The creation of a charity, from the very beginning.
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.