Louisa Smith, Senior Children’s Social Worker at North Lincolnshire Council
My journey into children’s social work was somewhat unconventional. As a teen, I left behind what had been an affluent way of life and chose to live as a new age traveller. For three years, I lived hand-to-mouth on minimal food and money, often sleeping in tents, fire engines and buses, and would pick fruit to earn money. Eventually I went on to marry and have three children, but after each pregnancy I suffered from severe Post Natal Depression. I soon reached a point where I felt I needed to do something different so one Friday, I walked into my local college and asked what they could offer me. By the following Tuesday I’d started a Degree in Social Science.
At school, I’d had no interest in education but at university I couldn’t absorb it fast enough. It took over my whole life and three years later, I came out of university with a First Class Honours degree. With my new found love of education I decided to carry on with my studies with a Master’s degree in Social Work. But fearful that working around people with mental health and other issues would set me back mentally, I wasn’t sure about doing it as a career.
But as time went on, I found that my panic, anxiety and depression had started to diminish and that the course was actually doing me good. I also realised that I had way more skills than I ever thought I had and that my age and life experiences allowed me to see things from lots of different perspectives. My final work placement at North Lincolnshire Council’s Child Protection team was to be a real turning point for me when, despite me believing otherwise, one of my managers told me what an amazing job I was doing. This gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to pursue children’s social work as a career.
I stayed on at North Lincolnshire Council after I graduated in 2014 and have stayed there since. My first job as a children’s social worker involved me helping families where children were at risk from things like neglect, physical, sexual or emotional harm. I would work closely with families, making plans with them alongside local support agencies, such as mental health, education, and drug and alcohol services, in establishing how we could best support them. In children’s social work, the goal is to always find long-term, sustainable solutions and get parents to a point where they can independently recognise, manage and remove any risks to a child within the family home, to the point where our involvement is no longer necessary.
Issues facing many families are never straightforward and there are rarely any quick-fix solutions. But we often find that issues such as long-term substance misuse, domestic abuse and mental health in particular, can sometimes create barriers to a family engaging with us and their local support services. In such instances we would hold formal discussions with the family so they can fully understand our concerns and what the potential outcomes could be. At the same time, we would also consider what else we could do to support a family in addressing any issues.
In most cases, this usually gives a family the push they need to turn things around. But there are rare instances where unfortunately, we don’t see an improvement and, after all avenues have been exhausted, the case is then referred to the family courts. Court proceedings are most definitely not the norm and there are many steps, usually over a long period of time, before this happens.
In my current role within the Council’s specialist Court and Permanence team, my main work involves assessing and supporting families through the court system. The removal of any child from the family home is one of the most difficult parts of my job, both on a professional and a personal level. But even in those extreme cases, I would continue to work with the family to offer support in helping them to make the necessary changes, with a view to bringing the family back together.
In the vast majority of these cases I am able to help and reunite families and it’s those positive outcomes that hold the greatest rewards for me; the Dad who was able to overcome his addiction and be reunited with his daughter, or the Mum who was struggling in all areas of her life but was able to keep her baby, or people I bump into at the supermarket who greet me warmly and tell me how well they and their children are doing thanks to my help and support. Knowing I’ve helped these people and to be able to tell them, “you’ve done it”, is simply amazing.
I think children’s social work is often both misunderstood and underrated because I can honestly say it’s changed my life for the better. It’s definitely a vocation that becomes part of your personality, where you feel like you’re having a positive impact on the world, and has made me realise I’m a much stronger person than I ever thought I was. Because of all the fantastic people I’ve met, I wouldn’t change one minute of it, from the worst to the best bits. Children’s social work is important because life can be hard for everyone. But if we can help to bolster and strengthen a family in need so that a child feels safe, secure and loved unconditionally, they’ll stand the best chance of leading a successful, happy life and maybe even carry that forward when parenting their own children.