My practice has developed over the last 10+ years. What I have found is that initially, despite deadlines and pressures, my objective with a client is engagement and relationship building. The working relationship will evolve over time but having that foundation, being able to develop the relationship right from the beginning is crucial. As Social Workers I know at times we begin working with a client or clients in a crisis or emergency situation and it feels like we’ve started the relationship on the wrong foot. However, I think it’s important, if we know we are going to be a part of their lives for a long period of time to be specific about our involvement. I think making it clear from the outset that things might move a bit quickly initially because it is a crisis but that we are interested in getting to know more about them and their life circumstances, lets the client know that we are not just a whirlwind that flies in to fix things then leaves them to get on with it. I think there are times when we don’t say things because we think they are a given or that it’s just understood how things will happen. Relationship building, from the outset is critical to work that we do.
Who Am I
One thing that helps me do my job, no matter which organization I work for, is knowing my role as a Social Worker and as a Social Worker for the organization for which I work and within the team in which I work. Understanding your role within your organization and within the team is crucial in achieving outcomes. If you unclear as to why you are visiting a client/service user, important information could be missed as well as opportunities to probe for more information regarding the individual’s or family’s circumstances. Gathering information is the process which informs your assessment and provides you with a basis for analysis. If you haven’t collected information or missed talking to a key person in the support network, your analysis cannot be thorough and you may be putting in services that duplicate or not meet the real need. Knowing my role and being able to explain this to clients/service users also helps me identify for them why I am there and what I can do for them in addition to addressing those concerns.
Partnership working not only makes a Social Worker’s job easier it also expands the network of people able to assist a client/service user in a crisis. By working with other professionals who are working within their area of expertise, clients have the benefit of specialized knowledge to address individual problems. By developing and maintaining the lines of communication between professionals, plans can be put in place and it can be made clear what each professional is doing for the family to avoid duplication of services. Working together also keeps clients from splitting – providing different stories to professionals or painting one professional as a hero and demonizing others, creating dissent among the professionals. A fundamental part of partnership/inter-disciplinary/multi-agency working, in my view, is regular case conferences. Prior to coming to London, this was a standard part of working in many places and where it wasn’t I would do it anyway. The benefit is getting everyone around the table. Once you’re there several things happen:
1. everyone gets a clearer understanding of what others can and are doing;
2. You develop working relationship with specialist you may be able to draw upon later;
3. Clients understand that we are all working together and not against each other to assist them;
4. Clients and professionals are aware that any issues with be made public to the entire professional network to work through so there are no “secrets” that can cause more problems or hide concerns developing with client; and
5. As a professional you begin to develop a professional network, people you can call upon for guidance and advice on issues in which you are not an expert.
Assessment, Analysis and Recommendations/Planning
The start of my work with my clients involves an assessment. In my view, in an assessment you are gathering factual information regarding a client’s circumstances/situation as it stands now as well as historical information to help you understand the client’s journey to their current circumstances. You are identifying any gaps in functioning and developing. The information you gather then informs your analysis. Your analysis identifies risks and strengths as well as gives an understanding of the impact of the information you have gathered on the client(s). Your analysis describes what long term impact the current situation would have as it stands now and if it were allowed to continue (= risks). Your analysis should also identify any mitigating factors, those things that make the risks less worrying (= strengths). Once you have all that information you can identify the gaps = what risks remain once the strengths/mitigating factors have been identified. This information will lead you to the services that might be able to assist the client and mitigate the remaining risks. Having this information will inform your plan. Social Workers, in addition to everything else we are (counselors, advocates, assessors, therapists, liaisons) or can be, are coordinators. We coordinate services for our clients to address the identified needs in our assessments. We follow up with these services to ensure they are working in the right way and liaise with clients to ensure they are getting what they need.
Decision making, or professional judgement, is another skilled I have learned over the course of my career. My process, in general terms, is having a discussion with clients around the issues to start. It is important to help them understand why the governing body is concerned. Then talking them through what would help them and what resources would be best placed to assist them. Good decision making comes from being an expert on your cases; that is, knowing your clients and the case history. Decision making also incorporates being able to decipher not only what is in the best interest of the clients based on the information you have to hand but also what one is most likely going to be able to justify to the organization. I am in full support, however, of advocating for things that an organization may not be initially in full support of, if this is in the best interest of the client and there is no other resource that can provide a particular service.
I have always relied on good supervision in my practice. When I wasn’t getting it I relied on the memories of good supervision I received in the past to help guide me through difficult situations. In addition to formal meetings, I have often relied on informal supervision such as those conversations that you can have with a manager or your colleagues that helps you think through a difficult situation. These can be invaluable in identifying things you might have missed or introduce you to resources you may not have known about.
For me supervision is about guidance. I made it practice to attend supervision not only with problems but also with possible solutions based on what I know of the client and with what they are likely to engage. I have also taken a proactive role in my professional development. I always seek out training courses that address gaps in my skill set or knowledge that I have identified when working with my clients. I have also taken to looking into courses that teach new skills and address those things which I would like to know in order to progress my career. An example of this is when I completed the Certificate in Management and Leadership in order to build my professional knowledge to progress up the management ladder. I would take into supervision courses I have identified that would help me do my job better. In basic terms, I was always prepared for supervision. I was always prepared with those things about which I knew I would be asked, but I also came prepared with my own agenda. Having a career is not just about what you do for an organization. It is also about what they do for you. If they expect a hard worker, they should be expected to work hard to ensure you can produce positive outcomes.
As I mentioned, professional development has always been on my agenda. Social Work is not just a job for me, it is a career. As such, I should be able to grow and develop within it. My professional development starts by knowing what my goals are and asking myself the right questions. “Do I want to remain on the front line? Would I like to progress through to management? Where do my interests lie? How do I incorporate these into my professional life? Do I want to do that? Am I giving my all to my clients? Are there things I should know that would help me to help them better?” Then I take the answers to those questions (and many others) and turn them into goals. Some of the tasks might be to undertake training, or to read more, or to start a professional blog, or to get more involved in a group or organization. All in all, as Social Workers we have vested interest in being good at what we do. I understand that is difficult to be ousted from a local authority as a permanent worker, but it is not impossible; and here, more so that in the states, Social Work is a very small world. Once you get a reputation, it will follow you. People talk. Managers talk. People name drop here like crazy. Not to mention, if you decide to go locum – or become a temporary worker – that world shrinks exponentially. It behoves us all to ensure we are making the time to develop and improve our skills so we can achieve all we set out to achieve in the world of Social Work. You are the drive behind your progression and success. My advice, take it seriously.