Social workers: the unsung heroes of the society

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Natasha Forrester is a criminal justice social worker, who does paperwork and deals with clients, 16 hours every day. Her clients misbehave with her, give her death threats and sometimes physically attack her. She tells us why the never ending paper work and rebellious clients are worth the risk.

I had to meet  Natasha Forrester in a hospital,  where she was dealing with one of her clients. She didn’t have time to fit me in her schedule, as she has to spend a minimum of three hours with all of her many clients. I was waiting near her client’s hospital room, when I heard a loud crash from the inside, putting me on guard.

“I can’t do this anymore!” cried a boy. “It’s going to be alright. You’ve survived the abuse. You can survive the recovery,” came Forrester’s soothing voice. After 15 minutes of persuasion, the boy seemingly calmed down.

A Scottish woman in her early thirties, walks out of the room and seats herself next to me. Forrester is a criminal justice social worker residing in Edinburgh.

She is in charge of supervising and monitoring offenders, to ensure that they have reformed their behaviour and are abiding the law.

Recently, reports about how the daughter of a head teacher was taken away from her, as she was deemed ‘mentally ill’ has been making news. This was the result of a mix up of the medical records by social workers.

This has directed a lot of criticism and disdain towards social workers by the general public. “The media is always quick to give social workers bad press. It was very unfortunate, but this doesn’t happen all time. However, we social workers are accountable with regard to our work. We work with incredibly vulnerable people and are being paid by the public to do so. It is vital that we have to document evidence about what we are doing and why, so there is a lot of duress,” she tells me.

Social workers like Forrester are usually in the news because of negative press.Her achievements and hard work are undermined and hardly ever mentioned in the media. Those around Forrester are under the assumption that since she has volunteered to do this job, she’s just doing her duty. Any compliments or awards are unnecessary, as she is paid well by the government.

Others view her as an overly enthusiastic and empathetic person, who cannot discern the frustration of a normal individual, as she always works with a diligent smile – the typical image a social worker is expected to maintain.

She is perceived to belong to a different species and must not complain as she decided to be in this profession. Some individuals disregard her contribution as ‘uneconomical’. Though their presumption about her personality is incorrect, she conceals all her emotions behind her warm, placid smile. She has been a social worker for more than six years, but rarely displays any sign of weakness or irritation.

While she has to deal with the public’s perception of her, it’s her determination to assist her clients that overrules any other hurdle or emotional turmoil. Talking about the best aspects of her job, she agrees that her profession has some professional benefits.

She has a well-reputed job, which reflects positively in her career prospects.  She also has financial security, with no fear of unemployment or uncertainty of the future. She is incessantly envied for it,  as she feels confident in her ability to work in the public sector and wishes to develop on all her transferable skills.

Forrester’s dark eyes match her hair, and she is unexpectedly mellow – considering the outburst she witnessed a few moments ago.  She is very buoyant and active, despite the dark circles and fatigued look on her face. Even her posture is relaxed. “You become tougher as a woman and multi-skilled as a professional,” she informs me. We’re sitting in the large corridor, with white walls and black chairs. Though we are located away from the psychiatry ward, we are close enough for Forrester to re-enter in case of an emergency. A social worker can’t be too careful.

Her client was receiving medication from the nurse at the moment, so she could do the interview for a while. Forrester, who wanted to help the whole community, always had an affinity for law.

With her need to integrate every member of her society, she started working for the local government in 2009. She has watched from afar and read several cases of how young convicts end up in prisons right after they’ve been released, because they weren’t guided properly.

They were treated as outcasts and ostracised. They didn’t receive the opportunity to start a new life. With her tough personality, she has helped families mend their relationships with the convicts in the family. After noticing them being labelled ‘cretins’ or ‘yobs’, she worked on rebranding their image as members of a society, not as prisoners.

As her career began, she was bombarded with an avalanche of predicaments.  The most challenging among them is how the councils cut spending on social services staff.            Around £746 million for adults and £147 million for children between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 were cut according to UNISON, UK’s largest public service union.

The central government has cut £5 billion from the grants it made to local councils in the mentioned time period. This affects her work of a criminal justice social worker. It is extremely challenging and unrealistic to expect clients to change their behaviour when they don’t have their basic needs like housing and food. It is the lack of these resources that usually impels convicts to commit heinous crimes.

A criminal justice social worker’s key role is ensuring that the client is engaging and complying with the expectation of the Court, helping their client modify their behaviour in such situations is unquestionably difficult. Due to lack of resources, Forrester is unable to provide the needed support to her clients. She finds this absolutely ludicrous: “My main concern is the lack of resources for the people that I work with, particularly challenges in housing stock, excessive use of sanctioning in benefits and difficulty in accessing mental health services, I can’t fulfill my role as a social worker. When the press accuses us of not doing our work, why don’t they bother to find out we can’t execute our duties?”

UNISON conducted a survey to gauge how this affected social workers. About 61 per cent of social workers have reported that that their ability to help their clients was reduced by the cuts and lack of resources. Almost 42 per cent of respondents voiced their serious concerns about one or more of their clients. Approximately 30 per cent of these social workers  have serious concerns about not having appropriate time with a certain child, adult or family, despite working 9 – 16 hours every day.

This has further ramifications on Forrester as well. “It’s hard to see the clients struggling at times and as a professional, you do come to genuinely care about your clients. It can be challenging to witness clients in difficult situations and feel powerless at times to support them,” she reveals. Forrester also shares responsibility to protect children and vulnerable adults. She finds it hard to make the separation from her personal and professional life.

She worries about her clients and it becomes unhealthy to ruminate about work, even when she’s off the clock. To a convict who is back in his old environment, and must coalesce with the society, but is barely is coping – the unyielding Forrester is only source of leverage.

Some of her colleagues have relentlessly sympathised with their client, and they began to suffer from depression. According to Health.com, social workers are the fourth in the list among the top ten professionals most prone to depression. Though it is reiterated among social workers that they must maintain healthy work and life balance, many workers contemplate about work even after their working hours.

It’s the same for Forrester, as some of the stories the clients tell her, remain in her memory and she inevitably thinks about them. But she emphasises: “But I can’t afford to get depressed, otherwise I can’t help them.”

She’s frustrated that the media doesn’t give enough coverage to this issue. The media highlights how depression affects women, but it never mentions how different the arena is for social workers, while they battle it.The current generation of social workers are at risk of working while they are depressed. The number of depressed social workers isn’t recorded by the Office of National Statistics.

But King’s College London published a ‘Literature review of roles and issues within the social work profession in England’. As per this review, there is a high chance of burn out and severe stress for social workers in England. Out of the 50 social workers interviewed, 70 per cent were consuming anti-depressants.

The situation is very alarming, Forrester states: “Depression often influences work performance, to the point where some of my colleagues needed some time off work. They would take months to recuperate and struggle to maintain their mental stability. It hasn’t happened to me yet and I won’t allow it to.”

As per an article published in the British Journal of Social Work, about 40 per cent of social workers between the ages of 40 – 49 are the most prone to depression. They take a period of one to six months sabbatical to recover. Ironically, 24 per cent and 18 per cent of those who work in the area of mental health and adult services suffer from severe depression.

This causes social workers to make grave mistakes, like with the case of the head teacher’s daughter being put in foster care. But Forrester doesn’t defend or condone such mistakes: “It is my duty to take care of young children and vulnerable adults, and I can’t afford to be vulnerable and make mistakes myself. Another person’s life is at stake.”

While the risk of psychological imbalance is high, her physical safety is also on the line. Women tend to be involved in the ‘frontline’ work, while men tend to be in management.

She has to work with a majority of male clients, who were prison convicts, and the general belief that ‘assault is a part of social care’ doesn’t ensure her physical safety.

Forrester has been meeting other social workers and their management, talking about how they can equip social workers to defend themselves in dangerous situations. Community Care, a popular magazine for social workers published a survey that 85 per cent of workers experienced sexual harassment, assault and verbal abuse.

The harassment was either carried out by the client or their relative. These workers either have had hot drinks thrown at them, stabbed with a weapon, harassed on the street or held hostage in the client’s home.

Forrester says that experiencing such incidents is an inevitable part in the daily life of a social worker. There are several reports in local newspapers throughout Great Britain about violent behaviour against social workers.

This is a very serious issue, as about 75 per cent of social workers in Great Britain are female, according to the General Social Care Council. Not all of social workers are emotionally nor psychologically trained to appropriately handle such dangerous circumstances. “Some of my clients have acted out and yelled at me, misbehaved and given me death threats. So far, nothing too serious has happened to me,” she mentions.

While talking to one of her clients, she accidently tripped and the client dropped the bottle of wine. That triggered something in him, he swore at her and almost attacked her, but Forrester instantly poured water over him. “I know what can calm him down. Water immobilises him,” she informs. Her strategy for dealing with her most violent clients is mostly feigning indifference and hiding her emotions.

“I’m called a ‘bitch’ by young boys, and older men tell me to ‘go tend to my young ones’. My clients think I’m pestering them. I use simple psychology to use their own thinking pattern against them. Once they see that you aren’t affected, they will undoubtedly   stop at some point.” she explains. Forrester has not received any kind of formal training to deal with violent situations, and has had to deal with such circumstances alone. This is the same case with other social workers, as 90 per cent of social workers had experienced abuse, assaults and threats.

Community Care found out through a Freedom of Information request in 2010, that across 101 councils, that the overall volume of incidents against social care and support staff has declined, from 16,058 to 13,357 between the year 2007 to 2010.

The number is still shockingly high. These are the number of cases that have been reported, but many cases go unreported as well. Surprisingly, unlike Forrester, two thirds of social workers who did not report incidents to either their employer or the police considered such abuse as a part of their job.

If things get too out of hand, she always reports it to her employer. “We have clear lone working policies and are encouraged to constantly do risk assessment and can do joint work if any issues arise,” Forrester assures. “Not all employers encourage this.”

Likewise, her colleagues have reported cases of assault and abuse to her employer. Though Forrester’s employer has taken action, this isn’t the case with all social workers. As per Community Care magazine, around 70 per cent of the cases that were reported to employers, were not investigated any further.

This lack of response from the employer has an everlasting effect on both the organisation and the social worker. About 59 per cent of social workers who were victims of violence required time off work, 52 per cent needed counselling and 32 per cent required medical treatment.

Though this has happened to some of her colleagues, Forrester isn’t worried. Her manager is in talks with the employer to introduce self- defence and special training classes for all social workers.

“Social workers must be educated on how to deal with such situations or taught self-defence in the wake of these events. They must be reassured of their safety by their employer. Only then will individuals be motivated to become social workers. The government and managers must contribute too,” she says.

Forrester is fatigued – the sleepless nights, never ending reports and uncontrollable clients, have taken a toll on her. Despite this, she’s not willing to give up. She considers herself an unstoppable force of nature. She may not be invincible, but she thinks of herself as Superwoman. Her decision to help her many clients is unwavering. Come what may, she’s ready to take on anything and everything.

“Relax? No, these people have dealt with enough. Who doesn’t make mistakes? They were convicts. Now, they are normal citizens. My clients made mistakes based on their desperate circumstances. They want to reform themselves. They just need help,” she counters. The boy from the hospital room screamed hysterically  again, alerting both of us. “They have a right to normality. I have nothing to be afraid of. If all social workers are given self-defence training, and then they can deal with violent clients,” she says striding back into hospital room, her determination more intact than ever.

 

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Sanjana is a freelance journalist and student at the University of Westminster. She is a feminist who loves to travel. She loves to read, write and do yoga. She is also a women's rights, LGBT and environmental activist.

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