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Lost in translation: keeping the child’s experience at the heart of social work

Photo: Norbert Eder

I have come across many children and young people in my twenty year career as a child and family social worker. Some have never left me, like Luke, a care-experienced young man whom I met a few months ago.*

Luke shared his story of profound frustration at finding out what had been written in his case files by social workers who had worked with him and his family over the years. He found that, on the whole, what was recorded was laden with deficits. It lacked the context and empathy to show that social workers involved had tried to put themselves in his shoes to understand his lived experience.

He gave plenty of examples of recorded incidents that for a child or adolescent with a secure home base would have been considered normal adolescent experimentation or emotional exploration.

However, when examined through the lens of social service professionals, they lacked the developmental context that would have allowed the issues to be viewed in proportion. Luke went on to rewrite some of the entries to add context, including this one: “Luke is an underachiever” which he rewrote to read: “Luke has attended over a dozen schools and placed in thirteen different foster placements. The transitions have been hard for him at times and he’s making progress”.

Luke’s story had a profound impact on me and led me to re-examine how I, as a practice leader, could work to create the conditions for practice that enable the child’s lived experience to remain at the heart of our work, always.

Sadly, Luke is not an isolated case. Too often I have found in statutory child and family social work that the very purpose of our work, to help children, gets buried in the bureaucratic processes and systems that are now so well documented. Frontline recognises that if child and family social work is to thrive in the ever-changing landscape of social adversity, then we need to think radically about how we deliver help and the role of leadership within the profession. This is a view that affirms my own perspective.

I joined Frontline a couple of months ago as head of region for London because of its educational commitment to excellence in child and family social work. My job is to provide strategic leadership for the regional delivery, quality and development of the Frontline programme. It means ensuring that our organisational vision for change is effectively carried out in day-to-day practice. In practical terms, it means ensuring that the London Programme team delivers excellence in educating participants and in supporting local authorities to host and retain them.

It also involves facilitating a learning culture that continually re-examines whether our work equips participants adequately to work with children in need of help and their families. Thus, I’m currently working on developing a programme-wide evaluation framework that systematically assesses both the impact (how effective is our teaching?) and outcomes (what difference does it make to participants’ practice?) of our programme delivery.

On a broader level, my goal as head of region is for the London team’s work to become a regional beacon for excellence in child and family social work education, as we work together to increase the life chances of children who receive help from the social care system.

*Luke Rodgers is the director of Foster Focus, an award-winning social enterprise working to improve the lives of children in care.