S I M O N C A U V A I N
Social work certainly wasn’t a career path I’d foreseen. I left school early, flunked sports college, worked in a gym, on building sites and an iron castings factory. My mum was a social worker in Lincoln during the 80s and 90s and whilst it always fascinated me, the very last thing I wanted to do was whatever my mum did! I eventually decided I’d had enough of cracking the ice on my water barrel at 7am, as a brickie’s labourer, breathing in factory fumes and washing the daily grime off my face. These were invaluable jobs to me at the time but I wanted to use my head more than my hands. I joined a private home care company, volunteered as a befriender which led to a community care job for Lincoln City Council. This gave me plenty of experience and paved my way into life as a ‘mature’ social work student. Now I’m a Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Nottingham Trent University.
I’ve enjoyed working with a range of service users in some great parts of the country including: Lincoln, Birmingham, Barnsley and Rotherham. I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with service users in teaching social work students whilst at the University of York and now in my current post. They play a crucial role in helping students gain knowledge and understanding of concepts like ethics, values and anti-oppressive practice – very much the backbone of good social work practice. I’ve learned so much during this process and feel lucky to be able to pass on my experience to students. My PhD focussed on recruitment and retention of social workers, so I’m naturally interested in what it feels like to be a social worker.
I chose a French horn mouthpiece because …
… the horn was one of many instruments my birth father played; it was apparently his favourite. We were estranged after he and my mum divorced, like many of their generation back in the early 70s. She whisked my brother (Oly) and I – still only toddlers – away from the army barracks in Berlin to Nottingham where we lived with my Grandma. My mum met my dad (we’ve never thought of him as ‘step-dad’), eventually they married and he adopted Oly and me. I relatively recently learned that during this process we had a social worker who communicated with all involved … I don’t remember any of this.
Throughout the many years of estrangement I wondered where my birth father was and whether he ever thought of me. I never longed for him but just felt curious as to his personality and what he made of it all. This always felt like a gap somehow but not one I was ever troubled by. Mum was always open about who he was, shared photos and told me of his strengths as well as limitations. He was charming, a talented musician, and a proud army band member who wrote musical scores for the range of instruments. He and his sister were adopted but, sadly, he was severely abused by his adopters as a child. He was violent towards my mum and had problems with alcohol and drugs. She left him to protect Oly and me.
So, after many years of soul-searching I decided to find him. This was 2006. To my surprise this happened within two weeks through the electoral roll. We communicated by letter which was strange but positive and eventually met at his Middlesbrough home. I learned of two sisters I didn’t know existed, one of whom I’m in regular contact with, the other I don’t yet know. We arranged to meet again and exchanged texts. Thirteen weeks later he died unexpectedly. His house was burgled the evening his body was removed. My brother and I cleared his house and prepared for the funeral. I got to know him more through his belongings, ones that he’d never have wanted me to see.
He clearly loved his daughter (my sister) and had saved all her pictures. He’d had a rough time, struggling with alcohol and poverty and he’d also been in prison. The French horn mouthpiece was something he’d kept despite selling his beloved horn for cash. His debts were high and his house was cluttered. Other than some photos, it’s the only item I saved. So, for me it represents our respective journeys that, at one seemingly insignificant point, involved a social worker.
The mouthpiece serves as a never-to-be-forgotten personal reminder that ‘service user’ is not a negative term. Service users are fellow human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They need to be not only listened to but heard.
The mouthpiece is a metaphorical voice; the opportunity to play one’s own tune rather than dancing to the tune of others. It is that little something special that good social workers so often somehow manage to see. Despite the clutter.