. It's not. We do everything we possibly can not to. The first child I argued should be removed was the baby with the cigarette burns. That's the threshold. I expected that it was going to be an emotionally intense job, but I had no idea just how much blame and criticism flies around. We operate in an environment driven by fear, by people trying to cover their backs and point fingers. It's terrifying because you could end up being sued if something really bad happens, and it's not a situation you have control over.
The government's recent cuts haven't helped. So many supportive and preventative services have had budgets slashed. Women try to leave violent men and the accommodation we offer is so shitty I get why it might not seem like such a bad idea to go back. I work in a building where we don't have recycling because it's too expensive, where the taps don't always work, where washing-up sponges are a luxury. It takes the piss. And don't even ask about the plans for children's services to be privatized—I will literally leave if I see the kind of cuts to children's social work that have happened for people working in probation or learning disabilities.
Women try to leave violent men and the accommodation we offer is so shitty I get why it might not seem like such a bad idea to go back.
So why do I continue to put myself through this?
I'll give you an example. We got involved with this mother because she was a heavy drinker. During one of her blackouts, she assaulted her child. It was horrendous. I thought, There's no way this child can stay with this family. But with a great deal of difficult work with the parents, support from the grandparents, and the family drug and alcohol court, gradually the situation shifted. The mom became more reflective, the children did better in school. Years later, I got a Christmas card from the granny saying that the little ones are doing amazingly well, that they're back with their mom, who now runs alcohol support groups.
Of course, that's not going to happen every day. But although we can't always see the results of the work we're doing at the time, that doesn't mean it's not making a difference. If a young person is in a really bad place, they need someone alongside them, to hold them together like a parent would. Hopefully this won't just make their life better but might prevent the whole fucked up cycle starting all over again when they have their own kids. That means the world. So, although this job drives me crazy and makes me cry, I'm not going anywhere just now. Because if I don't do it, who will?
As told to Rachel Segal Hamilton.