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“Great social workers are like a perfectly cooked lasagne”

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Francesca Elonga explains why she was inspired to feature in Frontline’s new social work film and compares great social workers to her favourite Italian dish…

Over the winter months I was heavily involved with Frontline, helping them to recruit some great people to become children social workers. I was in care myself as a teenager and I recognised the need for more great social workers. This inspired me to help out at Frontline’s assessment centres and then to feature in Frontline’s new social work film.

I’ve been quite lucky with my experience of social workers, but many of my peers have experienced disappointment and hurt. Some simply haven’t had the support they needed.

With the best social workers, from a young person’s perspective, it doesn’t feel like it’s just a job to them. They emphasise with the young people without feeling sorry for them, and do it without being patronising. There may not be too much difference in what they are saying compared to other social workers, but there’s a difference in tone – it’s the way they say things and whether it feels genuine. ‘Caring’ in the right way is also important. Every social worker ‘cares’ but it is how they care and what they care about. Do they care about getting the paperwork done or how the young person is feeling? Sometimes you feel social workers get to know you by their files and books. It’s about getting to know people beyond that book. 

It must be difficult being a social worker, especially if you’re new. My advice to Frontline participants is to always be yourself. You need to find a connection with the young people and let them see that you’re human. Be normal and show that you’re from the same world, and don’t be too textbook or too robotic. Also, don’t forget to reflect on what’s gone well and what hasn’t. Learn from your mistakes – you will make some, but to get good at something you need to learn from them. 

Empathy, understanding and an open personality are key traits of an excellent social worker. They need to be cool and calm. As a young person, you basically look for qualities that you’d want in a friend, yet they need to be professional and quite firm. In fact, I think of the best social workers as being like a perfectly cooked lasagne. They have lots of different layers to them – they have a bubbly, crazy and spontaneous side (the meat) but this is held together by a strong, firm and professional side (the pasta sheets). There’s also a magic sprinkling of personality on the top which sets them apart! 

One of the best social workers I’ve ever had was Judy – the social worker I wrote to in the Frontline film. Writing the letter was quite emotional. I was looking back at where I was then – as a young person coming from care being told ‘you’ll never do that’ or ‘you’ll never achieve that’ – and then to where I am now and how far I’ve come. But it was a really nice thing to do and I kept imagining Judy’s face when reading it. It brought a smile to my face telling her what I was up to. 

When I was watching the film back I literally started crying. Seeing other people’s stories was inspirational and the part at the end (when the woman read the letter back) was amazing. Watching the film back was emotional, but a really happy and proud moment. It felt really good. I hope it inspires more great people to become social workers.

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