What’s my professional identity? My experience as a social worker

There’s always a gnawing doubt in child protection. We seek all the answers, but we’re lucky if we get even a few. With the limited information we have, we make massive decisions about children that will change their lives, probably forever. It’s humbling, knowing the extent and limitations of our power, but also terrifying. Social work is a cruel profession sometimes.

Today is World Social Work Day, and being in the mood for writing recently I thought I would share my thoughts about what social work meant for me when I first became a social worker 10 years ago, what it means for me today, and how my experiences have shaped my perspective of my professional role. As I’ve journeyed, both figuratively and literally, I have found a particular richness in the profession, finding a calling I never expected to have.

‘Having worked in social care for five years, I got to know social workers very well, seeing first hand their commitment, professionalism and dedication, as well as the overwhelming pressures they faced.’ 

Starting my MA Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, I became a social work student in September 2008. I had some selfish reasons for pursuing the course. I had already planned on a move to Australia, but felt I needed an extra degree to help with my employment chances. Social work degrees in the UK offered a particular benefit, because they were funded by the government, even to the point that students received a bursary. That was probably the clincher compared to other degrees. Nowadays I joke that I got into social work for the money. Back then, there was more than a grain of truth to it.

Of course, that wasn’t my only motivation. Having worked in social care for five years, I got to know social workers very well, seeing first hand their commitment, professionalism and dedication, as well as the overwhelming pressures they faced. My career aspirations back then always carried a desire to work in public service, and with committed beliefs in social justice this seemed a perfect pathway to meeting my needs, and letting me give something back.

‘My first year placement was in an older persons charity; my second placement in statutory child protection.’ 

It took me a little while, but I realised I was entering a professional standard that went way beyond a simply qualification or degree. Becoming a social worker required practical assessment, not just academic ability, an important aspect of the role that most people don’t recognise. We are often criticised for lack of realistic practicality on the basis of our academic status, but in truth we are practitioners more than academics. We’re more akin to teachers, clinical psychologists, nurses and doctors in that we are professionally qualified (though not as specialised as medicine of course). As the reality of my decision came to mind, I began to experience the oddest sense of pride in my status. That surprised me.

Social work in the UK is taught in generic fashion. We were taught about issues ranging from child protection to physical disability to mental health to older person social care. Social work theories had applications to many different settings. There was very much an idea that if you worked in one sphere one day, you should be able to jump to another the next. My first year placement was in an older persons charity; my second placement in statutory child protection. Obviously different types of work, and different application, but consistent in the use of the interdependent system of skills, knowledge and values.

Of all the areas that fascinated me, child protection was the one that grabbed my attention the most. There was something about a commitment to an individual at childhood that I appreciated as a challenge, knowing the work we do today could have ramifications for decades. I learnt a great deal on my placement about the realities of the role, the challenges of work pressures, the humility that comes with our responsibilities, and the power we carry. To have fully grown adults break down in tears because I had turned up, believing my sheer presence meant their children were coming into care, was something of an eye-opener. I was only a student, so my ability to do anything was severely limited, but people only heard ‘social worker’ and they were afraid. That was humbling.

I was fortunate to have excellent support and mentoring at the time. I know some of my colleagues on the course had real difficulties with their placements, so I counted myself lucky. I was also grateful for making so many friends during my studies. I had very bad experiences during my first degree, so I felt like I was making up for the student experience a little. We hung out after lectures a lot, having a couple of pints at the local pubs in town. It was a fun and collegial atmosphere. I still keep in touch with many friends on Facebook, and it’s remarkable to see where we have all ended up.

Entering work almost immediately after my course finished, I was employed at the local country council on a child protection screening team. I only worked there for about six months, but the role helped shape a lot of my assessment skills, and social work practice, and grounded me in actual practice. Some of the skills I learnt there have stuck with me to this day.

‘I gave myself two years to see how I settled, consider whether it was working, and make a decision on what I wanted to do.’

Eventually the day came when I left for Australia. I was leaving a lot behind, and heading out with no job to go to, and no sense of what lay ahead. It was a step into the unknown. I was fortunate to have the benefit of Australian citizenship through my family, so there were no visa issues, but it was a whole new world for me. Knowing that I had invested so much time and effort into my social work degree, I felt determined to make this succeed. I landed in Adelaide in February 2011.

Australia is magnificent. It is such a beautiful country, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. At the time, I gave myself two years to see how I settled, consider whether it was working, and make a decision on what I wanted to do. In the end, it took less than six months to make my choice. That’s how good the move was.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t have some stumbles. The main one was not being able to transfer my degree easily. Australia doesn’t have national registration like the UK (something I think is a real problem for Australia, but that’s another matter), but most employers of social workers expect us to have eligibility to qualify for membership of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). The AASW determined my degree and experience was insufficient. I had to undertake two modules in an Australian university to gain eligibility.

The extra study was more of an irritation that anything else. Being only two modules I wouldn’t receive any extra qualification or recognition. Furthermore, I would have to pay back fees for the benefit. Even with full time employment that took about two years to pay back. On the other hand, being undergraduate level, and only needing to pass, reduced the pressure. I passed the modules no problem, and my eligibility was confirmed.

In the meantime I was looking for work. I was lucky that a relative of mine in Adelaide knew connections in the local child protection department, having worked there herself. It led to me getting an offer from an office in a town called Mount Gambier, nestled in the southeast corner of South Australia near the border of Victoria. I had always expected to work in a big city in Australia, but my first experience was to be in country (rural living is usually referred to as ‘living in country’ in Australia). As it turns out, this would be the defining characteristic of my work for future years.

I was in Mount Gambier for about a year. It was a great experience. I enjoyed my time there, but there were some real pressures. I learnt about working with Aboriginal families for the first time. In truth, I made some pretty rudimentary errors in my first few weeks, and had to hit a steep learning curve. There really is nothing that can quite equate to the experience of Aboriginal people in Australia, in comparison to anything in the UK. I had to reshape my practice to culturally appropriate methods, taking into account the history of Stolen Generations, the impact of colonisation, and building familiarity with the relationship between country, kinship and community. There’s a whole new set of practice skills, knowledge and values needed. Many Aboriginal people view us with distrust, because child protection (or ‘welfare’ as it was more commonly known) were the principle agency for removing children of the Stolen Generations. Today, Aboriginal children are disproportionately represented in child protection, many times higher than non-Aboriginal children. In many respects they don’t feel much has changed, and it’s difficult sometimes not to share their scepticism. There’s a richness in culture that’s underrated in Australia, and overlooked in terms of potential. Working with Aboriginal families has been a revelatory experience, and one that continues to affect my practice today.

Some of the work in Mount Gambier was quite challenging. I was physically assaulted on a couple of occasions, though not seriously, as were some of my colleagues. We didn’t get a great of support from management, which was disappointing. It leant a whole new meaning to the idea of risk management. I met committed professionals, some interesting local characters, and many amazing children. I am truly astounded by the resilience, determination and wisdom of children I work with. Some of their insights are remarkably profound, and their influence lingers.

This was my first experience of rural living in Australia. Compared to many Australian towns, Mount Gambier was large, but there was no getting away from its country feel. It was a good four and a half hours drive from Adelaide, similar from Melbourne, or a prohibitively expensive one hour plane ride. I preferred the driving, and it was here I first got to experience travelling long distance for home visits and assessments. Imagine if, in the UK, you had to travel from London to Birmingham for a home visit on a regular basis, only on remote country roads with few drivers. Some distances I’ve travelled have been further.

Remoteness has its blessings. There is a rich landscape wherever you go in Australia. It helped develop my love of photography. I loved the long journeys, although it introduced to me to one of the biggest dangers on Australian roads – Kangaroos. They live all over, but have an odd reaction to cars. They are just as likely to jump into the path of an oncoming car as they are to jump away. I’ve seen cars completely totalled by a collision. I was fortunate to avoid them.

Although I enjoyed my time in Mount Gambier I started to get itchy feet, and decided to look for new places to work. I applied for jobs in Melbourne and Perth. I was successful in both applications, but Perth paid better, so I moved to Perth to work for the Department of Child Protection (as it was called then).

I got a job in one of the poorer districts of the city, a place called Midland. I always joke that all roads lead there, since there are two major highways that meet in that area. The first is the Great Northern Highway, which travels for over 3000km to the north of Western Australia; it will eventually take you to Darwin and the north of the country. The second is Great Eastern Highway, which eventually will take you to Sydney and the rest of the east coast. I always found it funny that the whole of Australia was accessible from Midland.

Midland was a challenge. The range of social issues was huge, and because each state has its own legislation for child protection, I was starting out a little bewildered. Nonetheless, it was another remarkable experience. Perth is a lovely city; a kind of Melbourne wannabe. There are beautiful parks and reserves. The summers are baking though, but there are lovely beaches.

At this point I was working as a senior practitioner. I was starting to think more about expanding my professional role, looking at senior positions, and where I might advance to next. Being in the thick of it helped me develop my sense of organisation, although it would be a year or two before I hit ‘the zone’ when it comes to how I manage my workload. It was so busy and so hard in Midland. I wish I could say all my efforts were positive. In truth, whenever I look at my experience in child protection, and this is as true for any setting as it is for Midland, I realised that while I could do a lot of good, there would be times I would fail.

It’s difficult to get involved with a child, and be sure, in your gut, that there’s something wrong, but the evidence isn’t sufficient so you have to ‘close the case’ (we use clinically dispassionate language in child protection, so children and families become ‘cases’). We can’t remain involved in someone’s life with no reason, just because we’ve got a bad feeling. I worry about those situations the most, even today thinking about cases I held years ago, wondering if my concerns were warranted, could I have done more, what should I have done, and on and on it goes. There’s always a gnawing doubt in child protection. We seek all the answers, but we’re lucky if we get even a few. With the limited information we have, we make massive decisions about children that will change their lives, probably forever. It’s humbling, knowing the extent and limitations of our power, but also terrifying. Social work is a cruel profession sometimes.

After 18 months I once again got itchy feet. I successfully applied for a job as a country relief worker in Western Australia. My role was to relieve country department offices in the state.

Now, try to understand that Australia is big. Really big. Though not the largest country in the world, it has a sense of remoteness that has few rivals. Although I lived and worked in Perth, and had some experience in country in Mount Gambier, I never really understood the vastness, and the power of country, until I became a relief worker.

Despite being in the role for a short time, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I saw places I had never heard of before, or might only notice on a map if at all. These communities were small, isolated, and almost hidden away. I met lots of dedicated professionals in these places, mainly child protection workers living in small towns with limited connectivity. I wondered if it was much of a lonely life. I also saw the power of community, a hidden strength I hadn’t realised existed.

That strength was needed, as I saw terrible poverty and conditions, and the limitations of our intervention. Lack of resources limit our ability to respond as we should, and in some ways I think we as a society try to make communities complicit in this sense of hopelessness, as though this will excuse our own failings. The most stark example I saw was one community where the local residents had huge fences around their properties, which they padlocked each night to protect themselves. As one colleague put it to me, they had become both the jailer and captive. As difficult as this experience was, it was also where I gained the first sense that if any solution to these issues is to be found, it is at a community level, not service based. As challenging as these situations are, I have found most people are the solution to the problems they face, and have greater tenacity in dealing with adversity than any service (public, private or NGO) that can be provided.

My stint as a relief worker only lasted four months. I was successful in getting a team leader role, running a small office in a town called Manjimup in the south west of Western Australia. There were ten staff, including the support and admin workers. We covered a large area though, mainly forests and farming with only a few small towns. The role presented its own challenges. For the first time I began to experience a real stress in my work.

Often the subject of threats and violence, social workers face challenges peculiar to their role. People might naturally think about physical threats, but there’s emotional violence too. We get cursed and screamed at in every way possible. We experience some shocking and frightening violence of all kinds. Trying to manage highly emotional and traumatic situations on a daily basis takes its toll. It’s not helpful that sometimes we experience bullying in the workplace, where the pressure on management to meet key performance indicators overrides the responsibility to safeguard staff. I frequently find managerial systems in child protection dehumanising, and coldly aloof from the work we have to do. Considering many executives in statutory work are themselves social workers, I find it particularly ironic and disappointing that they can be so cold to their staff.

Although I had been threatened by clients before, this was the first time I faced individuals I thought perfectly capable of acting out on their threats. Management and justice processes were unhelpful, to put it lightly, and there were some dark days. I remember once getting threatened in court by a client, and the magistrate did nothing, just progressed with the proceedings. Sometimes I feel like magistrates feel we should expect this type of behaviour – using Australian parlance, a “suck it up princess” mentality. With all these pressures, it wasn’t unusual that I would get less than a few hours sleep for days at a time, yet somehow still get into work. This stress went on for months. When I look back on it I should have sought help sooner, but with so little sleep I do wonder where my cognitive functioning really lay. I’ll never tolerate a situation like that again.

Many people call this ‘burnout’. I loathe the term, because it’s a form of victim blaming. Most agencies focus on what individual workers need to do to protect themselves, but there’s never any process for telling executives what they should be doing to protect their workers. Certainly though I became ill, and I ended up taking some extended time off work to recover. I learnt a lot though, about myself, how to operate, stay healthy, and also the give and take of being in a leadership role. It was a rocky two years, but also incredibly formative for my own development.

After two years it was time to move on, and I returned to Perth to work as a team leader in an initial assessment team. By now, I was very much settled in how I organised myself in my work. I wish I could share with my past self how to do it. Some of the ways I manage my day-to-day work would be so useful even as a student. I really wonder why social workers aren’t taught more about basic organisational skills, time management and using relevant IT. I know it’s often assumed we come with that knowledge, but in reality we often don’t. I think it’s just as important as learning about social theory or psychology.

Being back in the city, I was again exposed to the difference in emphasis between country and metro working. In country areas, we rarely have access to service supports, simply because there aren’t any. It’s a real challenge for gaining services for children, especially those suffering trauma from their experiences. In metro areas, workers have more access to services as a central means of support. The big difference though, was that in metro areas services were also seen as the central element of safety planning, whereas in country there was greater dependence on family and informal social networks.

Having had so much experience in country, my approach was now squarely focused on building networks, so there was some work I undertook to try and promote this practice in my new team. I can’t say it always worked, but I’ve never altered my perception that informal networks offer more sustainability than external agencies. Unfortunately, a big challenge we have is the lack of resources necessary to build these networks, and to monitor how they are working. Too often we don’t have the staff, and things fall apart very quickly. Considering the huge cost of the care system, and the increasing numbers of children entering care, I compare these to the relatively minor costs of employing more frontline workers and family supports. The political resistance to employing more staff and investing in early intervention seems baffling. Trust me, it would save money in the long run.

By now, some five years in the role, I was drifting more and more away from casework responsibility. Yes, as a team leader, I was responsible for all the children the team managed, as well as the team members themselves. Yet, I no longer had the day to day responsibilities that individual caseworkers have to manage. I really felt sorry for my team sometimes. They felt the pinch the most, and it was frustrating to see policy implemented from executive levels with no consideration of how it would be practically managed. During this time I became more heavily involved with the union, and trying to work on resolving some of these issues, but I left WA before I could get too much work progressed.

Around this time I was rethinking my professional development, and considering what to do next. Such is the nature of child protection in Australia that I was beginning to lose identity of my place as a social worker. In many states, like WA, it is not necessary to be a social worker to work in child protection. Social work roles are heavily segregated from one another, so if you’ve worked in child protection it’s very difficult to step over into mental health say, or working with older persons. Although there is the AASW, it is prohibitively expensive to join and I’ve heard few people talk well of it. I rarely see much positive benefit from the agency sadly.

‘Social work as a profession is struggling with its identity, despite the huge pressures and expectations placed on us.’

Social work as a profession is struggling with its identity, despite the huge pressures and expectations placed on us. Although I still put my occupation as social worker, it’s increasingly more a set of principles than a single identifiable professional status. I think that’s a pity, because social workers occupy a particular position in social justice, policy and social care; you’d miss them if they were gone. Yet, social work is often a passive role, and sometimes we just seem to move where the tide takes us. I know it’s contentious though, and not everyone agrees on how to approach this problem.

After about 18 months I once again got itchy feet. Working in WA was getting quite frustrating. Child protection was heavily fractured, and even working with other parts of the same department was like working with an alien entity. There’s a lot of aggression between professions. I call it the ‘silo effect’. Neoliberalism has a lot to answer for, because it makes it harder for us, and puts children in danger, yet it dominates the economic principles of statutory services.

Finding avenues for advancement limited in WA, I began to consider opportunities further afield. I was lucky enough to get a consulting role in Tasmania, working for statutory child protection in Launceston (another large town in a country setting). Here I am today, enjoying the pleasant mix of British-like geography and weather, with the much more gregarious Australian culture and society. I’m free from direct case responsibility at last and I feel like I’m getting a well-earned rest, although the role has its own challenges and I take it seriously. After some of my previous experiences, I’ve seen how deep the hole can go, so I always try to be conscious of the pressures caseworkers and team leaders have. I’m very happy here.

When I look back on my role as a social worker, I am amazed to see how far I have travelled (both literally and figuratively). I have enjoyed the work far more than not, but there have been bad days. I struggle to see where we sit as a profession. Our own power as a force for social justice is diminished, and sometimes all I see is struggling workers following the same cycle, like hamsters on a wheel. I know in myself I’ve experienced the best being a social worker has to offer, but I’ve also seen into the depths of human suffering in ways it’s difficult to conceive. Dealing with some of the perpetrators of that suffering is hard too. However, some of the people I have had the fortune to work with are truly remarkable, and I’ve made many friends.

‘if you know a social worker, take the time to say thank you.’

I’m not sure I know what the future is for our profession. I feel like we need to organise more, concentrate our strength, fight for our identity. In terms of challenging public opinion, the weight of history, lousy media narratives, and incredibly dense political perspectives, it’s like stacking marbles. At the same time, I’ve seen social workers perform feats of action that would truly amaze people, stretching the limits of what might be possible, just for the benefit of saving a single life. There is something profoundly beautiful about the role, distinctly human in its ability to rationalise its failures with its successes. We give so much, and I’ve come to realise how multifaceted our role as a social worker is in society. It’s a profession worth saving, and I’m just as proud to be a social worker today as I was when I became one 10 years ago.

I can’t say whether this article will have any impact on anyone or anything, just like social work in general, but on this Social Work Day, I’d ask that if you know a social worker, take the time to say thank you. They are words we rarely hear from anyone, and we don’t look for them, but I think it would be welcome none the less. Whoever you are reader, take care. 

This piece was excellent written by Jack Davenport who is a clinical practice consultant and educator. 

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