On starting a Social Work Course

As the universities start on their teaching paths and the summer fades into autumn, I turn to reflect on my own years since I arrived at the university on my social work course what advice I’d give to me if I were starting today.

Here’s what I would tell the younger me who entered the social work training, unsure what to expect.

I’ve indulged myself a little and hopefully some will find this useful and add to the list in the comment section.

1) Seek opportunities, don’t wait for them to arrive.

This goes for learning/reading/finding articles as well as opportunities at placement and eventually in job seeking. Sometimes it can be a real change of focus moving from further education to higher education as the focus needs to move to self-direction. Self motivation is crucial. In the words used by Stephen Hawking

“Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,”

Personally I combine the courses I’ve studied, both my qualification degree and my post-qualifying training with the motivation to seek out information, read related texts and ignite discussions around policies and politics outside work as parts of my professional development.

2) Build strong relationships with your peers.

I am still close to some of the people I trained on my social work course with and have been since we were students. We’ve travelled down very different professional paths and had very different personal experiences along the way but the support we’ve been able to give to each other through treading a common path at that point in our lives has been a valuable strength through the good, bad and wobbly periods. Peer support is crucial and those on the outside will find it hard to understand the pressure you are under while you are training.

3) Be the social worker you would want to have

This is quite a simple motto. Never see the user – whatever area you are working in as the ‘other’. It could be you, your child, your parent, your friend. You might not see that now. But imagine it if that’s too difficult and think about the interactions you have and how you would change them if you were receiving them. Sometimes you will be hated and resented. It’s the role and (usually) isn’t personal. You won’t often be thanked but you will be paid. Knowing you did your best and treated people as you would want to be treated or would want a close family member to be treated can be reward enough.

4) Reflect

This is a chestnut but it took me a while to get it.

In the words of Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

Know yourself. Know what makes you react the way you do. Know how you respond and what experiences in your life have led you to those responses. Know what you might have to do to change those reactions. Learn from them. If you have not been used to it reflection can be hard initially to ‘get’. It is a self-examination that tempers responses and allows them to be learnt from. When you do ‘get’ it, things will become easier. Reflection also builds resilience when you know what your own strengths and weaknesses are.

5) Remember the feeling of presumed powerlessness for when you are in a positions of power.

This is one I didn’t really get for a while either. When I was a student – particularly on placement, I felt meek and lacked confidence in my actions. I wasn’t a ‘real’ social worker and had (quite rightly) excellent supervision and guidance by the team around me. I didn’t feel like I was in a ‘powerful’ position however even as a student with those doubts, I went into the homes of others and carried out reviews, fed the information back to my team and helped make decisions about packages of care. I did have power in respect to the people I was allocated to work with.

In relation to my practice educator, I felt she held all the cards. She was wonderful and positive but it could have been different and I’ve heard many stories about oppressive practitioners with students. I’d say remember those feelings of powerlessness and think how the users who come into contact with you both as a social work student and eventually as a practitioner will feel. Power is something that can take a while to appreciate – particularly if you have it – but not acknowledging it can be dangerous.

6) Distractions

Sometimes distractions, hobbies, external interests can be vital. One of the things that kept me going through the very intense course and my career post qualification is having interests that are nothing at all related to the work that allow me to mix with and meet people from different backgrounds and attitudes that have allowed me to grow in different ways and ‘get away from it’ from time to time. Don’t neglect other interests/people/friends. You’ll likely need them later.

I wonder what advice other people would share with their younger selves?

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World Suicide Prevention Day 2012

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. This is a day to raise awareness and reflect on the causes of suicide and way that services and support is available or not to those who may be considering suicide.

While it is not difficult to approach the notion that suicide prevention is something that should be promoted, it is hard, at least in my mind, to detach this thought from the need for services to be provided – not just in specific mental health sectors but in broader terms because while it is easy to categorise ‘suicide prevention’ as a specific mental health need, there are those who may choose to take action to end their own lives who do not have what might be categorised as mental health problems.

So what would broader suicide prevention services look like? I think there is clearly a case for formal support (but then, I would say that) through supportive and longer term work through mental health systems. We are struggling in the NHS Community Mental Health Teams at the moment. We aren’t equipped to work with anything except the most acute needs due to decreasing funding. Fancy talk about policy pushes towards prevention mean very little in frontline posts away from Whitehall where these documents are drafted.

Waiting lists for talking therapies can be extensive and the choices between types of therapies (and for that matter, particular therapists) can be limited.

While I would argue (again, I would really) that there are practitioners who want to provide good services, it is becoming more difficult in a climate of cuts and those who pretend otherwise in the government are fooling themselves. Support has to allow time and therapeutic relationships to develop in order to understand what is needed and how. Support has to be provided extensively to family members and friends who support and care for those who have mental health needs in order to reinforce informal support networks. Personal budgets can help but only if they are implemented flexibly and with time and care rather than sped through to meet increasingly harshly imposed local authority and central government ‘targets’ and tick boxes.

My work should always be about people as individuals with wholly different needs, wishes, desires and aspirations but it feels as if it is increasingly turning into a ‘tick box’ culture in mental health services. That is wrong and it only serves to remove an element of humanity from a system that so desperately needs it.

Sometimes, indeed, often, it is not about traditional ‘formal’ services as much as promoting more social interaction and quality networking structures which can thrive  (and are often better) as peer based groups.  We have greater tools now to create different layers of social interactions now – we can build communities on the basis of interests as well as geography through and combat isolation and loneliness. If a shared interest in Dr Who or football or coffee can create communities around them, we are on the cusp of making it easier to find engaging and accepting communities to be a part of.

Perhaps though, with the greater opportunities come greater pressures to ‘find groups’ or to ‘be a certain way’. I am generally an advocate of the positive power of the internet and new communication forms to promote greater support networks and social interaction but there has been a rise in more public bullying and targeting which is the negative side of living life in the open.  I think a greater understanding of the role of those who use these new platforms negatively and to gain a greater platform for negative and unpleasant outlets has to be another focus. Why do people ‘troll’? What are the needs of the bully and what are they missing in terms of their social support in order to use negative outlets to target others?

There are many ways we can and should be looking at suicide prevention but while it remains a very important issue in mental health services, it is not an issue exclusively for mental health services.

We can all take a role in being more open, kinder and more understanding of the needs of others – we, collectively, are not able to prevent all suicide – but there has to be a wider awareness of a different paths to take – whether  formal or informal routes, they all need shoring up.

Tell Tim He’s Sacked

One cold evening a couple of years ago I went to hear Tim Loughton, the former Children’s Minister shuffled out of the pack yesterday, speak at a meeting of the All Party parliamentary group for children in care. We queued to the sound of shrill chanting and ominous bullhorns. The Comprehensive Spending Review was being debated in the House, the first indication of the true extent of the government’s spending cuts and Whitehall was closed to traffic as a protest rally gathered.

Accompanied by two young women in foster care, we dawdled through Westminster Hall and the corridors of power. It’s a privilege to be so close to government, never to be rushed. As we hung around in the lobby, the division bell sounded. Members appeared from all sides and dashed into the Commons chamber. They left the door open for a while so we could peer around the corner to see democracy in action.

Given the significance of the evening’s events he could have easily been excused but to his great credit, Loughton appeared as scheduled to address the packed committee room full of young people from all over the country. His speech was a characteristically robust endorsement of the value of foster care and the rights of children and young people in care to the same opportunities as their peers.

With the eloquence of experience, a succession of young people politely but firmly pointed out the flaws in his argument. You say education is important for children in care but you’ve just voted to do away with educational maintenance, the money that supports us. You say jobs are important but unemployment for young people is rising. You say we all deserve good foster carers but there’s a chronic shortage of resources to recruit them. Thanks for coming, though.

And that’s Tim Loughton in a nutshell. Unfashionably sticking up for children and young people in care and defending the social work profession whilst simultaneously his Cabinet eviscerated the resources he claimed were in place  to support them.

That night Loughton bobbed and weaved with the skill of an experienced politician, riding out the storm without properly satisfying anyone in his responses. Most ministers would have ducked out: he was there because he wanted to stay. Loughton is no placeholder or careerist. Shadow Children’s Minister for several years before coming to power, this is the portfolio he sought and prepared for.

The former minister is extremely well-informed about fostering, adoption and children in care. Unusually his main source was the people involved rather than his civil servants. Over an extended period he’s taken the time to understand the sector by making himself available to children, young people and carers. He created a telephone hotline, “Tell Tim”, and met regularly with organisations representing young people and carers, offering an unprecedented degree of accessibility. Last night on twitter they lined up to thank him and praise his commitment. For a group who voice is seldom heard, his willingness to listen meant an awful lot.

One of the things children and young people in care told him was that they were fed up with needing to get permission from social workers for school trips, holidays, activities and sleepovers with friends. You couldn’t mark them out as more different from their peers if you felt-tipped a red cross on their foreheads. A group of young people confronted him on television about this. Loughton shifted uneasily under the pressure, yet he delivered on his promise to respond. His first act as a minister was to write to local authorities to remind them that they had the power to give foster carers discretion on these matters. I showed a copy to one of the young women who appeared in the programme – “You did this,” I said. Now it’s enshrined in the revised Fostering Standards. The fact authorities have still not got the message is not his fault.

It’s not all so positive. He defends social work yet I’ve heard him dismiss the content and nature of assessments with the sarcastic panache of a Daily Mail leader writer. His promised fostering action plan is still to materialise. Hearing him several times subsequently, I continued to admire his grasp of the fostering task whilst growing weary of disingenuous references to the deficiencies of authorities he knew full well were tottering under the burden of  his government’s cuts.

Ultimately his departure may say less about the man and more about the government’s perception of the sector. The adoption agenda has been dominated by Gove and Cameron. Martin Narey joined the chorus of praise and regret but in terms of policy creation made him largely redundant.

They have seized the big issues, relating it to other props of Tory policy around the family and budgets cuts. In this world, an understanding of the details, of the everyday problems facing children, carers and social workers, gets in the way. The struggles with resources, with finding the right placement, with whether a child can stay with her friend this weekend, have little significance. More than this, they may actually obstruct the agenda for change because they don’t fit together with policy as neatly as the Department may wish.

Yet these are the issues that make life better for children and young people in care. For children and carers alike, nothing is more important. Gove’s distance from this awkward day-to-day reality leads to dogmatic policy. It leaves you to wonder if there is ever a place for any minister who thoroughly masters not his brief but an understanding of the people affected by it. It’s hard to understand social work. Loughton did, but in the end all it got him was the sack.

UKCP trying to improve their Central Complaints Process

The latest bulletin of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy describes improvements they’re working to make on their new Central Complaints Process (CCP) to take over from the (frequently atrocious) complaints procedures implemented by the UKCP’s various member organisations.

The CCP is in dire need of improvement. In recent months I’ve documented the John Smalley case, in which their shiny new complaints procedure took three years to find seven allegations proven against a Jungian analyst. The sanction imposed on the therapist? Absolutely nothing. He was just sent on his way. This was made all the more shocking by the revelation that he admitted destroying his notes, an action that would normally be considered a fitness for practice issue in itself.

The bulletin states:

Of course there are cases where serious professional misconduct is alleged. Those are the cases where UKCP should accept that a much more formal process is needed, including a formal hearing before an independent panel. Serious misconduct needs to be dealt with fairly, but more swiftly than has been the case in the past. And if there are psychotherapists who are unsafe to practice and a danger to the public, we need to remove them from the UKCP register. There are very few complaints cases that are about outright abuse, but our systems need to be ready to respond appropriately.

“More swiftly than has been the case in the past”? A reference to the Smalley case perhaps? Oh well, at least they’re recognising that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. They also need to look at the decision-making in relation to sanctions given, as well as what action to take if a fitness to practice issue such as destroying of notes emerges as part of the hearings.

There’s also an emphasis on use of negotation for less serious allegations.

 We want to make sure that our complaints system is not cold and alienating for clients with a concern, or terrifying for the therapist. We will devote resources to resolving more complaints in a non-adversarial fashion – in many cases UKCP should be encouraging the two parties to address their issues without needing to declare victor of one over the other through legalistic jousting.

I’m a little dubious about this one, to be honest. Fair enough if it simply seems to be a matter of falling-out in the therapeutic relationship, but when does one draw the line that it’s actually a fitness for practice issue, and who draws it? It would be concerning if complainants were expected to engage in negotiation before they could raise a concern about misconduct. What if the complainant tells the inquiry to stick their negotiation, as a lot of aggrieved parties may well do? I would have thought if it’s got as far as a formal complaints procedure then the therapeutic relationship is likely to be pretty thorough wrecked, with neither side keen to go back into therapy with each other. What exactly are these negotiations trying to save?

Also, should a fitness to practice inquiry really be about “declaring victor” through “legalistic jousting” anyway? The point isn’t to win like a lawsuit. It’s supposed to be a thorough investigation into whether a practitioner is, well, fit to practice. Exactly what it says on the tin. Statements like this leave me wondering whether the UKCP has truly understood and embraced the principles of fitness to practice.

Dissent among the ‘child-stealing’ tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists

We had some “interesting” responses to this blog post in which I highlighted the wild conspiracy claims by people like Brian Gerrish and Chris Jarvis. They seem to believe that social services, the police, the courts, CAFCASS, CAMHS and a whole slew of other agencies are involved in systematic removal of children into care. Not for child protection reasons, but in order to make money.

Having been involved in quite a few child protection cases, I actually find the proposal pretty laughable. Not only is the removal of a child a complex and difficult process, both legally and logistically, but some of the agencies supposedly in conspiracy together actually have quite dysfunctional relations with each other.

Brian Gerrish seems to have been touting this theory for some time. For reasons I’ve yet to fathom, he suggests it all involves a company called Common Purpose. Gerrish appears to believe it’s part of a conspiracy to use neuro-linguisitic programming to control the levers of power. Personally it looks to me like a slightly drippy provider of management courses for New Labour and David Brent types, but then maybe I’m just a dupe of the One World Government. I understand Mr Gerrish denies supporting the BNP, but from browsing various BNP blogs, they seem rather keen on him.

Recently he’s been teaming up with Chris Jarvis, whose children have been removed into the care of the local authority. His response to this was to mount a private prosecution against Leeds City Council for genocide. Mr Jarvis seems to be part of a movement that I’ve only recently heard of called the Freemen on the Land. To understand these “Freemen” a bit more clearly, here’s a segment from Rationalwiki.

Freemen believe they can declare themselves independent of government jurisdiction using the concept of “lawful rebellion”: that all statute law is contractual and therefore only applicable if an individual consents to it. They assert that what everyone else regards as “the law” doesn’t apply to them as they have not consented to a contract with the state,[4] even going so far as to claim they have a lawful right to refuse arrest if they do not consent. They insist that the government is a corporation, are obsessed with maritime law, and call themselves things like “John of the family Smith.” Essentially, they’re hilarious and somewhat less threatening sovereign citizens.

No freeman arguments have ever succeeded in court; some have even explicitly ruled that the term “freeman on the land” has no legal significance when the argument is raised.[5] Actually using the arguments gets people into worse trouble, including fines, asset seizures, contempt convictions and criminal records. However, this doesn’t stop freemen from claiming, without any supporting cases, that the arguments work.

With that in mind, it’s perhaps understandable that his prosecution for genocide was struck out on the spot as soon as it saw the light of an actual courtroom. But then that’s the trouble with going around saying you don’t believe in the law. Put that argument before the court, and you’ll quickly discover the law believes in you.

So, how’s their campaign going?

It looks like in the last couple of weeks they’ve had something of a falling-out. On Jarvis’ blog he publishes an e-mail conversation in which Jarvis accuses Gerrish of secretly being part of Common Purpose, and of being “a demon, a FREEMASON, and infact a man of DISHONOUR.” Gerrish in turn furiously denies the suggestions.

Chris

Very disappointed to see you trying to claim that I am Common Purpose.
Laughable and makes you look silly.

Not sure what your agenda is Chris but I am very disappointed in you
that as a victim of the system you attack others who are trying to help.

rgds Brian G

 

Jarvis goes ballistic back at him…

There is so much more, and so many people you have let down I cannot be bothered really going in to it all, but it is interesting that you only ever reply to people when it is for your COMMON PURPOSE.

We are all entitled to make the odd mistake here and there when seeking the truth, my mistake was trusting you at face value.

Everything you have purported to have stood up for like freedom of speech, you have in fact tried your best in a reverse FREEMASON style to undo, take for example your introduction of the thought crime “TROLL” not discriminating between abuse and constructive criticism in your labeling and judging of others

There’s more on Jarvis’ blog, if you have any particularly interest in reading incoherent rants in capital letters.

Oh well, as you reap so shall you sow. Mr Gerrish, you hitched your wagon to someone comes across as deeply paranoid, and presented him to the media as some sort of crusader and legal expert. And now he appears to have turned you. I can’t say I feel much sympathy.