Christopher Kelly, a qualified social work team leader from London, tells how social work runs in his family and why he believes the general public’s perception of social work is not entirely accurate.
Talking to Chris, one quickly gains the impression that he’s an honest, reflective person who loves his work and believes strongly in the positive impact his profession can have on individuals and families across the UK. We asked him to tell us about being a social worker and what he’s learnt during his 14-year career.
Why did you choose social work for your career?
Both my parents are social workers, so I naturally gravitated towards the profession. I’ve always been good at thinking on my feet and listening - both skills that fit well with social work.
As a teenager I dreamt of either driving a car for a living or being a rock star; I spent most of my youth playing the electric guitar in bands hoping that one day I’d play Wembley. In reality, I developed a love of ancient history at college. It was a difficult decision choosing between a degree in social work or ancient history but, reflecting back on my choice, social work was definitely the right decision.
Tell us about your career highlights
Weirdly, my career highlights involve some of the most difficult circumstances that I’ve faced as a social worker - the times I’ve realised the connection and working relationship I’ve established with someone really does matter to them.
I was involved with the removal of a ten-year old child from her mother’s care. At the time the child - quite understandably - told me she hated me. I explained that I understood why, but that I still liked her and would continue to support her, which I did for over a year. One day, in the park together during a contact visit, she grabbed my hand and simply said ‘Chris, I like you now’. That moment will stick in my mind forever. It was so fulfilling knowing I had regained her trust.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
One word…emails. They’re my nemesis. I get swamped with loads everyday, half of which are not even relevant, thanks to the ‘cc’ and ‘reply to all’ functions. I’m pretty sure emails are the cause of my receding hairline and grey hair!
Where do you think you’ve made the biggest difference?
I like to think I’ve made a difference on all the cases I’ve been involved with. Being a team leader means I can ensure the correct plans and decisions are being made for individual cases, whether child in need, child protection or in court proceedings. I can also support my team of social workers and encourage their professional development.
How do you think social work is perceived by the general public?
Inaccurately. For starters, soap operas always show us as having our own offices! In all seriousness, I think social workers are ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’ and we rarely receive positive press.
Unfortunately, the general public don’t really understand our role. There is pressure on the courts to open up a little more (whilst remaining confidential), which would enable the public to gain a more balanced insight into what social workers actually do - the scrutiny we face and the challenges of our job. More balanced than the soap operas provide anyway.
In your opinion, do social workers receive enough recognition?
The general public doesn’t really understand the role of a social worker so positive recognition is always going to be hard to achieve. Like other professions, it’s the rare miscarriages of justice that make the news. The thousands of cases heard through the courts are generally overlooked.
Anyway, although positive, public recognition is nice, it’s not what me, or most of my fellow social workers strive for. What must come first is having integrity, humility, and accountability for both your successes and your failures.
What advice would you give a new social worker?
Don’t pigeon-box your skills by the area in which you work. For example, when working in ‘children in care court teams’ I would use many skills that I developed from working in the ‘safeguarding teams’ and vice versa. Experience and skills can be transferred across all areas of social work.
I’d also advise you to ‘show your workings out’ - a phrase I learnt early on in my career. You should be able to demonstrate how you reached a conclusion and recommendation in social work in the same way you’d be asked to demonstrate a maths problem at school. I find that doing this gives me confidence to explain my decisions and why I’ve reached a particular opinion.
Reflecting over the last 14 years, Chris tells us the time has gone by incredibly quickly. He now manages a ‘children in care’ team and has worked with hundreds of children and families throughout his career so far. “Being a social worker is everything I ever imagined it to be and much more. It’s a job of extremes; the high pressure is always equalled out by the satisfaction of a positive outcome.”
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