Good Monday morning to you all.
Rebecca Joy Novell, one of our most acclaimed writers and author of the hugely popular book ‘Starting Social Work‘, has put together this insightful passage inspired by her own experiences as a social worker.
Do you think the welfare system as it is is enough? If not what can we do to improve it?
See what Rebecca has to say below.
The Reality of Social Work in the Age of Austerity
I’ve worked as a Social Worker for four years now; and have worked with young people in the criminal justice system for eight years. Over those four years, I have always found being a Social Worker stressful and emotionally demanding beyond comprehension. I have always had disappointments with the fact that our Government and our society does not do nearly enough to support the most vulnerable people.
In 2014, I stepped out of Social Work for a year and went in to Policy work to see if I could make some of the changes I believed to be necessary. I found that I missed the day-to-day practical support of frontline voluntary sector Social Work and so soon returned back to the coal-face.
Since returning in September 2015, I can honestly say that the state of our Welfare system and social and health care provision has transformed beyond recognition, in that short time. Our country is on its knees and I witness, on a daily basis, the poor and vulnerable being told, there is no more help for them.
In case you think I’m being dramatic or trying to score political points, I want to share just one of the many stories of people I am currently working with.
Bella is a young woman, aged 22, who has grown up on the same deprived estate her whole life. Crime, anti-social behaviour, drug use, domestic violence and long-term unemployment are the norm in this white, working-class community. Bella began taking drugs before the age of 10 and was raised by an Uncle who taught her how to burgle houses at the age of 5. By the age of 17, Bella was a Mother, by 19 she was a heroin addict and by age 21 she was in prison.
On release from prison, Bella decided she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life like her siblings, going in and out of jail – so she sought support from her local community centre, which she began attending every day. The community centre I manage. In addition to asking for help, with her own amazing strength and resilience, Bella detoxed completely from heroin within two months.
Bella’s main issue, like many people leaving prison, was having no home to go to. Fortunately, she had some friends who would allow her to sofa surf for weeks at a time, but she was left with no stable place to call home. We supported Bella to apply for housing through the Council. However, she was denied any form of housing whatsoever and was informed that she could “cope well on the streets” and therefore did not meet the threshold for Council support.
Of course, in addition to this, Bella faced enormous barriers to employment due to her criminal record and was repeatedly rejected from jobs, meaning she had no income other than benefits.
Somewhat predictably, Bella suffers from acute mental health problems and recognized that she needed to address this in order to stop her offending behaviour. However, after supporting her to put a referral in, we received a voicemail from the local Mental Health Service saying, that due to cuts, there are no longer any counselling services available, as all staff have been asked to work in the acute ward. Therefore, Bella did not – and has not since – received any support with her mental health.
Four months after her release from prison, Bella gave up. With no home, no job and no mental health support, Bella began using heroin again and begged her probation worker to send her back to prison. When her probation worker said no, Bella stole £17 from a purse and was sent to Court, where she begged the judge to send her back. And despite it not being a custodial offence, the judge agreed, stating that there was more support for Bella in prison than there was in the community.
As I write, Bella is currently sitting in a prison cell; where she has a stable place to sleep, no financial worries and weekly mental health and drug rehabilitation support.
And the real tragedy is that Bella is one of many who will have a better quality of life in prison than they will in society. Our welfare net is so broken that it is the criminal justice system that is now picking up the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This is not what the criminal justice system is for.
As a Social Worker, I get up every morning with the sole motivation of working with people to give them the happiest and healthiest lives possible. The day Bella was sent to prison (effectively for being homeless) I cried myself to sleep. Partly because I had seen how hard she had worked to make a success of her life on the outside; and partly because, unless something drastic changes in terms of the resourcing of support services, Bella, and many others I work with, are truly better off in prison. For many Social Workers in the voluntary and charity sector, we have been stripped of so much that the only resource we have left is ourselves, and unfortunately, it isn’t enough.
What do you think? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.