Beyond Words in Social Work

Frances Ballaster Hariss

The body may reveal the hardships that words cannot and,in some cases, even a perfect exterior body can hold within itself a mountain of neglect. Words are paramount in communication and yet they can only take us so far, in being only one form of expression. Words are also a commodity to which every person is not granted equal access, therefore expression can take many forms. Those from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds can be the most inventive and creative with their expression, as they have often been denied the education necessary to fully articulate their emotional state in words. For this reason, children’s social workers need to be well versed in all forms of expression, whether they are dealing with a five-year-old Syrian-speaking refugee child or the teenage son of a high-flying business couple, and the stories of these social workers deserve to be heard.

Arguably, institutions such as Cambridge University place too great an emphasis on the communicative power of the word, with assessment almost entirely based on exams and extended essays. Despite this, organisations are increasingly targeting high-achieving graduates to draw them away from the corporate and financial sectors and instead push them towards the public sector. This was initially seen in the work of Teach First and now in Frontline, a two-year Leadership Development Graduate Scheme where participants are paid to train and qualify as social workers. These are careers few of us started out at Cambridge with the aim of entering yet committing to a career in the public service is both a challenge and highly rewarding as it involves representing and leading for those who perhaps cannot find the right words for themselves. Any social worker will tell you that large amounts of their day are filled with paperwork, but the words they write are powerful as in the world we live in it is words which have power in court. Expression takes a multitude of forms but for the lives of these children it is the words of social workers that represent them and ensure their safety.

This balance between relationship building and authority with families is both the biggest challenge of social work and the lynchpin of success. Despite finding the words for others on a daily basis, their own stories often go unheard. It is of crucial importance that in attempting to find the words to aid families that social workers are seen to work alongside families, not against them. Solly Solamito, a qualified social worker for the last 20 years, notes how important it is ‘that the strengths and achievements of families are acknowledged and developed’ as a more positive narrative around social work is deserved and required. It is not only the voices of vulnerable children that are silenced but also the voices of social workers as the everyday stories of family success, whether this be a child coming to school on time for a week or a physically disabled parent succeeding in changing their child’s nappy, are drowned out by the words of sensationalist media coverage.

The level of emotional intelligence required to understand a family’s situation, whether it be through inference or building relationships of trust, is something child protection social workers confront on a daily basis. Solly Solamito, explains how ‘being able to connect with children of different ages and abilities, and with parents who may struggle to understand the complexities of the processes that they are involved in requires different approaches… being creative, and exploring with families the best way to communicate with them is key’. In a particular social work case in London involvement with the police force and the children’s schools would have brought up no cause for concern. The two boys, one seven and one fifteen, were performing adequately in school with no behaviour issues and always arrived in clean uniform. The mother also had no physical or mental health concerns and would appear to have been meeting the boys’ needs. Social workers got involved with the case only when the residents of the flat below complained of an awful smell and liquid dripping through their ceiling. Police were sent in and then social workers were called when it emerged the entire flat was coated in six feet of rubbish, with no running water available in the house. The mother had been taking the boys clothes to the laundrette and the boys had been using plastic bottles instead of the toilet. Often it is the case that families in crisis are unable to find the words to ask for help.

Neglect can become daily life for children. As words are created and shaped by experience they are personalised so that neglect may render six feet of rubbish to be perceived as ‘normal’. This personalisation of words happens to us all but for young children or those with minimal education it is felt to a greater extent. Child protection social workers must both listen to, and observe, children and families whilst decoding their speech and action. Solly notes a time she conversed with a young adult through rap lines as the question and answer pattern of conversing was triggering. It is this kind of innovation that encourages vulnerable children to change their perception of words and challenge their fear of using words as a means of expression. Families in crisis are not ‘wordless’ but they need help finding the right words or communication for them to be understood. As leaders of change it is crucial that students are willing to take up the challenge and enter this demanding, yet rewarding, profession.