J A N E M c L E N A C H A N
I began my social work career in 1981, working as a generic social worker in Falkirk in central Scotland. I believe this generic experience provided the best possible grounding and, as I have frequently told students in the intervening years, one I wish they could all have. I subsequently moved into more specialist children and families roles, initially in Surrey (somewhat of a culture shock!) and then as a child protection specialist in Derbyshire, where I worked for 12 years. I developed an interest in practice learning early in my career and worked as a practice teacher before moving into social work education. Having worked in England for 30 years, I returned to Scotland in 2014 and am currently Director of Practice Learning at the University of Stirling.
I chose my Handful of coins because …
… It symbolises the importance of good team working and support. Throughout my social work career, I have been fortunate to work with some excellent dedicated and supportive colleagues. This has often been an essential mechanism for coping with the stresses and pressures of the job, both in terms of challenges created by organisational processes and resources and those arising from the emotional impact of working with vulnerable, traumatised, abused and abusive people. As a child protection social worker, I was frequently undertaking parenting assessments and working with children who had been abused or were considered at serious risk of significant harm. Court proceedings in such situations were often fraught, lasting several days and could involve cross-examination by three or four different sets of barristers, all seeking to undermine my professional credibility and the evidence base informing my assessment. I am still reminded of these experiences when I reinforce for students the importance of sound evidence-based assessments and ‘defensible decision-making’, alongside clear, analytical thinking, writing and verbal expression. Keeping the needs and welfare of that vulnerable child or young person central ensured an ability to stay strong, focused and determined within the witness box.
However, a key factor in retaining the emotional resilience to withstand the onslaught within the court arena, was the knowledge of a supportive team, there to both reinforce my ‘expertise’ to take to the stand in the first place, and then for support in the aftermath if the court made decisions that I believed to be against the child’s best interests. Over twenty years later, there are some such decisions that I still remember vividly.
As a team, we always ensured that no-one went to court alone, even if it simply meant being the driver or making sure I had a spare pair of tights for when a finger was inevitably poked through them waiting to be called – the advantages of trouser suits are now abundantly clear! You may however, be wondering what all this has to do with a handful of coins and this leads me to our team safety valve. At the end of a week of traumatic child protection investigations, court proceedings or difficult sessions with distressed children or parents the team would decide it was time for a ‘Friday night’. Our venue of choice was a lovely old Derbyshire pub with open fires and quiet little corners where we could huddle together, re-live the traumas of the week, let the tears flow and express the anger and frustration safe in the knowledge that once it was all out, we would help put each other back together again, ready to hit Monday with rekindled energy and commitment to act in the best interests of vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families.
At the end of the night, we would pile into a taxi for a rather tortuous journey back to all our various homes. Into the hands of the last person to be dropped off, we would pile money for the taxi fare and Jackie, as this duty usually fell to her, had to spend the journey along winding roads, holding on to this handful of cash. For some reason, it seemed to be coins rather than the more sensible notes that we all deposited!
The importance of developing good support systems is something I have always stressed with student social workers. Whenever I think of that handful of coins in the taxi, it reminds me of the supportive team culture that was instrumental in enabling me to remain in front line social work practice for almost 20 years. In the current climate of austerity, the handful of coins also brings into sharp focus the need for us all to work collaboratively to argue for the resources needed to deliver both good social work services and social work education.
Putting Handful of coins together has actually been quite poignant as while I have been thinking about it, one of my old colleagues in Derbyshire died and I flew down for the funeral. A few of our old team were at the funeral and I was telling them about my plans to contribute to 40 Objects. We ended up getting the photograph done that day – the money in Jackie’s hands (as it was in the taxi), another of the team taking the photograph and the money coming from the team members. So it has ended up being a real team affair.