Suicide

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Today I briefly experienced one of those events which is completely
out of the ordinary and which makes you take a long internal pause.

I work on the fifth floor of a building which looks out across the
city. This afternoon, my colleague returned to the office and reported
that there was a person standing on top of the building next to us,
threatening to jump.

The office was full of mixed reactions. Everyone’s first reaction,
however, was to run to the window. I knew instinctively that I didn’t
want to see what was happening. I didn’t want to stand and gawp at
someone potentially seconds away from death. And yet, as my
imagination took me to some dark places, I found that I was unable not
to look. I moved to the next room, looked out of the window, and there
she stood.

Without being dramatic, it is genuinely one of the most harrowing
scenes I have ever witnessed. There stood a woman, hands spread like a
crucifix, lost and suffering, standing on the edge of a six storey
building.

I desperately wanted to help her. I wanted to know what had taken her
to this point, on a day just like any other. I was angry for her; that
life is so cruel to people; that they can get to such a point.

I only watched for a few seconds and moved away. There are some things
that do not need to be seen.

As I went back to my desk, I prayed for the woman, whilst two of my
colleagues discussed suicide. One commented that to commit suicide
took “bravery and that not everyone would be able to carry out the
act. Another colleague was very offended by the comment and argued
that it was, in fact, the complete opposite of bravery and an act of
cowardice: “the easy way out”.

It is a common debate, and often one fraught with emotions and pain
from familial experience. I would not want to argue my point too
strongly with anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one through
suicide as each experience has different causes and different effects.
But what I do want to say is that I once read a quote that, to me,
summed up why people can find themselves standing on the edge of a six
storey building:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill
herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract
conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not
because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its
invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself
the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of
a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from
burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still
just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at
the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling
remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s
flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the
slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall;
it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk,
looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the
jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt
flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” ~David
Foster Wallace.

It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames.

A colleague informed me after thirty minutes that she had successfully
been talked down.

I hope and pray that she soon finds a way to face the flames. I hope she knows that she is not alone.Nobody should meet their end that way.

Novs x

Aside

Reid Finlay

In 2010, I started my Social Work Masters. For the first few months of the course I was really struggling. I was several thousand pounds in debt; couldn’t afford to pay rent and could only afford one meal a day. I was working every evening and weekend to try and earn enough to continue my course but I soon realized that I would not be able to sustain my lifestyle for two years. Anyone who has struggled with money will know the pervasive impact it has on your life. It is a source of constant worry, stress and sadness. I was very low for many weeks. Knowing how much I wanted to do Social Work and knowing that I couldn’t afford to, was heartbreaking.

One evening in October, I remember clearly, I was sitting at a bus stop, on the outer suburbs of Sheffield, after another evening shift as a social carer. It was dark and cold and pouring down with rain. My bus was typically late. After forty minutes of waiting I burst in to tears. I remember literally sobbing in the street. Luckily there was no one around to see me as the pathetic mess I was. As I started to pull myself together, my Mum rang me. I still to this day believe that phone call was a miracle.

Mum knew I had been struggling with money and had rung to tell me that her Uncle Reid, who had met me twice as a young child, was willing to pay off all my debts, pay for my rent for two years and provide me with a weekly income. Reid was willing to do all that because he knew from my Mum just how much I wanted to be a Social Worker. Unsurprisingly, I reverted in to uncontrollable sobbing. 

Because of Reid, I was able to continue the course and without the constant worry of lack of money. Reid gave me the two greatest academic years of my life. I spent every day learning how to help people to the best of my ability. He enabled me to spend my time concentrating on the thing I love most in the world.

I completed the course in July of this year and am due to graduate in January. I was waiting until my Graduation Day to tell Reid exactly how much he had done for me; to tell him that completing this Masters and qualifying as a Social Worker is my proudest achievement to date; to tell him thank you.

I found out on Tuesday that Reid passed away in the night. It was sudden but it was peaceful.

I am filled with incredible guilt and sadness that I did not tell Reid what he meant to me sooner. Reid barely knew me but was willing to give his money to see me fulfil my dream. My admiration for him is indescribable. 

My Mum has told me that before he died, Reid put aside enough money for me to start a PHD. Something I desperately want to do but never thought I could afford.

I want you to know Reid, that because of you I spend every day trying to help some of the most vulnerable children in our society. With Social Work I have found my purpose in life. The work I do and the people I work with complete me. 

I am devastated that the world no longer has you in it. My memories of you are as a kind and gentle man and I promise to work tirelessly to ensure that your generosity continues through me. 

All I can really say (and what I should have said a long time ago) is ‘Thank you’.

 

Rest in peace, Reid. xxx

Money For The Poor

This is only a quick post, written so that I don’t throw my laptop against my wall and proceed to knock on my neighbours doors and demand to know if they are one of the idiotic 59% interviewed by Demos.

It is in response to this article I just read: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19792066

I have this same debate at least once a month. Whenever I go for a night out in town, at some point I will always end up giving money to a homeless person. I have one friend whose obsession with dogs is bordering on unhealthy and so if I am with her at the time, I will sit and talk to the homeless person for a while whilst my friend contemplates how she can smuggle the homeless person’s dog in her handbag without anyone noticing.

If I am with other friends, however, an argument will usually follow about how I “shouldn’t give money to those sort or people”. 

Firstly, I am never sure what anyone means when they say “those sort of people”. You just mean “people” right? Because I am pretty sure [although I spent the majority of GCSE Biology writing quotes from The Office on my textbook] we all share similar biological make-ups. Yes, some people dress differently, have different cultures, a different way of life or even different coloured skin, but you can’t separate us in to ‘sorts’. Some people seem to take great pleasure in categorizing other people in to groups that are ‘lower’ than themselves. 

My main problem, however, is why I shouldn’t give a homeless person money. The common argument is, of course:

‘They’ll just spend it on drink or drugs’.

That’s nice. Usually, if I am on a night out in town, the contents of my purse is going on Wetherspoon’s finest pint of Carling. So why shouldn’t I allow someone else to make the same poor choice I’m making? When people refuse to give a homeless person money because “they’ll only spend it on drugs”, a voice in my head screams “What do you want them to spend it on? A three piece suite? A kitchen cabinet? A chandelier for THE HOUSE THEY DON’T SODDING OWN?!’ The response is always:

“You’re making the problem worse”.

I can categorically guarantee that I am not. I would never, ever advocate that someone use drink or drugs as a coping mechanism. When I give a homeless person, who is begging for money, twenty quid, it is so that they can spend it on food and shelter and whatever it is they need to keep them safe for another night. If that person chooses to spend that money on alcohol or drugs then that is their choice. It is not for me to tell them how to spend it. Just like it’s not for that person to tell me not to buy my fifth pint of Carling. We all make poor choices. I don’t have a right to tell other people how to live because I have more money than them. I am not their superior, nor have I experienced their life. It is a sad reality that sometimes, drinking to forget will be the only way to make it to the next morning.

Additionally, I spend eight hours a day working to prevent homelessness and support homeless young people. I am not throwing money at a situation that is infinitely more complex than a lack of money. On a cold, rainy night, however, a twenty pound note may make a little difference.

The article from the BBC exemplifies the superiority people feel they have over those poorer than themselves. To decide whether the idea of giving vouchers to benefits claimants is an acceptable way to treat people, you must simply ask yourself, would I want the government telling me that I can’t have a cigarrette after a long day at work because my voucher will only allow me to buy discount fruit? Ask yourself would you want to be told what and how much you can eat each week? If it’s a no for you, then it should be a no for all people.

 

Novs x

Cup of Tea and A Chat

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I want to tell you about a young girl that I recently worked with. For the purposes of confidentiality, I cannot tell you her name, her age or the context in which I was working with her. But I do want you to know about her.

Eva arrived at my office waiting for an assessment. Most young people who arrive at our office will sit quietly and nervously, unsure about the service we offer. Not Eva. She strode in shouting about her rights and entitlements. She knew what she was owed and she wanted it NOW. Everyone in the office took an immediate disliking to her. I thought she was brilliant.

From the background information I had on Eva, I knew she had effectively brought herself up from the age of six. She was the embodiment of ‘resilience’. Her parents were alive but had nothing to do with her. Occassionally, they drove past her in the street and would wave- but never stop. She had been severely let down by a Social Worker who, at the age of ten, placed her to live with a neglectful male who was no relation to the family but had occassionally done the gardening for Eva’s Grandma. When that foster placement fell through, Eva drifted from friend’s house to friend’s house and by the time she arrived to me, she was living at a forty year old males house who was well-known to the Police for violent offences. Social Services should have been involved and yet Eva was one of those children who managed to slip under the radar by not attending school and changing address frequently.

My first keywork session with Eva was explaining to her that the Sexual Exploitation Service had extreme concerns about her. Explaining to a young girl who has spent time living on the streets, lived with numerous non-familial males and managed to feed and clothe herself for the last few years without much help, that some adults who do not know her, think she may be ‘vulnerable’, is not a fun task I can assure you.  For the first ten minutes I had the words ‘WHO DO THEY THINK THEY ARE?!’ and ‘I’M GONNA SMASH THEIR HEADS IN’ shouted at me. But once that was over, we had a good and honest conversation about how her life looks to other people. From that moment onwards, Eva and I got on like a house on fire.

Eva was one of the first cases I ever managed on my own. And as a young Social-Worker-in-training, I was not aware of how emotionally attached I could get to a ‘service user’. When a new ‘service user’ comes along, not only do we invest our time and energy in them, but we invest our hope, our love and a little of ourselves.

All the professionals who had worked with Eva before assured me that she would not stay with our service for more than a few weeks. The fact that Eva had no stability in her life seemed like a core problem to me and so my main aim became trying to provide that stability. I did this by ensuring that our work together was based more on a critical-friendship than on me playing the Mother she did not have. Eva did not respond well to adults telling her what to do and so I wanted to be someone she could have honest discussions with. She began to see me as a big sister rather than a Social Worker and so I was able to tell her when I thought what she was doing was dangerous or wrong and she would tell me whether she agreed with me (or whether I should “piss off”). In hindsight, building such a close relationship with Eva had damaging consequences for both of us- but at the time it kept her in a safe place for ten months; the longest and most stable placement she had had for years.

Eva and I worked together to get her her first educational qualifications; enrol her on a training course; sort her health problems; keep her out of trouble with the Police; and manage the behaviour that was causing concerns for the Sexual Exploitation Service. Eva made a lot of progress in those ten months and she was close to moving on positively from our service. She had six months to go before she would no longer need support from any service. However, with those six months to go, I had to leave the job I was doing to return to University.

We were taught about Relationship-Based Practice and Endings Theory in Social Work. But until you experience it for yourself, it is hard to realize the importance of managing your relationship with a ‘service user’. Even when you maintain your professional boundaries with a young person, it is all too easy for keywork sessions, after a practical task is completed, to become a long chat. And in those chats you can become further and further involved emotionally with your service user- wholly unintentionally. Even the most experienced Social Workers can find themselves more emotionally invested with a service user than they should be. It’s an innocent, human reaction and often what drove us to do Social Work in the first place.

When I left my job, Eva did not take it well. She refused to engage with any other workers. She seemed to think that any other worker couldn’t possibly understand her like I do and she didn’t want to start again from scratch. When I returned back to the service a month later to say ‘hi’ to everyone, one of the workers pulled me aside. They told me that Eva had left the service and was now a missing person. She was last reported to be seen with a male that was known to be a sexual exploitation gang leader and she was almost certainly homeless. The news broke my heart in a way I have never experienced before.

I can go days without thinking about Eva. Other nights I wake up in the middle of the night and just think about the work we did together; what I could have done differently; how I could have stopped this from happening; whether I should have stopped this from happening; wondering where she is now; wondering if she’s okay; wondering if she’s waiting for me to come and save her. Sometimes I get up and put a coat on, ready to go out and find her. But I don’t know where she is. Or where to begin looking.

Everytime I see a homeless person, I instantly think of her. Sometimes I sit and talk to that person; maybe to get rid of the guilt. Other times I walk home as quickly as possible and burst in to tears.

Some people would say that you cannot let your job affect you this much. And from working with Eva I have worked hard to protect myself and young people from developing the same dependence. It was a painful and costly mistake, but one born out of the desire to help.

Social Workers, Youth Workers, Community Group Workers are criticized, condemned, laughed at and even demonized, but what we do is hard and the things we encounter are traumatic. We fight causes that many others see as hopeless. We fight for a better society. We fight even though we know we cannot always win. We carry the burden that many in society fail to even recognize exists. And often we fail. Eva was not the first person to be let down and she will not be the last.

And that pain I feel about Eva, I know is shared by many people I have trained and worked with. It makes you want to work harder; to study more and to reflect upon your practice so that you don’t make the same mistake again.

Any professional who works with vulnerable and disaffected children will be quickly named, blamed and shamed for the smallest mistake. But we work in a challenging and risky environment and suffer enough without the villification of the tabloid newspapers. Criticism from supervisors or journalists is mere external noise to the guilt and pain you feel internally when you know you could have done something better. I cannot imagine the torment Social Workers who face Serious Case Reviews go through when a child in their care dies. But I am sure that for the vast majority, their intention was good and like most youth and Social Workers, their motivation was to make a child’s life better.

My Nanna may always have wanted me to be a Barrister, but this job is challenging enough.

Novs x

Olympics (and Kenneth Branagh) Inspiring A Generation

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Prior to the Olympic torch arriving in Sheffield, I was the equivalent
of the Grinch at Christmas. I did not want the word ‘Olympic’ uttered
to me. The reason being that the Olympics is costing Britain over £10billion.

And yet at the same time we have approximately 75,000 young people classed as homeless in this country; 5.9 million homes in England fail to meet the Government’s Decent Home Standard; more than one million children live in overcrowded housing; and 3.6 million children in the United Kingdom live in poverty after their housing costs have been paid.

Poverty is destroying British Citizen’s lives and yet it exists in a
country where £1.9million is spent on a single fireworks display.

On the day the torch was passing through Sheffield, I was on a bus
with Jane*, a young girl I work with. Jane lives in a very deprived
area of Sheffield and both her parents are on minimum wage. She is
vibrant, funny and intelligent.

As we drove through the city we saw thousands of people lining the
streets, ready to welcome the torch. As Jane commented, it was pretty
odd knowing that all these people were queuing to see a flame: ‘If
they want to see fire they should come down our local and watch ‘Jimmy
the Fire-Setter’ burn it down… every week’.

As the bus passed row upon row of people, Jane continued to tell me
how much she wanted to go to University. She spoke of it without
expectation but also without despair; Jane seemed to accept, almost
without emotion, that girls from her area don’t go to University. Even
if Jane could get a student loan, her Mum needs her at home to look
after her siblings as child care is simply not an affordable option.
Even if childcare was an option, aspiration and ambition is viewed as
‘idealistic’ by her Dad.

Poverty doesn’t just eat at an individual’s resources; it burrows
itself in to families and defines whole communities.

The crowds for the torch stretched for miles and holding back these
crowds were railings. I could not help but think to myself how much
all these railings would have cost. And how much the Olympic stage,
set up in the city centre, cost. And how much it cost to hire Keith
Lemon to come and be ‘kooky’ on that stage. Probably enough to cover
Jane’s University fees and her Mum’s child care.

But like I said, poverty means more than a lack of finances.

And this is where the Olympics is a good thing.

Now I’m not going to lie; the thing that changed my view on the
Olympics wasn’t the parade of hundreds of countries around the world,
nor the symbolic uniting of those countries in a stunning 50ft torch.
It wasn’t watching Kirani James win the first ever medal for Grenada.

Nope. My initial softening came when Kenneth Brannagh stepped out at
the Opening Ceremony as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. My attendance at
school wasn’t exemplary, to say the least, but if there is one thing I
can guarantee, it’s that I did not miss a single English lesson where
a Shakespeare film was shown with Kenneth in. And my English teacher
rather cunningly knew this too.

The man makes me melt.

As soon as he strode proudly, elegantly, courageously (KENNETH, I LOVE
YOU) in to the centre, I knew that I was going to have to take back at
least 50% of the anti-Olympic rants I’d had over the last month.

However, as the Games have progressed, I am happier and happier to do
so. The Olympics provides inspiration on an almost unparalleled level.

This is the first time every country in the Olympics has a female
representative. If that doesn’t make you want to blast out Spice Girls
on full volume and pull your best (and well-practiced) ‘Girl Power’
pose, then I don’t know what does.

There is something unavoidably heart-warming about watching athletes, such as Greg Rutherford, achieve something they have “dreamed of (their) whole life” after years of work and nearly quitting. After the medal ceremony, Greg stated that ” I’ve got a pretty good life, I cannot lie. Everybody has worked so hard for me”.  So many people have worked extraordinarily hard to help Greg achieve his dream.

My issue is not that I believe athletes don’t deserve to have people invest in and celebrate their dreams and abilities. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. My issue is that I want the same investment to exist for all people, whatever their dream or talent be.

I work as a Social Worker because I want people to be the best and
happiest they can be. Of course, a lot of the money spent on the celebrations could have been more carefully thought-through. (A stage for Keith Lemon is NEVER something I am happy to see money spent on). However, what the Olympics has made me realize is that begrudging those that are happy and successful does not bring about equality any faster. Rather, I have begun to take great comfort over the last few days, sitting back in front of the television, feet up, cuppa in hand, knowing that anything is possible.

And I think that for these few weeks, young people, like Jane, around Britain will be sitting at home realizing the same thing and knowing that they can go to University.

Novs x

Youth Justice Will Help You Lose 4 Stone In A Week

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I have been taking some herbal pills, called Acai berries, for four months. The Daily Mail dubbed these pills “‘botox in a bottle’ or ‘youthberry’ because of its amazing ability for weight loss”. I religiously take three pills a day and since doing so I have lost three stone. I feel so much better for it and am finally within my BMI. The anti-oxidants have cleansed my body and boosted my metabolism. Acai berries really do contribute to rapid weight loss.

Except, of course, they don’t.

If I had been thinking rationally, I would have realized at the point of reading the Daily Mail review, that if they’re championing Acai, then the pills definitely don’t work. However, I seem to have convinced myself (and everyone in the office) that these pills DO work. My weight loss is nothing to do with the fact that my new job has created a lifestyle change where I can no longer eat all day, every day. Nor is it anything to do with the fact that my car has broken and I have had to start walking everywhere. Nope. It’s just the pills.

People know, deep-down, that diet pills don’t work. It’s a truth that no-one wants to openly acknowledge. Like when you organize a BBQ in England and convince yourself that it won’t rain that weekend. It’s a lie we tell ourselves in order to fight off the miserable reality that is British weather and Asda microwave meals. I’ve convinced myself that diet pills work to fight off the reality that if I want to lose weight I have to go to the gym and be the fat, red, sweaty girl who sits between the woman who has the body of a super-model and apparently has an inability to sweat; and the gorgeous man who makes you go ten times redder than you already are. That’s reality. And I don’t like it 

The Youth Justice System is similar to diet pills. More specifically, the programmes that are put in place to deal with the most prolific and high risk offenders in our community, are like diet pills 

One of the main aims of the Youth Justice Board is ‘to prevent offending and reoffending by children and young people under the age of 18’. Nationally, an Intensive Supervision and Surveillance (ISS) Programme is offered to Courts to say that offenders can be dealt with in the community rather than sent to prison. The ISS programme promises to: ‘address the underlying causes of the offending’; ‘manage the risks posed by the young person to the community’; ‘stabilise what is often a very chaotic lifestyle’; and ‘help the young person lead an independent life free of offending’ (Youth Justice Board website).

Except of course, it doesn’t.

Re-offending rates consistently remain around the 70% mark  (http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/statistics/youth-justice/yjb-statistics-10-11.pdf/). The Youth Justice System is not successfully meeting the Youth Justice Board’s main aim. It’s almost as if evidence-based practice doesn’t exist in the world of Youth Justice. But like diet pills, no one wants to openly admit it, because it would result in a lot of work.

There are two things that need to be noted: firstly, that those young people on ISS programmes are some of the most heavily entrenched offenders and come from extremely chaotic and damaging backgrounds; therefore there is no quick-fix. Secondly, the Youth Justice Board’s aim is unrealistic. They will never prevent all offending. Crime is a social construct and will always exist. However, it is apparent through my work within the Youth Justice System that we aren’t giving the most serious offenders the right support. We may never get rid of all crime, but we can surely reduce the reoffending rate from 70%?!

High caseloads, poor resources and lack of training mean that in reality a young person on the ISS programme turns up to the Youth Justice office three times a week to be asked if they’re okay and then sent away. The rest of the time the Youth Justice Officer in charge will be ringing around schools and colleges ensuring the young person is attending education; completing risk assessments on paper; attending approximately five million* social care meetings a month (*accurate statistics); completing risk assessments on paper; liaising with the police; completing risk assessments on paper and typing up every conversation they’ve had with everyone. Oh, and typing up risk assessments on paper. Whilst all these things are important, it leaves very little time to spend any time with the young person, never mind try and address offending behaviour in a meaningful manner.

Maybe things would be different if resources in the community hadn’t been almost completely obliterated. Previously, if a young person was involved in gun crime, there was a targeted gun crime programme that Youth Justice workers could send that young person to on a weekly basis. Now, however, that service does not exist, so Youth Justice workers are supposed to deliver that service; workers who have no knowledge or experience in educating young people on gun crime. If programmes existed in the community to provide meaningful intervention, where young people actually interacted positively with professionals over a number of hours a week (rather than a ten minute check-up), then maybe we would see some positive results. But group work programmes and relationship-based practice are massively undervalued in Social Work at present and these programmes simply don’t exist.

For those quick-thinkers out there who are shouting: ‘Well, why don’t you just send them to prison then rather than try and manage them in the community?’; prison is equally ineffective and arguably causes more problems in the long-run. The term ‘University of Crime’ is a depressingly fitting description of prison. 

The answer is having more time to implement effective programmes. Much like losing-weight; if you want to really implement change, you have to put some physical effort in. We need to spend time and energy with these young people to run challenging programmes that address issues such as conflict resolution and victim awareness. Research shows again and again that the most effective way to engage with young people and change attitudes is through face-to-face work and through the relationship they build with professionals. This is what the evidence shows but instead the focus remains on paperwork, bureaucracy and RISK MANAGEMENT *tears hair out*.

Yet again, risk, rather than the young person, has become the central consideration. Rather than seeing a young person once a week and doing really effective work, a young person has to attend the office almost every day so that if things go wrong they are easily breached and sent back to prison. This shows how much faith the Youth Justice System places in its practitioners to prevent reoffending. It’s a Catch-22 situation: workers cannot prevent reoffending within the current system and therefore easy breach is necessary to keep the public safe.

Many of the practitioners I have worked with in Youth Justice are the most passionate, hard-working people I know and are firmly committed to social justice. The changes in the system would only have to be small to create drastic changes. Practitioners are begging for the change. The biggest hurdle, is a hurdle common to Social Work in general: we need to acknowledge risk but not shy away from it; acknowledge that mistakes do happen and that we don’t always need to blame someone for it; and acknowledge that paperwork does not reduce risk.

There are no quick fixes in life. Acai pills included. So to all the ladies in the office who I have convinced to spend a small-fortune on these pills, I apologize!

Novs x

Social Work Life Crisis

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So… this weekend I told a twelve year old girl she will never find happiness.

No, I’m not proud of myself but it happened, okay.

I was at a 50th Birthday party and there was a free bar. A group of twelve year old girls had been talking about boys all evening. In fact, they had been talking about boys longer than I had been drinking. Then one of them made the fatal mistake of asking my opinion on whether she should text a boy. [I would like to remind everyone at this point that I have recently come out of a long term relationship, and, as I said before, the bar was free. *FREE* people!]

My answer to the girl was something along the lines of:

“Boys are exciting at your age. Relationships are exciting and hopeful. And that’s good and nice. (*Wine spilling out of my glass*) But very quickly the Disney promise of a Prince Charming *hic* will show itself as the cruel lie it is and love will become painful and problematic. *hic* But if you’re lucky, and haven’t messed up your future for some sixteen year old in a band, you will throw your hopes and dreams in to a career. And you’ll work hard towards that career goal, which you think will give you a sense of validation. *hic* But then one day something will happen to make you realize that even your hopes and dreams can let you down and life is ultimately meaningless. So in conclusion, girls *hic*, text them, don’t text them, do what you want, because ultimately, you will never find happiness.”

My favourite reaction, to my shattering of a child’s hopes, was from a colleague, who didn’t disagree with my pessimistic outlook on life, or blatant bitterness. She just calmly replied: ‘They’re supposed to find that out for themselves you know’.

I think it’s safe to say I’m having a bit of a career crisis at the moment. At work people no longer bother asking me how I am for fear of the morbidity of the reply. I am not depressed. I’m just at a crossroads in my Social Work career, near graduation, where I have to decide if this is really the job for me. And I’m not sure it is. There are so many aspects of Social Work that I detest. Many things do not make sense to me and many more things make me think that Social Work does more harm than good. Consequently, the last few weeks at work have involved me having a daily mini break down.

And it happens in all professions. My friend is the head of Marketing for a large internet company and she recently had a breakdown of epic proportions. I’m not sure of all the details, but some of the texts I received from her over the following week included:

‘Everyone in the office is smiling at me a lot. I think they’ll think I’ll start crying again’.

‘The Warehouse boys are scared to put paperwork on my desk. They have brought me a cake instead. They’ll be padding the walls next.’

I’m sure everyone has bad weeks at work where they wonder if they’ve chosen the right career path. The problem with Social Work is that, for most Social Work students, it is a calling; a profession that encompasses everything you think, feel and believe; a way of life. So when you doubt that Social Work is the right job for you, you automatically fall in to a spiral of questions culminating in ‘who am I?’ and ‘what is the point in life?’

Of course ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. But bloody hell, asking yourself what the point of ‘me’ is every Monday morning when you’re on your third chocolate digestive and half way through ANOTHER risk assessment is a bit much.

Social Work seems to have become a 9 to 5 profession for many people. The professionalization of the job has some obvious advantages, however the many disadvantages are becoming more and more apparent to me. Too often do I ring an agency for support with a young person in desperate need of help, only to be told that “it’s Out of Hours” and “there’s not a lot that can be done now”. I went in to this job to help people in need. Within Social Work, the help I can offer seems so constrained by Risk Management and bureaucracy, that rather than actually help people, I spend most of my time filling in forms about them.

A young boy I work with recently rang me at 7pm at night, hysterical and refusing to go home due to ongoing problems. He had rung me for help. But of course, due to Health and Safety and Policy and Procedure, rather than drive to the boy to calm him down and return him home, I had to ring four different agencies to see if they could offer him some support for the night. It’s not in my job description to help him in the evenings and, as a student, I would have been removed from placement if I’d gone to see him. So I spent the evening ringing agencies and filling in the relevant paperwork whilst a fourteen year old boy walked around the streets of Sheffield in the pouring rain, in tremendous distress. No agencies were able to help him. He stayed out all night. I sat in my warm house, feeling utterly useless.

The next day, my Supervisors could see that I was annoyed about the situation. They tried to justify the actions we had to take by talking about empowerment, dependency, risk and not being a “rescuer”, etc, etc. But none of that really sits well with me. I don’t seem to buy in to the Social Work ‘doctrine’. And for that reason, I’m not sure if I’m made to be a Social Worker.

There is a quote by Jan de Hartog that says ‘Do not commit the error, common among the young, of assuming that if you cannot save the whole of mankind you have failed’. I think an error, common among some of the more experienced Social Workers, is to think that just because we may not be able to save the whole of mankind, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it a good go.

Anyway, my brain is still fried and I will probably read this outpouring tomorrow to realize it is not in sentences. I’ll let you know if I make it to graduation!

Good night,

Novs xx

‘The first duty of love is to listen’~ Paul Tillich

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This one’s for you Fact Fans!

The new Volkswagen Golf has cruise control. The new Volkswagen Golf has Parking sensors- front and rear! The new Volkswagen Golf automatically dims the rear view mirror to prevent dazzle. The new Volkswagen Golf can speak to you in seven languages. The new Volkswagen Golf parks itself.  (Oooh, wow! It’s like some sort of voodoo magic).

Shall I continue? No? But I have plenty more facts for you.

I know all this because I recently spent a four hour car journey with my Dad… and his new car. I love my dad, and I love his enthusiasm. Which is why, at no point, did I throw my body out of the passenger door on to the M6. Not even on the 300th fact. Nope. I sat and I listened.

And listened.

It is only over the last few months that I have truly realized what a skill ‘good listening’ is. I used to resent sitting in Social Work lectures on Listening Skills. Rather ironically, I paid very little attention to the Lecturer. ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s just pointing your ears at someone really, isn’t it’, I used to think. That and not yawning when they talk. And the body language aspect of listening, I think I can do. Eye contact- but not too starey. Open posture- but not slouchy. I would have given myself a solid 8/10 for my listening ability. That was until I met my Placement Supervisor.

I will be writing a lot more about my Supervisor over the coming months. However, all you need to know for now is that the man is some sort of Jedi master.

A few weeks ago, I chaired a meeting with a young man who had recently been released from custody. The purpose of the meeting was to put a plan in place to ensure that he could be reintegrated, successfully, in to the community. There was a small group of professionals there, including my Supervisor and of course, the young man himself. The young man is known to be heavily involved in local gangs. We discussed an array of issues from education to leisure activities. I was very careful to ensure the young man understood what was being said and felt able to contribute and question anything he did not understand.

After the meeting, I was complimented by the other professionals on my ability to include the young man’s wishes and feelings. Then my Supervisor pulled me to one side and asked me what I thought of the young man. I gave my opinion and then he gave his. He commented on the young man’s brief discussion of ‘pain au chocolat’. The young man had only mentioned it for a minute but from this, my Supervisor had then picked up a string of evidence which suggested to him that the young man struggled with his ‘gang identity’. The food he talks about; the way he speaks; his deferential approach to professionals, all suggested to my Supervisor that there was more to the macho, violent image he was portraying.

From what my Supervisor heard in that meeting, I have been able to alter my approach of working with the young man. Rather than focus on gang-intervention work, which would have been my initial approach, I am focusing on all the aspects of the young man’s life which have nothing to do with his gang identity.

The information my Supervisor got from really listening to the young man, has allowed me to build one of those relationships in Social Work that make you jump out of bed in the morning and smile on the walk all the way to work. I could sit and talk to this young man all day, about anything. He trusts me and when things go wrong, he knows he can speak to me. It’s an honest and open professional relationship. If I had focused, as many have done before me, on his gang identity, it may have further cemented that identity for him and I doubt our relationship would have been as successful. Of course this is just speculation, but whereas the young man returned to custody within three week of his last release, he has now been in the community and engaging fully in education, for over nine weeks now, without any further offences.

So I am currently mastering my skills of listening to what is really being said. It is an art form. And what was really being said about Dad’s car was: ‘It doesn’t come with SatNav included’.

Novs x

Feminist Warriors

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There seems to be a re-occurring ‘motif’ in my life at the moment.

Over the last four years, at least once a month, my best friend and I find ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor of some grotty bathroom in some grotty club, having an existential crisis. We discuss love and life and why we’re still going to grotty clubs and sitting on their bathroom floors. And we spend hours concluding that the universe has bigger and better plans for us (-I should hope so!). It’s very deep, very repetitive and has frequently earned us the well-earned title, from friends and strangers alike, of being “the weirdest girls I’ve ever met”.

Last week, I feel, however, that we cranked “weird” up a notch.

Anyone who knows us, if they had three words to describe us, would almost undoubtedly include the word ‘feminist’. We fly that flag high. Numerous pleasant dinner parties have collapsed in to screaming arguments about why high-heels are a disgrace to humankind, or the fact that “if she wants to grow a moustache, she can bloody well grow a moustache and SHE WILL LOOK BLOODY BRILLIANT!” I cannot remember the last time I left a party with my friend without her having a drawn-on handle-bar moustache…What can I say? There’s always a lot of wine involved.

However, last week, rather than be content with the classic Bathroom Existential Crisis, we decided it important- nay, imperative- that we pen feminist mantras on the arms of every man that spoke to us. Again, there was a lot of wine involved. By the end of the night there was a small and eclectic army of people dancing around a Manchester club with feminist quotes on their skin. It was BEAUTIFUL.

What always surprises me when talking about Feminism, is how few people know what Feminism is, and how even fewer people would describe themselves as a Feminists. The worst offenders, without a doubt, are the successful, independent, rational and intelligent women I love. Now, I am not claiming to offer the ultimate definition of ‘Feminism’. Like anything else it is open to interpretation, debate and discussion. But I want to clarify what it means to me- and why it is central to my work.

From reading Germaine Greer to Betty Friedan; from Carol Hanisch to Caitlin Moran, I have to say that, for me, Caitlin Moran sums it up best.[Now, as lazy as it is to quote chunks of her work, I adore her so much, that it was ultimately inevitable... and the woman knows how to make a point!]:

‘We need the only word we have ever had to describe “making the world equal for men and women”. Women’s reluctance to use it sends out a really bad signal. Imagine if, in the 1960s, it had become fashionable for black people to say they “weren’t into” civil rights.

“No! I’m not into civil rights! That Martin Luther King is too shouty. He just needs to chill out, to be honest.”

But then, I do understand why women started to reject the word “feminism”. It ended up being invoked in so many bafflingly inappropriate contexts that- if you weren’t actually aware of the core aims of feminism, and were trying to work it out simply from surrounding conversation- you’d presume it was some spectacularly unappealing combination of misandry, misery and hypocrisy, which stood for ugly clothes, constant anger and, let’s face it, no fucking.’

What Feminism is, as Caitlin succinctly puts it, is “making the world equal for men and women”. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t think women are better than men. I don’t think women are the same as men. But I believe that we are equal.

And it works both ways. No woman, or man, should be denied any rights based on their gender. Extending paternity leave is a Feminist issue. Recognizing that men can be victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Exploitation, is a Feminist issue. Don’t let the name fool you. It means ‘equality’.

As I glanced across the crowd of Noel Gallagher wannabes, dancing to Stone Roses with their Betty Friedan tattoos, I got a glimpse of how it must feel to be Bob Geldof. This was our Band Aid. The room was full of men and women, proudly proclaiming that we are all equal. (Okay, so in the morning, most people will be cursing the day they met us, as they try desperately, between the stabbing head pains of their hangover, to scrub off the permanent marker on their arms.) But on that night, at that moment, I told myself, “We can change the world, one person at a time.”

So, I’ll have to test my theory when I’m sober.

Novs x

Teenage Kicks

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In case I haven’t made it clear, I am currently working on a dissertation. It’s on the role of relationship-based social work practice in helping sexually exploited young people. The reading aspect is fascinating. It really is. And the writing aspect… well, that would be fun if, you know, books and television and the internet and the act of staring at a blank wall had not been invented. I am a procrastinator extraordinaire.

It has become clear to me that our current political and professional understanding of sexual exploitation is, to put it frankly, a bit of a mess. If it weren’t for the tireless work of charitable organizations such as the National Working Group, Barnardo’s, ECPAT and CEOP, to name a few, I imagine we would still be calling it ‘child prostitution’ and assuming it happened to one in a million girls. Or, our knowledge would stem from recent media interest in the subject and we would all be certain (much like we are all certain that benefit fraud is the downfall of this country) that sexual exploitation involves gangs of asian men raping young white girls; girls whose parents are terribly irresponsible for letting them out of the house past 6pm. Luckily, I don’t think this fallacy has seeped in to the public consciousness just yet. But we should not rest easy. Whilst Tim Loughton and Sue Berelowitz try and get the story straight over the next 18 months, there is a particular complexity that I would like to ponder with you.

When I was seventeen, I fell in love. Hopelessly, stupidly, head over heels in love. With a man whom I had spoken to once. I used to work in a Chinese Takeaway- and when I say work, I mean sit at a till for five hours and get people’s orders wrong. (My boss told me, when I left after two years to go to University, that I was the most useless employee he had ever had and he’d only kept me on as I made him laugh. I still haven’t decided if that’s a good or a bad thing.) So, one evening, I was “working”, and in walked a tall, handsome, twenty something, irish-looking, dream of a man. He asked for a chicken chow mein. I got the order wrong. We laughed. It was like something out of a Jane Austen novel. And so the infatuation began.

From then on, I came up with cunning and imaginative ways to find out all the information I could about this man- his name, his job, his shoe size- and ultimately marry him. One time, I searched through a takeaway bin for forty minutes to find the order sheet which had his mobile number on. That’s all the dignity I had managed to amass in my seventeen years of existence. If I had put as much effort in to my A-levels as I did in stalking this man, who knows where I’d be now. I could have been Queen of Everything.

Luckily for me, this man, who was ten years my senior, was level-headed enough to consider me too young to be a potential girlfriend. It turns out my subtle flirting had actually not been subtle. Who’da thunk it?! However, if he had decided that I could be his girlfriend, I am pretty sure I would have done anything for that man. I’m pretty sure I still would. I’ve been in love since, but as a teenage mass of hormones/emotion he will always remain in my memory as perfection personified. And I’m not the only teenage girl who has temporarily ignored any elements of self-respect or logic in pursuit of a man. I have a similar story for every one of my female friends. We all went to good schools. We all have degrees. It’s just how most teenage girls are.

Which got me thinking. I have been lucky enough to only ever be in relationships with lovely, caring males. I have never fallen in love with someone who has wanted to hurt me or use me. As an adult, I can say that if I was in an abusive or exploitative relationship now, I would be able to defend myself and to walk away. I can say that, but I can never really know as I have not experienced it. But when I think back to my teenage years, I do not know what would have been if I had met the wrong person. I had bags of self-esteem, was a notoriously fierce feminist and thought I knew what a ‘bad’ relationship looked like. But if a man, a man like ChineseTakeawayIrishDream Man (as my friend’s refer to him) had spent years building what I thought was a loving and caring relationship with me, I imagine there is a way that I too could have become another sexually exploited young person. If he began subtly and convinced me to do a few small things that I felt were ‘wrong’ in order to help him or to get him out of trouble, such as picking up an unmarked package; and if he kept me believing that he did love me, then things could very easily spiral. I’d like to think that I would have had enough support to escape the abuse, but then I think, would I have even recognised it as abuse at all?

The term ‘sexual exploitation’ implies a powerless victim; an ‘exploitee’ who has been abused and manipulated by an ‘exploiter’. The reality, however, can be very different. My experience in working with sexually exploited young people has demonstrated that, often, the young person who is on the ‘exploitation register’ is not powerless, but rather makes a choice to have sex with dangerous (and numerous) men. Academics Chase and Statham argue that the choice these young people make is a constrained one, but I do not yet know how we begin to break those constraints. Male exploiters who pose as ‘the boyfriend’ are experts at what they do. They spend years building up a relationship with a young person because they know how powerful that bond can be. How do we help young people to make an ‘unconstrained choice’ without imposing our own values and ideals?

If a teenage girl (or boy), who may be a lot younger than seventeen, is in love with a man who is sexually exploiting her, we as social workers have an almighty task. We can work to empower that young person, provide self-esteem classes, encourage education and training, sort housing and liaise with police to deal with the exploiter. But what do we do if that young person chooses to keep going back to her exploiter because she loves him? Any social worker who is willing to take on teenage love, is a braver (or possibly dumber) person than I am.

If anyone knows where to start, I would love to hear from you.

Novs x

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