A close friend recently asked me:
“What’s the toughest experience you’ve had whilst working in Child Protection?”
It didn’t take long for this particular child to enter my mind. As I re-visited this experience several years later it triggered some of the feelings I felt during my time working with this particular family.
Several years ago, I placed a four-year-old child into a foster care placement under a police protection order. This resulted in the child being placed into an adoption placement.
This experience was probably my darkest and most intense social work experience so far. I am proud of this outcome and it’s something I should be proud to share with my profession.
During the conversation, I obviously didn’t share any personal information about the child, but provided a general description relating to the home conditions to my friend as a response. It was interesting to observe how the conversation was treated as general chit chat and how we swiftly changed from topic to topic whilst “generally” conversing.
As I spoke, I noticed more going on inside of me. I noticed that this wasn’t a general topic for chit chat at all and that I wouldn’t be able to have the kind of dialogue I usually would with a colleague or a manager at work.
After my friend left my home, I found lingering within myself deep felt feelings going back several years. In the moment, I recalled the entire case. My assessment, the worried professionals at the time and the added pressure of managing their anxiety. I recall the pressures of the SWET form and how long it takes to write one despite the timescales at hand. My CP medical and following LAC reviews. I recall the post interviews with the police about sharing evidence in courts. But years later the ‘processy’ bit all felt very surreal.
What remained very real within me were the emotions I had felt towards the child I was supporting. I sat there and ruminated over what I had witnessed during this particular home visit.
As I delved into my memory, I reassembled some of the intense moments during the visit prior to placing the child in an emergency foster placement. I remember walking into a property completely filled with hoarded soiled nappies that had been stashed in hundreds of black bags judging by the smell for a long time. I recall the odour of faeces, faeces that had not been excreted by a child. Instantly, the smell overwhelmed my senses and a gush of overwhelming feelings and emotions struck me. Just as instant as the smell stimulated my senses, a gush of overwhelming feelings and emotions struck me. The amalgamation of a sensory and intellectual paralysis also overwhelmed me with a moment of numbness.
I remember the walls were damp and cold. As I walked into the corridor my footsteps echoed on the floor boards. To my left, a kitchen area no longer functioning for the use of a kitchen. Outstanding in its disarray. I saw outdated empty packets of yogurt with the wrapper sealed half off with green mould emerging on the silver lid.
As I turned away from the kitchen and look down the hallway, suddenly, I capture strands of blonde hair, within blue eyes of sorrow. Looking, staring, and wondering at the unknown stranger who had just walked into his home, into his reality. His normality. I wonder, had he possessed the power, would he have taken me into his dreams? His nightmares? So that I may witness the intolerable, that I may see the joy.
Hidden behind the lounge wall an internal shift takes place. Purpose entrenching, curiosity invigorating, a little boy with blonde hair – enlightening.
A ‘hello’ compounded by so many emotional cues it renders me powerless. Dazzled by a moment of despair – I am powerless – A regained thought of consciousness and a narrative that nobly whispers through me –
As I enter the lounge and observe the bedroom, a hundred empty bottles of alcohol and a Butane gas canister characterises the bedroom décor. Representing the kind of a dopamine and serotonin rush that would flush this nightmare away.
A child’s toothbrush is observed on a sink surface completely covered by dirt, neighbouring an inaccessible toilet consumed by soiled nappies.
A decision is made. An Emergency Protection Order is ordained. Sirens – the sounds of the police exaggerate the call. I leave the property with a four-year-old in my arms in pursuit of his solace.
And as I recalled my experience, I felt vulnerable in sharing this. Not because we as social workers are usually bogged down by a fear of breaching confidentiality, but something deeper which resonated with me. I realised, that I hadn’t engaged with those emotions very well. Yes, I had multiple supervisions whilst working with the family at the time, and yes, informed decisions were made at the time by managers and seniors. But, several years later after being forced to revisit this experience I realised that I hadn’t taken the time out (possibly due to lack of it) to actually sit down and make sense of my emotions while involved with this particular family. Being able to feel those feelings again were uncomfortable, and shifting myself back to that space made me feel vulnerable again. But it was crucial for me to realise some important lessons that I’d like to share.
I learnt that as social workers, very often, we don’t engage with the difficult emotions that we face on a day-to-day basis. And that this isn’t something that is encouraged enough. As part of practice, it’s important for organisations to create a culture that recognises the emotional responses of social workers and create environments where we are made to feel supported. It’s important we find new and creative ways to raise this with Local Authorities, Practice Educators, Senior Pracs and managers and explore their own ideas on emotional practice.
It’s taken me a while to realise this, but when we unpack our true experiences we access true learning, true potential, and true vision that shapes the world we create. And that ultimately has shaped who I have become years later in my practice.
New Generation Social Work is all about creating different avenues for discussion, reflection and learning. Where together, where we as social workers, feel safe to talk about the complexity of our roles, recognise each other’s emotions and create an environment that sustains this – despite not working in the same Local Authority or organisation. So, if you interested in this area of practice, and interested in discussing further, please get in touch via the contact page.
by Alshad Dustagheer
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