This is the first extract from our Book of the Week Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker by Rebecca Joy Novell. In this extract Rebecca is a politics undergraduate, unaware of social work as a potential career path, and she is undertaking a voluntary role within the Youth Justice Service.
One of my first roles with the Youth Justice Service was as a support volunteer for a Summer Arts Programme. The aim was to help ten young boys, all on intensive criminal orders, achieve an arts award over a six-week period. Before I met the boys a planning meeting was held, and I learned about the seriousness of some of their crimes and the risks involved. Details were reeled off about thefts, burglaries, stabbings and drug dealing. At 19 years old I thought I knew a lot about the world and the city where I lived, but in that meeting I realised just how much I still had to learn.
On the first day, I walked into the classroom and my mind was screaming CRIMINALS! THEY’RE ALL CRIMINALS. GET OUT, YOU IDIOT. But before the voices in my head were able to convince me to leave, one of the boys came over and asked me who I was. Mikey was 17 years old and had a smile that stretched from one ear to the other. He was dressed in a bright green tracksuit and wore a cap so far down the back of his head that it made me doubt the laws of gravity. Within seconds of meeting me Mikey was passionately telling me about his love for Beyoncé: It’s not just that she’s fit, she’s also got a really good voice, you know. Before I knew it, I was having a normal conversation with a funny and lovely young boy.
The first activity we took the boys on was a visit to a sculpture park to see a famous art exhibition. As soon as we arrived the curator of the park made a rather large point of telling the boys that they must not touch any of the exhibits. Within approximately 30 seconds of receiving this information I turned around to find 16-year-old Matthew, in tracksuit bottoms, balanced on top of a 20ft high stone rabbit. Initially, I was so in awe of his ability to climb such heights at such speed that it took me a few moments to realise that it was my job to get him down. I was reminded soon enough by the curator, who did not find Matthew’s climbing skills as impressive as I did.
When we finally coaxed Matthew down, he was asked to wait in the car with me until the others had finished viewing the park. I was not expecting much conversation from someone with an inability to follow basic instructions, but again, I was very wrong. After staring at a road sign for a few moments, Matthew asked me, Is that where Margaret Thatcher closed the mines?
Erm, I’m not sure, to be honest, I replied, clearly showing off all that I had learned from my politics degree so far. Matthew then proceeded to tell me all about Thatcher’s arguments with the miners and how he had read about it when he was in prison. Matthew also told me that he couldn’t read before he went to prison, aged 14, and that being able to now was his proudest achievement.
After that first week my head was reeling with what an exciting, complex and fascinating group of young people I was working with. There was Paul, who had such a freakish ability to navigate his way round places he had never been to before that he nick-named himself ‘Chav-Nav’. And 6ft 4in Carlton, who had committed a horrifically violent offence and yet was always the first to defend someone if he noticed they were being bullied.
I could not marry the boys’ crimes with their personalities. Crime could not simply be a case of bad people doing bad things. As I began to learn more about the boys’ upbringings, their stories gave me the facts I needed to back the feelings that I had been having for a long time; that crime has sociological reasons behind it. While they were all responsible for the crimes they committed, each one of them had experienced heartbreaking abuse or neglect as a child. It was part of my role to pick the boys up from home in the morning and drop them back at the end of the day. I remember picking Matthew up to find his Dad blind drunk by 8am, demanding Matthew return with food or money or not return at all. Of course these boys needed to learn that what they had done was wrong, but more than anything they needed the love and attention that all children deserve and they’d been denied. I was addicted from day one.
Saying that I was ‘addicted from day one’, is the best way I can think of to explain the feelings I was having. As most people who have ever worked with teenagers will know, the young person you are working with may look the same from day to day, but their personalities can change on an almost hourly basis; their dreams, goals, friends and plans change almost as frequently. Teenagers have the marmite effect on professionals. You either find their unpredictability incredibly exciting, or so frustrating that you want to cry.
The teenagers I was working with were like individual riddles. I wanted to know more about what caused them to commit crime; why they continued to commit crime despite not wanting to go to prison; why education wasn’t working for them and what could be done to help them. I spent hours reading as much as I could about Youth Justice and based both my dissertations on youth crime. I continued to apply for volunteering roles to learn more about young people who offend and try to do something to help them. I volunteered in police stations, as a mentor in secure children’s homes, and as an education support officer. I met hundreds of young people and returned home happy every day, knowing that I had found my calling. A flame was lit inside me, and when I have a bad day as a qualified social worker I remind myself of that feeling I had when I started.