I remember well the first few weeks of my social work training. It was a baptism of fire!
Having never been to university before (I left school with 1 GCSE) I was struck by how vociferous people were about their views.
What particularly impressed me was how ‘campaigning’ they were about protecting the rights of the vulnerable, speaking up for those with no voice and standing between the down-trodden and their ‘oppressors.’
We have the power…
Perhaps the greatest challenge for me back then, was coming to terms with how much power I had, compared with the service users we were all training to help. It was a real wake-up call!
As a white, able-bodied, straight, heterosexual man with more than enough money to get by, I had shed loads of power and suffered little or no discrimination.
But the elderly, the disabled, the immobile, the mentally and physically ill, the learning disabled – these folks have less, and often very little, power. Asserting their rights necessarily comes second to the daily grind of staying alive and making do.
Absent from the above list of the vulnerable are children.
Being young brings with it a unique set of challenges. On top of all the above possible problems (except being elderly!) they have the added obstacles of youth – a lack of physical strength, a voice that’s easy to ignore, struggling to understand the adult world and dependency on others for money, food, shelter, education, health care – everything!
This simple fact alone – being young – is the starting point for any intervention that seeks to empower children to achieve their potential.
Where have all the advocates gone?
25+ years later, I’m struck with how little ‘campaigning’ I hear in professional childcare – particularly in assessment and safeguarding teams.
The change from ‘social work’ to ‘case management’ is complete – too much time is spent in back-covering, data-gathering and digital accountability. Too much saying ‘no’, too much deflecting, too much defending thresholds that ignore the real needs people have.
Those who used to be central to the service of children are now distracted and are too often the very same people who justify inertia and spend their days in tasks other than advocating for children.
All is not lost…
Every now and again, I meet someone who’s not been assimilated. They haven’t yet yielded to the pressures of the office, the computer, the agency, the budget, the threshold (I really hate thresholds!) or the policy.
What are the hallmarks of workers like this? Here are a few thoughts:
– Antagonism: not the kind that kicks at everything in a cynical, critical way. But the kind that stands its ground and asks the awkward question. That isn’t put off by the pressures of policy, processes and the misguided priorities of inadequate resources and defensive practice. A steely antagonism makes for a good advocate.
– Affection: within a few seconds of talking to some people, you get a real sense of the affection they have for the children and young people they serve. Not only is this fuel for the job of advocating – a motivator, if you like – it also comes across to the kids themselves and builds trust and engagement.
– Attention: we can only advocate for those we know. Having a real sense of what children want and what they need is central to the task of speaking up for them and serving their interests. Taking the time to understand them, to listen, to empathise and get a real sense of how we can help is a crucial first step in advocacy.
– Attrition: it’s no use speaking up for someone if we’re deflected at the first opposition. We need to make the arguments to help children get what they need, and then keep making them, over and over again. It once took me two years to get a second opinion psychiatric assessment, but taking ‘no’ for an answer wouldn’t cut it, so I kept asking. To advocate well we have to keep on keeping on!
Doubtless there are plenty of other characteristics that make for a great advocate, but these are a good start.
The young are saddled with all sorts of disadvantages, just because they’re still children. But the children of troubled families have a whole series of other challenges on top of this – not least poverty, trauma, rejection…
These kids need social workers, foster carers, youth workers, therapists and YOT staff whose work is turbo-charged with a passion for advocacy.
As well as everything that our roles demand of us, let’s not forget the real reason for it all – to better the cause of kids who need someone to fight their corner – THAT’S advocacy!
What do you think?…
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© Jonny Matthew 2019