Into the Deep End

While I’m still recovering at home, my thoughts are turning over a number of things as they come up and I suspect while I am still off work, I’ll be considering some more ‘memory’ posts to keep me on top of things.

After I qualified, well, actually a couple of months before I qualified as a social worker, I lstarted looking for work. This was before the GSCC registration when a DipSW/Degree were enough to start working immediately as a qualified social worker.

Agencies were literally snapping off our hands to work for them. There was a massive shortage of social workers in every field, in every area. Many people were recruited directly out of college. I decided to sign up with a social work agency. Partly because I was very impatient to earn money after a couple of years of part-time working and partly because I was far from resolved as to which area of social work I wanted to move into and I felt the agency option might leave me some greater flexibility.

Perhaps times have changed now – this was almost exactly 10 years ago – but at that point, when I explained to the agency and subsequently in the interview, that I was a freshly qualified social worker equipped with a lot of experience of hands-on care in the voluntary sector and one statutory (first) placement there was an understanding that support would be given. There weren’t NQSW programmes but there was a desperate need for bodies at desks.

I went to work in an inner city borough in London – not the same one I work in now. Process of elimination will determine that there aren’t THAT many boroughs that count as ‘inner city London’ but I’ve now made my way through a few of them..

I was working in an older adults’ team. It was a large team and a large office. Fortunately, for me at least, there were some familiar faces as that borough has some sponsored students on the same MA course as I’d been on so went into the office already knowing a couple of people which definitely helped.

I was struck by the friendliness and the willingness to help. Yes, I was a brand new, young (relatively!) agency social worker but honestly, the team bent over backwards to assist and answer all the stupid and not-so-stupid questions I had.

I immediately was grabbed by the upping of pace between placement experiences and ‘qualified’ experiences but as regards to training and access to support, I might have been employed through an agency but there seemed no obvious difference with those who were directly employed. The caseloads were very high and the output was expected to be high. As I learnt later though, and in different teams, it could have been a lot worse. I only had my placement experience to compare it to though as all my pre-course experience had been as a hands-on carer/support worker in residential homes.

In retrospect, I realise I was very lucky to have had a good team around me. There were a lot of things I was worried about. Manning the duty phones filled me with dread, probably for the entire time I was there.

I’d like to say my manager was fair but he wasn’t desperately. While team members were friendly, competent and helpful, he seemed to have an over-fondness with appearing to be doing the ‘right’ things to his immediate managers. Since then, I’ve realised one of the most valuable assets of a good manager is to be able to fight for the things that they believe it and stand up what is ‘right’ even if it is not something that fits in with the ‘higher management’ model.

The geographic area I covered was one of immense and obvious poverty. The high rise blocks rose as trees do in thick conifer forests. Sometimes there would be glimpses of true loveliness when reaching the top of a high rise and looking out at the view of the entire city as it pans out below you. Then there was the abject despair of the broken lifts and the graffiti in the stairwells. Graffiti would be the best of it. The vomit, the bloodstains, the urine and faeces – human and animal. But there were also some of the most beautifully kept houses I’d seen as well. Sometimes, in some areas, the stairwells became places to congregate and trade all manner of illegal goods and substances with the residue very obvious – discarded needles, used condoms. There seemed to be little dignity in the external presentation of some of the estates which often contrasted acutely with the dignity retained within the flats that I visited.

I have always been fascinated by stories and peoples’ stories. By trudging the streets (I don’t drive and mostly walked from visit to visit), I would pick up the history of the city and the neighbourhood, the familiar noises and smells. People would tell me their own and their families’ histories. There would be the histories of families who had been living in the same areas of the same city for generations and the recent arrivals from other parts of London, other parts of the UK and other parts of the world – each with a story about how they had arrived at the place they were.

One of the things that struck me was the way that all these stories intermingle in the same communities, sometimes crossing and sometimes taking themselves on different strands.

I had been leaving in various shared houses in various parts of town myself and the opening up to the true meaning of community was something that had been fairly new to me. I heard stories that I would never have been privy to in any other circumstance and the streets, as I trudged through them, took on different colours and hues. I knew, through my discussions and conversations which shops had been there for decades and which had been new arrivals. I knew where the old Bingo Hall and the old Dance Hall had been. I knew where the different community groups met and what support they provided for ‘their own’ and how to tap into these resources.

Covering duty scared me at first as I was unsure what I might come to expect and thought I was expected to ‘know everything’. Fortunately, I had many experienced people around me who didn’t mind my constant questions too much.

I remember when the first service user that I had been working for a while, died. I had been trying to arrange a residential placement for her. I had been coordinating with family members and had been to see a number of homes. We organised the move and within two days, she had died. I remember the abject sadness that welled over me. I pondered the influence of the move and the way it had happened. How anything might have changed. Discussions with more experienced colleagues helped me to think through the matters logically and I know, particularly now, working with older adults, you do see death up close, but it is still something that touches one profoundly, especially when you have spent time building a relationship with the service user and the family.

Things worked differently then as well. Care management as a model which had developed from the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 and was still at it’s earlier stages – services hadn’t necessarily been pushed to large block contractors at the same levels as they were subsequently. FACS hadn’t been introduced and each authority had their own guidelines. When I drew up care packages, I would have to cost each one on a different form before submitting it. Computers were still shared and forms could be handwritten. It seems so archaic in a lot of ways.

Some ‘new’ databases were just being rolled out but few people used them, certainly not as many as the managers wanted. There was some resistance to change.

I learnt a massive amount there though and took some very strong lessons with me. I made a lot of mistakes but fortunately none with grave implications. I learnt to love working with older adults and relishing the richness that a long experience of life can bring and what can be shared as a result. I saw my share of loneliness and heartbreak but also the joy of kindness and community that is brought to other lives.

It was a good place to start.

3 thoughts on “Into the Deep End

  1. I remember having a particularly bad December one year after I had been working in the Oncology Program at my Children’s Hospital. There had been four deaths that month with the last one occurring on Christmas Eve. I barely made it up to “Social Work Row” (at that site most social work offices were altogether, now they are situated in the various programs) before I lost it completely. One of my colleagues quickly pulled me into her office so that I could deal with my grief. That, of course, led to a conversation with several way more experienced social workers. We talked about being told that “oh I couldn’t do that, I’m too sensitive” and that really, we could not do what we do if we were NOT sensitive, compassionate and caring. That session taught me a lot about my future life as a social worker (i.e., it’s okay to feel; no matter what, we will become attached to our families; and how wonderful the people I work with are). I then went to my sister’s house and hugged my niece and nephew, very very happy that there were children in the world that I would not loose to disease.

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