Social work, child care and history of social work

“The Streets of London”. Apprenticeship Part 2

So why do we do it? We are in the middle of yet another crisis with a  government who wants to pass a bill to take control because they see us as a bunch of hand wringing lefties who believe in social justice and that we need somehow to rid this nonsense from the profession . That’s me paraphrasing Michael Gove! Our public profile must be at its lowest since my days in the old Welfare Department. There are lots of blogs and Fb posts that tell us about the pressures , why it is an awful job and how to take care of ourselves and survive. All of which is fine but the key to survival may be in understanding  why do we do it at all, our own individual motivation.

I can only really answer for me and I remember when I left St John’s in Tiffield the then Director, Ian Winter, saying he was curious about why I was in social work. It is difficult for us to explore our own motivation but maybe if we can it will help us to understand and develop personal patterns of resilience to the stresses of the work.  If we can, in the midst of chaos , remind ourselves of those original drives then we can pull ourselves through the difficult moments.Of course there is unlikely to be one single reason and for me there were many threads to my arrival at the apprentice’s desk.Oh yes… we all had our own desks then.

I have often held Ralph McTell, a brilliant folk singer /songwriter for those who don’t know, at least partly responsible. In 1969 “The Streets of London” was first recorded on the album Spiral Staircase and I could not get the images out of my head. They were brilliantly crafted and conveyed the reality of life for too many. I wanted to do something to change things for these lost people. McTell’s words connected with earlier pictures in my mind, experiences and feelings which I had not yet processed in a way that I could use. As a child I remember standing in our front room crying as I watched the family opposite evicted from their home. Dad told me to come away not because he didn’t want me to see but because he felt that their pain should not be intruded upon by observers. They stood on the pavement, furniture, bags, kids and dog, lost and ashamed. I had never witnessed such a scene. I worried for days about them. I was 11. I worried about the drunk and sick man I saw with Mum on the platform at Pitsea station, would he get home and be OK. I worried about the child lost in Woolworths in Grays  and what would happen if she could never find her parents. I worried about anyone I saw begging ,sleeping rough or fallen in the street. This was not uncontrolled anxiety but a genuine concern that they would come out of the crisis and be OK.  I wanted to know who was going to help them. I was a child and it could not be me.

My view of these individual images changed as I got older and widened to the political and societal view of injustice that I still hold today. Again music and to an increasing extent drama and literature helped to form my wider view of the injustice in the system for the vulnerable. The 1950s-60s saw the rise of “kitchen sink drama” and these plays and films has a huge impact on me. Cathy Come Home in 1966,stunned me and still does. Other pieces like Up the Junction , Poor Cow, Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey all drove home to me that there was such injustice in the system  it was not possible for the poor and vulnerable to fight against it alone. Of course many things have changed for the better since then, legislation on abortion and homelessness for example, but the underlying issue of the appalling treatment by the establishment of the less able and fortunate remains . “I Daniel Blake” showed this with a horrifying clarity recently and hopefully this will have the same impact on a new generation of social workers as the earlier works had on me.

It was all beginning to make sense to me. Is there a religious context to all of this? It is not to be dismissed. Many of the great philanthropists and pioneers of social welfare came from a religious perspective in their care of the needy, and our profession owes their brave pioneering spirit a very great deal. It is not always openly acknowledged as a driver to our work today but I expect that its teaching on brotherly love is embedded in many of our souls. My Christian upbringing  taught me a moral code that I have carried with me always. I was impressed as a child by stories of caring and healing and the idea that there was someone watching over everyone to keep them safe. ” He sees the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street”. These ideas were refined later. But while I was held by these ideas I was also in the Girl Guides whose focus on community service appealed too. The Guide Law said I should try to do a good turn every day. Nothing wrong with that as a moral guideline.

Later I began to see that while I could make an individual difference there needed to be a political will to change the structure of society so that we eventually could get rid of the Victorian notion of the undeserving poor, that somehow it was all their own fault and if they simply behaved like the rest of us then everything would be well.I struggle with this view today; it makes me angry still. The notion that anyone I have met through my work is somehow a lesser person for their troubles hurts me .

So my motivations are threads that have run through my life from childhood. It is these memories and ideals that have sustained me through nearly 50 years and it is these I try and recall when faced with the chaos and traumas that we face daily. I also try to remember them when faced with bureaucratic nonsense and computer driven poor practice. It helps me focus on the important things.  My survival mechanism,or anchor, is to sing a verse or two of the Streets of London in my head and remember that there are those for whom there appears to be no route to a meal and a warm bed  at the end of a long day.

Thanks Ralph and all the others who got me to the apprentices desk and kept me more or less sane all this time.


Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London homeless-2

I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.

( Streets of London. McTell )

Check it out on You Tube or Ralph McTell’s web page



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.  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.