Social Work is LOVE made visible

“All you need is Love”claimed Lennon and McCartney. Bruno Bettelheim in a famous misquote said ” Love is not enough”. Can both be true? Love is a difficult word for social work, it does not sit easily in our professional vocabulary. But I was curious about why that should be the case and how we managed to work as professional carers particularly in residential child care without a clear understanding of the role of love. It is an inquiry I began when I was doing a Masters in Social Work at UEA some years ago. I have only ideas and maybe can  open the debate. It is, I think ,too complex a topic for just one blog.  I would like to free us to use the word more comfortably and move it to a position central to our work.

Perhaps both statements are traps if we believe either to be a definitive statement. Love is a word we use glibly in the everyday, using it to describe how we feel about everything from our new shoes, lipstick or sofa to our dearest and closest relationships. We are immersed in the symbols, images and commercialization of love particularly at this time in February when Valentines Day is upon us. Specific attachment to a feeling in differing circumstances is an issue when we only have one word for such a complex emotion. One “word” does not fit all.  In Greek there are a number of words whose usage indicates the type of love  being described. This  gives that specificity that we are unable to achieve with our one word which is frequently too powerful  or too poor to match our dialogue.  During that research I came across a definition by Eric Fromm. Fromm (1900-1980) was a German psychologist and psychoanalyst whose most popular work was “The Art of Loving”. Coming  from that book it most adequately describes the love that both has motivated me through my career and describes what I feel and want for those I work alongside particularly those who are in public care where we are in a parental role.

” the most fundamental kind of love ,which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect and knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.”

Camila Batmanghelidjh , of the now defunct Kids Club, once wrote that she felt “our structures are failing children because we are scared of love. The expression of our humanity terrifies us into political cowardice”. I believe we have become scared of the expression of our humanity and for very good reasons. But while we continue to fail to recognise our emotional connections to those we serve then we lose the opportunity to build the relationship that may make the qualitative difference to our therapeutic intent. Our requirements to measure and quantify our work may have sanitized it to a being an administrative exercise only.

There was an earlier point in working with young people in public care when love was a concept frequently caught into the design of therapeutic establishments and their programmes of care. Maurice Bridgeland(1927-2013) an educational psychologist in “Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children”published in 1971, looked at many of these impressive pieces of work and they clearly look to the concept of love as both a motivational force and a core element to the repair and recovery of the youngsters in their care. It is interesting to note, and this is certainly an issue for another day, that there were a number of failures and closures of programmes and it would be interesting to understand why. Bettelheim’s work has been somewhat discredited and Kids Club folded fairly spectacularly in recent times, however there is much to learn from their work and maybe we need to be clear that “Love is not Enough” and it is not all we need to provide . As professional carers and corporate parents we need to pay attention to the rest of the Bettelheim quotation which continues to say that love “…must be supplemented by deliberate efforts on the part of the parents”. As professional social workers we have to use all our knowledge , skills and experience to make deliberate efforts to be the best parent or carer we can be  but never lose sight of why we are there and what quality we can add to those efforts by recognising the core of our emotional connection to those we serve. In this way we may hope never to see a poem like this again written by this young person in care.  (Leeds AD lib magazine 1973)

Unloved is to miss the love,lonley-child-imagethat all parents should give

Yet they put you aside

Put you out of their minds

They put you in care

There is no love there


Loneliness and the SmallBIG things

Jo Cox’s campaign launched this week about the hidden epidemic of loneliness made me think about how this plays out in our child care practice. I understand a little about loneliness having lived and worked on my own for many years. The transitions are particularly difficult, retiring , moving house, leaving partners, loss of parents and these can touch us at any age. I was lucky, having a pretty grounded childhood my coping skills and emotional resilience allowed me to overcome the loneliness quota that these changes delivered. However in social work we are largely dealing with those whose lives and own childhoodhave not given them the skills to cope.I have rarely heard the word loneliness used in general description of the challenges our families face and yet it has such a devastating impact on every aspect of someone’s being.

Let’s just consider some of the difficult transitions that our families and their children meet. Many of these can be considered to be of their own making and some are undoubtedly of our making , many have legal backing  but whatever the source they are none the less traumatic. Imagine for a moment the awful depth of silence in a house when your children have been taken from you, toys left where they  were  played with last and beds remaining unmade with crumpled pyjamas. Your days,which were filled by these children who are never coming home,  changed forever even though you know that you have not been the best of parents and your own issues have taken priority. It is hard to imagine how all this feels but we should try.

The world is just as empty in this scenario as it is for the elderly couple separated for the first time in their 60 year marriage by illness or death. In this case we rightly feel huge empathy and understanding but it is more difficult to feel the same for parents who have appeared through wanton fecklessness to be unable to care for their children. The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor has been enshrined in our welfare consciousness since the Poor Laws in Elizabethan times and seems to still be with us in making some judgements today.  We see these parents as undeserving  but they too have a massive void to fill.  The chances of them turning their lives around given that desperate loneliness are slim and our perceptions of non compliance with our requirements may be explainable if seen in a different context. If we believe they do not care, are just angry with us , the system or being caught out, then we are kidding ourselves and need to reconnect with our simple humanity before recording behaviours and events for posterity. The pain of a review or a “contact” visit must be immense and unthinkable for most of us. Perhaps we should all engage in some role play and walk out of court  with the words of the Judge ringing in our ears saying that our children have been freed for adoption. It may be one of the loneliness places we have experienced.

Most of my professional life has been spent with young people living outside their birth families and in public care. I continue to be in touch with several “young people” now adults with their own families. They have between them experienced most forms of care from adoption to residential homes and prison. They experience a different form of loneliness. This is the loneliness of loss of roots, of belonging, of an assured place in the world, and of no family of their own. They are alone. Even when their care experience has been good they feel alone . They do not have the reassurance of a presence of unconditional love that will walk alongside them wherever life takes them. In this lonely existence we can begin to see how many of their poor life choices may relate to the filling of this chasm; choices that will fill the emptiness; that will drain the vacuum filled with despair, pain, anger and frequent self-hatred.

My friend David Akinsanya wrote recently in the Guardian( www. theguardian.com/profile/david-akinsanya)  of how the birth of his son gave him a reason to live, a reason to be and to experience real love and happiness at last. He was in care throughout his childhood  and apparently successful as an adult he had waited all his life to feel this love and sense of self. He is now in his 50’s. He is no longer alone in the world.

What can we do as social workers. First we need to reconnect with the idea that our families, children and young people are not just cases to be managed, and their lives not  just producers of statistics for inspectors and politicians but real,human,vulnerable and sharers of the same emotions as us. It may be a current buzz word but I am a fan of the ideas behind co-production or working together with our families in an equal relationship. But Jo Cox wanted us to think about the practical small things that we can all do every day that will make a BIG difference to others lives. We can do this as professionals. The next time we are in court with a family offer them a lift,  wait with them, buy them a coffee, walk with them out of court because that congratulatory talk with the barrister can wait. Be alongside them. Remember with a young person the day their parent died or to congratulate them on their exam results and send a personal card  rather than a text. How about being with parents on”contact” visits rather than using ancillary workers, drive them there and get rid of impersonal taxi rides. And never ever give bad news over the phone unless impossible to do otherwise, visit. I could go on but you get the idea.

These are smallBIG things that may for just a moment make the world seem a less lonely and scary place.


The Has Been Cavalry

A quote from the wonderful Jon Boden’s lyrics on the album Songs from the Floodplain as a starting point. If you haven’t heard it then here’s a link http://www.jonboden.com. But I am not ready to “line up with the has been cavalry” quite yet…..or am I ? One wonders indeed what it is a retired social worker can do with themselves. Don’t get me wrong , I would not be retired at all if I thought there was something I could offer to the profession without huge cost to everything I hold dear. But having compromised for some long time in order to earn a bob or two I found I could not continue any longer. This sounds like I was working simply for the money. Not at all, I could manage on my pension but I loved working in children’s services and the money was a bonus. I believed, that although I disagreed with many things about the organisation, the clients were getting a good service from me. I was able to use my experience to work round some of the nonsense in the  department.  I gave up when the organisation was more interested in the completion of an education plan on time than finding a new foster home for a deeply unhappy young woman who had been ejected from yet another family. Keeping Oftsed happy is the new currency. Perhaps I should feel some sympathy for the managers who will have to answer difficult questions or some collective responsiblity for the organisation but I didn’t. I was prepared to deliberately let the organisation down so I thought I had better retire. Or was it retreat? So what can be done with a retreating vintage social worker?

We are a new profession, at least in its modern version, so we have not yet encountered the issue of a retiring group of career social workers. Previously staff were mostly volunteers or middle class ladies doing good community works through charitable organisations, churches etc. They rarely needed to earn their living from their charitable works. I recall when I started my first job as a Social Welfare Officer trainee in the old Welfare Department that there were officers there who had got their jobs from adverts in “The Lady”. The Lady, for those who don’t know, is the UK’s longest running women’s magazine started in 1885. It was the end of the 1960’s and who knows what these ladies thought of the hippy styled young woman with ideas of social change and justice that joined their ranks. They probably thought the profession was going rapidly downhill.

History footnote. The Welfare Dept was one of the pre Seebohm departments of the county council. It provided services for the elderly including accommodation in Elderly Person’s homes under Part 3 of the National Assistance Act 1948. Under the same legislation it provided temporary   accommodation for homeless families. Services were also provided for those with physical disabilities including the blind and deaf who had specialist workers.

The profession has made huge and rapid changes since those days. More Welfare Dept stories later! The speed of change has been so rapid it seems to have left us collectively gasping for breath. It is difficult in the chaos of rapid change to hold to the core beliefs and principles that underpin everything we do and are. I hope this blog will help us to do that, to hold on , to believe and to remember why we work in the space between the state and the poor and marginalised. (Holland and Scourfield 2015. A Very Short Introduction to Social Work). We need urgently to regain our sense of self and the confidence we felt at the beginning of the modern-day profession as in doing this we may be clearer about our direction of travel in the next phases of our development. If we do not do this then there are others who will take advantage of our chaos and make decisions for us. We currently have an administration who have brought forward a bill which will mean we are the first caring profession to be directly controlled by government.

So there is a role for a retreating vintage social worker. I can tell stories, share ideas and thoughts that may help us to put into context the issues we face today by using our past glories and errors. When life was simpler it was easier not to lose contact with our beliefs and values or our reasons for getting up in the morning. So starting with a definition that everyone including our clients can understand would be helpful, or looking to our professional knowledge and skills to help ourselves or giving us back our desks  in an act of respect for our professional status might be a beginning. We seems to have more in common with our clients in being an oppressed minority than we would like to think.

So I am “lining up with the has been cavalry” and we are marching forward. It is a line of attack for our profession and our clients. It will be an interesting journey. We may even have a laugh on the way. So come with me and enjoy your, my, our profession again.