When I was nine, I was almost adopted. The social worker came to see me and talk to me about adoption and what that meant. He talked to me about the process, and that we would need to go to court and there would be a judge. He didn’t know me well enough to know that at that point I was obsessed with the TV programme The Bill.
As he spoke to me, all that was running through my mind was that court is where criminals go; a big scary place and the judge sends people to prison. It scared the life out of me. After that conversation I said, I’m not doing this. It led to the breakdown of what would have been my adoption. My whole life would be different was it not for that conversation.
I don’t blame the social worker or hold any resentment towards him, but that’s how significant our work can be. It can change somebody’s entire life. I wouldn’t be living where I’m living, I wouldn’t be doing the things that I’m doing now, had it not been for that one conversation on that one afternoon. That’s the essence of social work. You’ll be involved in people’s lives when things are as bad as they can get, but you will have an opportunity to make things better for people. It’s a tough job but it’s a privilege.
When adoption proceedings broke down, my birth family had moved to a small town near Scarborough called Filey. I moved back in with them and have lived and worked here ever since. Scarborough is unique. You can go from standing on the beach to the middle of nowhere on the North York Moors, in the time it takes you to finish your ice cream. There are a lot of quite wealthy villages, but equally behind the sea front and the arcades and the fish and chip shops, there are some real areas of social deprivation.
Working with the communities you grew up in brings some challenges. There are people that you know or people that know you, and that can be difficult to manage. But equally, when you are working with families who know you, or know somebody who knows you, that can make a real positive difference, because you start from a position where some trust already exists. People have contacted me and said “so and so says you’re okay, so can you give me some advice?” Social work, in its broadest sense, is helping the community.
Sometimes, particularly living and working somewhere like Scarborough, you will bump into people – in the town centre, at the supermarket – who you worked with when they were children. They will come up to you, ask how you are and tell you what they are doing with their life. They might say “I really appreciated what you did on this day” and you might even have forgotten what you did, but to that person it was hugely significant. I would say, working in a close-knit community like Scarborough, you do get more of an opportunity for that positive feedback and to really see the impact you’ve had than in most places.
Social work is challenging, it’s hard. It would be wrong for anyone to say anything else. But its right that it’s hard. Being able to wave goodbye to a family, knowing that child is going to be having breakfast, is going to go to school and learn and have fun with their friends, or is going to be able to sleep at night not hearing an argument, or be affected by a parent’s substance abuse, is so satisfying.
That positive outcome happens a lot more than the alternative where you are making applications to remove children from their families. The negative ones get the press. But actually, day in day out, social workers in this building will be saying goodbye to families where they have intervened and made a difference: where they can leave that family knowing they are in a much better position then when we first met them.
I have worked in this area for my entire adult life. Not many people can say that by the time they are managing a team like I am, but I wouldn’t want to practice anywhere else.