M A R K F R A S E R
I started working with children with disabilities in the 1980s – residential care with teenagers, some of whom were lovely, while others would threaten harm with a combination of hair spray and cigarette lighters! After a few years I left to travel and while studying Buddhism in the Himalayas we had an audience with the Dalai Lama. ‘We don’t need westerners living here as monks and nuns,’ he said. ‘We need you all to go back to your own countries and be social workers or teachers. Give to your communities. That is the greatest work.’
It was 1991. I went back to qualify in Edinburgh and have worked in different roles with children and families ever since. I am now a practice development worker in Cumbria (English Lake District). Social work is an amazing privilege. It really is the greatest work.
I chose Black bin bag because …
… first is the context in which we used black bin bags in early 90s child protection work in Edinburgh. Our practice at the time included using bin bags to transport children’s belongings as we took them into care. A few of the team didn’t drive and would also then have to take children into care on the bus, sitting at the bus stop in the frequent cold rain with a couple of children and any number of bin bags depending if the children had any clothes other than the ones they were wearing. 30 years into my career I reflect now with a sense of shame at some of our practice.
… second, though, is that black binbags also represent a more positive theme, reflecting a degree of professional pride and humanity from another side of our work. Before the term ‘food bank’ became mainstream we had a ‘food cupboard’. The team would organise fund raising – quiz nights and the occasional Ceilidh. The funds were invested at the local supermarket restocking the food – which we gave away to families who were sent our way by the cold-faced benefits office after they’d refuse people emergency payments. At Christmas time people would also leave with donated children’s presents, which would arrive wrapped and ready to distribute. We’d have to unwrap and check them first though, as sometimes people would just wrap up broken toys.
One Christmas Eve I was on duty with my colleague. We were about to close the door at 4pm when a woman, standing quietly in the rain in the empty car park, stepped forward and approached the building. She hesitantly told her story which was being a single mum of five young children and not having either anything for the children for Christmas and also no food. She had been hoping that a miracle would happen and had promised the children that this year they would have a present each. It had got to Christmas Eve lunchtime before she had approached the benefits office for an emergency loan for the food and had been refused. She had never been in a social work office.
The food cupboard was fairly empty but we had one tin of potatoes and some canned ham. We searched another cupboard and found some peas and carrots. Nowhere near enough for this dignified mum and her five young children. We had some creamed rice and long-life yoghurts. We also had six presents for the five children but two of them were broken and so we asked her what she wanted to do. She chose to take four toys plus the most broken one, on the basis that it was more appropriate for her youngest. We had half a tube of glue but it was late now and there wasn’t time to stick the dolls head back together – so we added the tube into one of the black binbags.
She thanked us, so profoundly it made it all feel even more inadequate. She left the office very pleased and relieved. I watched her go back into the street, black binbags swinging at her side on a long walk back along the dual carriageway to the tower blocks. I drove home for Christmas crying.
The mum had been so appreciative but it had felt such a limited piece of work in the face of her family’s needs. Contrast with that with other times in child protection when parents were angry and aggressive but the work felt valuable. Where it is that we find our validation for the work that we do? Small wonder that many social workers struggle to keep a focus on the great work that is done every day. I drove home with a sense of despair that day, but 25+ years later that Christmas Eve is a moment of social work that I can now value.