When practice makes imperfect

With one foot in CYCJ and the other in social work practice, David Orr reflects on his time spent with the Centre…

It’s the phones you notice. You are either on one, waiting for one to ring, waiting for someone to answer one or working out whether you have been screened out by Caller I.D. This is one of the things I associate most with the practice of social work. Telephone calls. Sometimes they’re epic. Sometimes they’re short and punchy. Sometimes you are relieved that you’re not in the room with the person at the end of the line for fear that you might be punched! Speaking with a colleague at CYCJ who is fresh from the frontline about his initial reflections on his new surroundings, he noted that spending the day without a phone jammed under one ear developing neck cramp was one of the most notable features of moving from social work practice to the role of Practice Development Advisor.

Now I am experiencing this in reverse and my phone is definitely ringing again. Since mid-September 2014, my secondment at the Centre has been in the process of winding down. The intention is that I make a gradual shift back to my substantive post so that by January 2015 I will have my feet firmly lodged in the practice arena once more. Between now and Christmas, I am dividing my week between CYCJ and practice. This blogpost is a short rumination on the experience and learning to date. I guess it is a bit like a Reflective Journal entry without the pressure of knowing that its content might contribute to whether or not I pass my placement.

A few different folk now have asked me: “How does it feel to be going back?” In criminal and youth justice circles we talk about “re-entry”, “resettlement” and “reintegration” when adults and young people return to their communities following periods in custody. While not wishing to compare my time at the Centre with a prison sentence (!), there is an extent to which I feel as though I have been away from ‘home’ for a while and that going back makes sense. In truth, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Centre and the opportunities the role has provided to meet practitioners from across the country. Whether through delivering training, attending seminars and conferences, supporting the work of Champions Groups or contributing to briefing papers and research projects, there has rarely been a dull day. On the other hand, I think practitioners who enter into roles such as the one I have occupied at the Centre come with a sell-by date. The whole basis of the way that the Practice Development Team works is that it encompasses individuals with recent and relevant experiences and insights from practice. The longer you’re away from practice, the less relevant, I would argue, such experiences and insights become. To take legislation as an example, when I started my secondment the main provisions of the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 were still to come into effect, not least the new grounds of referral. Indeed, when I left practice the talk was still of Supervision Requirements and Place of Safety Warrants. In 2014 we live in a world of Compulsory Supervision Orders (CSOs) whether they are ‘interim’ or not. While I can read legislation printed in black and white, it is not quite the same as experiencing those provisions coming to life in a Children’s Hearing in which important decisions about a young person’s future will be made.

This leads me to one of the other things I have been struck by since returning to practice: the privilege that it is to be a social work practitioner. We are afforded access to the most intimate details about people’s lives. On many if not most occasions, individuals would prefer that such details were not known by others but for a variety of reasons, from harm already caused to fear for the safety of that individual, social workers do become involved. To bastardise the words of Spiderman: “With great access, comes great responsibility”. The risks and rewards of helping and supporting individuals and families at significant and often traumatic points of transition in their lives are major. Sometimes we get things rights and sometimes we get things wrong. However, it is at times less about the outcome and more about the way in which we go about getting there. It is our responsibility not to expect to be trusted but to earn the right to be trusted, not to expect to be respected but to earn the right to be respected. While there are definitely days when the clock strikes 5pm (or more realistically some time after that) and it feels as if you have been chasing your tail all day without much to show for it, you can almost always think of something of value which you have done or helped to make possible. Something that is tangible. For me it is a decent measure of whether a job is worth doing. I am not sure how many investment bankers or tabloid journalists could say the same of their chosen pursuits.

To stave off allegations of sanctimonious piety, let’s turn to some of the features of social work that can make it hard going at times. There is a saying which has been passed down from one generation of social workers to the next over many years: “If it not recorded, it did not happen”. That phrase has no doubt struck great fear into the heart of many a student or newly qualified worker. At its most extreme, “case-noting” becomes an addiction. In my absence, there has been a fair bit of change to our work routines. We have moved to an open-plan office with portable laptops and “touch-down” stations where before it was desktops and roommates. What has not changed though is my case-noting muscle memory. As soon as SWIFT was booted up, I was like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Summaries of “T/C to X”, “Email to Y” and “H/V to Z” were flying off the Dell production line in no time. It is this kind of behaviour which has, I think, led to a situation where social workers can be spending upwards of 50% of their time behind computer screens as highlighted in any number of different reviews and reports. That’s before even getting on to assessment reports, single plans and chronologies!

In fairness, I am my own worst enemy. I struggle to give myself permission to take a breath and think, “Is this really necessary?” “Is this defensive as opposed to defensible practice?” There is always that nagging fear of the moment when the fan is struck and questions are asked. The names Caldwell, Climbie, Connelly, Evans, Hainey and Ness trip off the tongue too easily.  Everyone fails when set against the 20/20 hindsight measuring rod. The times may be changing though. The Reclaiming Social Work model which came to prominence in Hackney has attracted attention further afield, not least in Aberdeen. It is an approach which prioritises systemic work with families and places relationships at the heart of interventions. Certainly it seems that greater time and energy is being invested by local authorities in discussions about how things might be done differently and better than was the case a few years ago.

In the fullness of time, it would be nice to think that as a profession we might be able to develop more flexible ways of working that enable individuals to combine frontline social work practice with other interests (practice development, research, teaching, knowledge exchange). If we look to other professions such as medicine, the most capable practitioners of neuro-surgery can complete their ward rounds on a Monday, be teaching medical students on a Tuesday and undertaking research on a Wednesday. While this comparison is attractive on a superficial level, I am not convinced that it stands up to rigorous scrutiny. One thing that is clear is that a ward round and a social work caseload are two very different things. Service users (for want of a better word) are not patients nor are they customers or consumers. They are people. People with lives that are complex, frustrating, uplifting and unknowable, often all at the same time.

About our blogger

David Orr is a Practice Development Advisor seconded from Edinburgh Young People’s Service (YPS). Read more.

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