My response came after months of struggling to engage a couple who were expecting their fourth child whilst continuing to live on the edge of society. The couple were well known to most agencies around the city with a reputation that preceded them.
I had known of them through sharing an office with the social workers for three of their older children and, at the beginning of my work, very little appeared to have changed. Their lifestyle was characterised by alcohol misuse and antisocial behaviour, violence and poor mental health. I knew that my work with this family would need me to constantly assess and reassess the risks to myself and, following the birth, the risks to the baby.
To my amazement, this family had agreed to the BBC filming my work with them for the series Protecting Our Children. Unbeknown to me, the father had a longstanding interest in music and the media and felt a strong desire to share his story.
He felt misunderstood by society and, whist acknowledging his current difficulties, had aspirations to use his music to positively influence young people and warn them against drug and alcohol use. The father's interest in telling his story provided an opportunity for me to talk with the mother that I might not otherwise have been afforded. We were able to talk about and address the family's immediate practical needs, whilst beginning the process of building trust.
I began conversations with the mother about engaging with antenatal care and reducing her alcohol consumption. My priority was to protect the developing baby from the harmful effects of his mother's alcohol use, whilst assessing whether these parents were capable of caring for a child, if appropriate services were provided to support them.
As the winter passed my attempts at building trust, being clear and consistent, listening, being empathetic and respectful whilst trying to understand the couple did not appear to be influencing them to bring about any changes. If anything, my involvement appeared to be causing them increased distress, as it brought back memories of the children no longer in their care. Violence and alcohol use increased. The mother was admitted to hospital on two occasions, having spontaneously taken large quantities of paracetamol with alcohol. The hospital admissions, however, gave me further opportunity to spend time with the mother, to introduce her to the specialist midwife, to have a scan and health check. The baby appeared to be fine.
On the second admission, the mother stated that she did not want to return to her partner and, through close work with the housing department, safe, supportive accommodation was found for her. It's impossible to know exactly how my work with the mother had influenced her decision, but I felt privileged to be able to help her to identify that she wanted a chance to care for this baby and to support her in bringing that hope to fruition.
The nature of my work changed dramatically at this point. Both parents readily sought my advice, reassurance, emotional and practical support. I became coordinator of services, advocate, advisor, role model, helper and ‘boundary setter' for the parents, as I worked closely with them, encouraging them to make ‘good' choices and take responsibility for their lives.
The extent of their isolation became clear; there were no other services involved at this time and the couple did not have any family members who could offer consistent emotional or practical support. I worked closely with other agencies, trying to set up appropriate packages of care for each parent.
The mother settled into her new accommodation and worked hard to sort out all the practical issues for her new life. She improved her diet and started attending all her antenatal appointments; she started to bond with the unborn baby and take care of herself.
I felt encouraged that she may be able to care for this baby, provided support and clear boundaries were in place for her. My concern was that her own emotional needs would prevent her from bonding with the baby and from being able to consistently put him and his care first.
The baby was born, fit and well. His mother cared for him during the hospital stay and then in a mother and baby foster placement, until one day, completely out of the blue, the mother took the baby to visit his father and, while there, drank a significant quantity of alcohol. She had broken her 'partnership agreement', a contract between herself and children's services and had put the baby at risk of significant harm, as she was not able to care for him, due to her level of intoxication and the potential for volatile or violent behaviour between the parents, meant the baby could have been physically harmed.
First and foremost, as a hospital social worker, my role was to ensure that the baby was protected from harm. It was my job, therefore to tell the mother that the baby was to be removed from her care and that she needed to leave the mother and baby foster placement. The strength of emotions was intense, but the baby needed an advocate more than anyone else at that point.
Delivering difficult news and managing an array of emotions are crucial skills for social workers. Although it is never easy, maintaining a focus on the child's needs and feeling passionate about preventing child abuse make it possible.