AILSA Stephens cut hair, sold holidays and worked for a financial organisation before becoming a social worker.
A pretty dramatic change of career, then.
“I was caring for my gran at the time, and a friend had done a ‘return to college’ nursing course,” she says.
“They were running a course alongside for social work.”
Encouraged by her husband and friends, Ailsa, of Swansea, signed up and later enrolled on a university degree course.
But, partly because she was a mother herself, she didn’t envisage working with children.
“I thought it must be horrific, listening to all those sad stories,” she says.
But 12 years on Ailsa speaks passionately about her job as a children’s social worker at Carmarthenshire Council.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she says.
Also sharing their insights with the Local Democracy Reporter Service are the council’s head of children’s service, Stefan Smith, who qualified as a social worker in 1983, and Helen Morgan, who qualified in 2016.
The trio are keen to dispel what they say is an unwarranted perception that social workers go around removing children from families.
A lot of the work is helping families help themselves.
“I am sure families are a bit scared about social work,” says Mr Smith.
“Actually, we want the same thing as them. What we want to do is give them that help and support so they can be like everyone else – without a social worker’s involvement.
“We don’t go in with the idea of wanting to split up families.
“I always say that to families – we want to avoid what you want to avoid.”
He adds there are exceptions, like child sexual exploitation cases, when removing the child is required.
Ailsa did social work placements while at university, but says nothing really prepared her for the job.
Recalling her first few weeks, she says: “It was exciting, it was scary.
“You think, ‘Am I going to carry on doing this job? Am I going to be good enough?’
“The way I learn is by having a go. And I love meeting different people.”
She adds: “The best outcome we have with a family is when we close a case.
“It means we did what we wanted to do and what the family wanted to achieve.”
But the work is challenging and at times harrowing, with families sometimes in very dire straits.
“You see physical harm, you see bruises,” she says.
“But the parents we work with don’t intentionally set out to harm their children.”
In the rare cases when court orders are required to remove children, it is traumatic for all concerned.
Ailsa says there have been times when she feels like she is “firefighting”, wondering what the way forward is, fearing it won’t end well when a family – at first at least – doesn’t want a social worker there.
But the reward is when that family, after some support, then gets in touch with her if they need help.
“You get to know how families function,” she says.
Family tension, stress and incidents of aggression are not new but Ailsa says the complexity of cases has increased.
She says social media has a “massive impact”, with some children unable to escape bullying when it is online, and young people’s expectations more generally influenced by what they see on the internet.
Social workers can, quite naturally, feel the strain once their working day is over.
“You deal with really difficult situations,” says Ailsa. “But you learn to deal with it as you become more experienced.
“Mine is to have a bit of a warped sense of humour!”
Children’s social workers at Carmarthenshire’s three district offices – Ammanford, Llanelli and Carmarthen – work in pods, with peer support and input from educational psychologists and family support workers.
“It’s good having those conversations in the office,” says Ailsa.
She is keen to point out she works with some “wonderful families”, and says she has learned from some of them.
Ailsa says there can be a lot of pressure at Christmas, and that it was important to remind families of their strengths.
Building relationships is key. “We are not trying to catch them out,” she says.
Mr Smith oversees a range of non-statutory children’s services in Carmarthenshire, as well the sharp end of the service where Ailsa and Helen work.
Children’s services are embedded alongside education, rather than adult social services, as is the traditional approach.
“This is much better,” says Mr Smith. “We are all working with children.”
Mr Smith’s first social worker post in 1983 was in Swansea, where he lives.
After 10 years he got a job in Llanelli, for what was then Dyfed County Council.
“The job has changed massively,” he says. “Domestic abuse was not recognised in the same way back then.
“You’d talk to police, and they’d say it was ‘a family thing’. The impact and damage on a child was not understood.”
He adds: “We didn’t know about child sexual exploitation like we do now.
“It was a different environment. You were still taking children into care for behavioural reasons.
“With mental health, we have moved away from strict diagnosis – that you have to have a certain condition – to your general mental health and well-being. And schools are far more aware of this.”
Experts say that children exposed to traumas such as abuse, domestic violence or parental drug taking, have increased stress levels.
The more of these experiences they have, the greater the chance of health and social problems later in life.
According to Public Health Wales, one in 10 adults aged 18-69 in Wales experienced sexual abuse as a child, while 16% witnessed domestic violence.
Social workers, says Mr Smith, try to undo that damage.
“The most harrowing thing is the emotions of the people you work with,” he says.
“You are dealing with people who are going through very difficult times in their lives.
“It makes you realise how lucky you are. It also motivates you.
“It’s not about being a crusader. It’s about making a significant difference that stands people in good stead.”
On occasions, children have to be placed with foster carers.
“We keep them (the children) locally, although some are just over the border in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion,” says Mr Smith.
“And we are one of the best authorities in Wales in keeping them at their current school.”
He adds: “Foster carers do a great job – we always need more of them.”
For social workers, paperwork is part of the job. Records of decisions are important, and evidence is critical when applying to a judge for a care order.
Intriguingly, some people who have been in the care system request their records later in life.
“People get older and reflect more,” explains Mr Smith. “They want to understand their life.”
Asked what makes a good social worker, the 60-year-old replies: “It’s the empathy, the commitment, the optimism. And relationship building, and judgement.”
He adds: “You have got to be a resilient person. Not everyone can be a social worker. It’s a difficult job.”
Council budgets have been squeezed in recent years, and Mr Smith says Welsh Government grants have become increasingly important.
“I’m lucky – I think this is a really well run county,” he says. “You have to make efficiencies, and you have to be a bit more imaginative.
“But I’m pleased to say my social worker teams haven’t been touched (by cuts).”
Carmarthenshire’s children’s services has 106 social worker posts, and its net budget this year is around £20.5 million.
Like all councils Carmarthenshire has an ever-changing number of looked-after children (currently 180), children on the child protection register (currently 63), and children at risk of sexual exploitation (currently 32).
One of Mr Smith’s newest recruits, university graduate Helen, began her children’s social worker role in November 2017.
She says new staff have a protected caseload and are not allocated child protection cases.
Helen describes the pod system, with the different perspective colleagues bring and the team decision-making, as “really useful”.
Based out of Llanelli, Helen says she works with very different families, and diffferent ethnicities.
“Our work is so diverse,” she says. “I don’t think people fully understand what we do.
“There’s the complexity of substance misuse. There are lots of manmade substances, and I think everyone is still learning about that.”
Domestic violence, she says, can make children withdrawn.
“They might not want to go to school because they are worried about the other parent,” says Helen.
“And they can get caught up in it, and get physically hurt themselves.”
Helen says building relationships with families is the most important aspect of her job.
“It’s much easier to ask people to work with you,” she says.
The 27-year-old, who is from Cross Hands but currently lives in Port Talbot, says it’s rewarding when families who have been through tough times make positive changes.
“I think if you are well supported, you can overcome anything that you’re finding difficult,” she says.
Helen describes her first experience in court to request a care order as “nerve-wracking”, and “rightly so”.
She says: “It’s a massive decision if you’re in court.”
Carmarthenshire provides a range of family services, and can refer people to other organisations.
Mr Smith says: “People should not be afraid to ask for help.”
– If you need help from Carmarthenshire Council’s children’s services, phone the referral team on 01554 742322, out-of-hours 0300 3332222.
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