Sarah Sherwin, Specialist Advanced Social Work Practitioner at Wakefield Council
As a teenager, I was raised by my grandparents. It was this, as well as having a child with autism, that sparked my interest in working with children with additional needs. After leaving school, I managed a residential home for children with additional needs and after several years, I achieved an NVQ qualification, with a view to becoming a teacher. But it was during my undergraduate Foundation Degree in Support in Education that I became drawn to alternative career paths, with all roads seeming to lead me back to children’s social work. It was at this point I chose to complete my studies with a BA (Hons) degree in Children and Young People and a Master’s degree in social work.
In my current role as a specialist advanced social work practitioner, I support care leavers aged between 16 and 25 in their transition from children’s, to adult social care. Most, but not all of the young people I work with have additional needs or complex medical conditions, many of whom may also be struggling with trauma from their early years. It’s my job to continually assess those needs and put together what’s known as a pathway plan to make sure they have the right support in place, whether that’s through agencies that offer mental health, medical or adult social care services, or other specialist support groups and organisations.
Few 18 year-olds are able to live independently and this can be especially so for care leavers with additional needs. The type of support I provide depends on the individual’s circumstances but in all cases, I work with the young person when establishing a plan. It's about mapping their pathway with them, asking them where they would like to go next, what we can help them with and making sure that’s achievable. They, and often their families, are the best people to decide what they need because it’s about them and are more likely to invest in that plan if they’re there to do it with you. Sometimes a severe complex medical condition, severe trauma or an additional need, can affect a young person’s ability to make a decision. In such cases we would involve a specialist assessor who looks at the best way of helping them to make a decision for themselves if they’re able to, and to ensure that their rights are always protected.
I also support young people with practical tasks, such as taking them to university open days, assisting them with medical appointments or going out for a birthday meal, which can become confusing or overwhelming for anyone with additional needs. Where there’s been trauma, I can also access anything from specialist counselling to less well-known about support services, such as cookery or craft classes, to help aid their emotional wellbeing. Sometimes they might ask me to find something from their past that is preventing them from moving forward and one of the many rewards of my job is being able to lift that worry or pressure off a young person’s shoulders.
For me, one of the biggest challenges in my job is knowing I can’t always change things instantly. Getting a young person to engage, for example, takes time, which is both natural and understandable given we come into their lives when they and their family are going through a really difficult time. It’s important to come to the role in a non-judgemental way and I believe my own childhood experiences have helped me to understand and reflect on why families are faced with certain barriers, be it drug, alcohol, domestic abuse or mental health-related issues. First and foremost we’re there to help and to keep families together. It’s about utilising the right skills to build relationships and break down those barriers so that you can come away having helped that person. When you end your involvement with a young person you know that it’s happened because things are better.
There’s a perception that you need to be academic to do this job. But as a non-academic person who chose to go back into education, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I’m proof that you can come from any background. I work with people who come from all walks of life who each bring something different to the role and this is something that really benefits the families and young people we work with.
I would say to anyone thinking about doing this as a career, not to let anything deter you. This is an amazing, rewarding job where you’re continually learning. You get to meet some fantastic young people with great aspirations who just need the right people with the right skills and qualities to help them achieve that.