By Amy Hanson, Safeguarding Consultant

Protecting our hearts in a job where they're needed

It’s like a running joke with social workers, that if you are ever sitting in a pub and asked what you do for a job, the words that are unlikely to come out at any cost are, ‘social worker.’ Many a time I have sat outside of a difficult meeting or court hearing that I am about to go into and fantasized with my colleagues about what we would do for ‘our dream job.’ All the classics are in there; an actor, a singer, a travel writer, a fashion designer (we don't all wear socks and sandals you know) but then we go in and we do the business that we came to do - to protect the children assigned to our care and ensure that everything is done to make sure they are safe. 

Can I tell you the truth? I always really struggled to answer that question. And I struggled to join in the conversation about the pub, because honestly? For all of its challenges, sacrifices, stress and trauma - I couldn't see myself doing anything else. Not because I lack the drive or the imagination to do something different - but because I can’t think of anything else that would make me feel alive like this work does, particularly my passion for the work of child protection.

I am not alone. I have been an associate trainer for ECP for four years now and alongside my colleagues have travelled the country delivering child protection training to professionals working with children in a variety of settings. Most of the time I know no-one in the room that I am training, however we have one sole aim and goal, to make sure the children we are working with are safe and protected. I believe that the training that we deliver and the work that we do collectively, keeps children safe and helps them to be protected from abuse and neglect. But no matter how effective child protection training may be; there will always be children in need of our intervention and who will need professionals around them to notice, recognise and act. 

It is difficult to describe to people outside of this field, the level of secondary trauma in the realms of child protection that can seep in and at times swipe you. It can be difficult to remember that most children are safe and happy and that we work within the minority rather than the majority; when every day the balance can seem so tipped in the wrong direction. As will many of you, I have worked with children who have experienced all kinds of abuse; worked with families who have had to face unimaginable pain and attended funerals of young people that I worked with who became victims of an ever emerging gang culture. The balance of heart broken and heartwarming in this job is stark.

I have the pleasure of managing a fantastic team and the pleasure of training teams in this field and there is one thing to me which is glaringly obvious. There is a cost to this work upon the individuals doing it and we don't discuss that enough, nor do enough to support. The area of child protection is arguably one of the most challenging fields to work within and there are high and challenging statistics, which clearly highlight high levels of professional burnout within this area. We quite simply, have to get better. 

The absolute privilege it is to walk life with families in often their darkest times, is not lost on me. I made a promise to myself long ago that when it is - I walk away. That if the day goes when I have removed a child and don't feel sadness on my way home, or given evidence in court and not felt sick at the sheer height of it, or dealt with a child making a disclosure and not wanted every ounce to remove their pain, then I will stop. Because my time will be done, and it will be time to pass on the baton. But the privilege to walk life with staff and other professionals in this field, is also a privilege. I am humbled by the amount of people that stop to talk to me after training sessions and share with me intimate details of their lives which often reveal pain and trauma that they may have experienced, which at times has been triggered by the content we have discussed. It is my pleasure within those moments to listen and to offer support, but I am always struck by how those fleeting conversations never feel enough to truly be able to show love and care to colleagues who so often, so need it.

So, what can we do? As far as I am aware there is no magic wand and no ‘one’ solution which is going to fit all. But there are practical steps that we can take to better support each other and then ultimately better support the children and young people that we are tasked with to protect. 

Practical tips:

  • I encourage my team to write down their own well-being plan and to share some of the details with me, so that I can kindly hold them accountable to it. For example, one of my team finds going to the gym really helps with their stress levels and helps them to regulate their emotional health. She knows that when she is feeling stressed or overwhelmed, this will be the first activity that gets dropped out and in turn this will ensure that she is feeling more stressed and less able to cope. But I know that too - which is why I encourage her to make sure that she takes time out, no matter how busy she is, knowing that this is so important for her wellbeing. 
  • Regular check ins and team meetings to look at gage how people are doing. Know about any issues and address any issues before a crisis emerges. Difficult conversations can be the prevention of further difficult situations. 
  • In difficult moments where your head feels full of trauma - one step at a time. One child at a time. We cannot change everything for our children and young people, but we can walk life with them and make sure they don’t walk it on their own. 
  • I don't know how the phrases, ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’ or ‘you have to look after yourself before you can care for others’ make you feel (I personally love a good quote and probably have that up on my wall somewhere) but there really is some truth in there. There are hundreds of books on self-care and how to do it, but there really is no formula. Its individual and that’s why it is important to know yourself. It’s all very well doing that for my team, but how about also doing that for myself? I admit that I am not always good at it but I am making myself a promise to try harder. Take time out for me, switch the laptop off and have non-work time more often! 
  • Talk. To whoever you trust and to whoever you can walk away from knowing that they listened, and they cared. This may well be formal counselling or support from an employer, to being able to talk about how you feel with a friend. 
  • The most important thing that I think that we can do. Be kind - to yourself first and that will then translate to others

By Amy Hanson, Safeguarding Consultant


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