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Social worker describes opposing former employer to get better deal for service users

Disillusioned by the “process bound approach” of working for a local authority, a social worker has told BASW England’s World Social Work Day event how setting up as an independent social worker had “given her pride back” in her profession.

Kelly Hicks, winner of Adult Social Worker of the Year Award 2011 (England), described her work with Doncaster’s Personalisation Forum Group, comprising 60 mental health service users who felt that they were not being given proper assessments and were being denied access to direct payments.

Ms Hicks outlined how the venture put her in the unusual situation of challenging her former employer on behalf of service users, something she suggested local authority social workers are not empowered to do.

Addressing the England Annual Conference in Stoke-on-Trent, Ms Hicks offered an in-depth account of how the South Yorkshire group rapidly evolved over two years into a multiple award winning organisation, providing 24 hour support to service users.

Uncertain of their aims and with no office space, the initiative has gone on from a stuttering start to achieve some notable successes. Jacqui Thompson, Darron Heads and Martin Haythorne all attended the BASW conference to share their experiences of how the group has helped turn around their lives.

In an emotional address, service user Jacqui Thompson explained how physical health issues led her to sink into depression, and for ten years she and her partner struggled to cope with the demands of family life and access support.

A chance meeting with Kelly Hicks proved transformative, however, as the Doncaster social worker was ultimately able to guide the family through the process of securing social services assistance and direct payments, though not before initial setbacks.

Jacqui described how her excitement on completing the paperwork – “I thought this will change our lives” – soon turned to despair as her care plan, which detailed her plea for support to “live a normal life as a family” by, for example, getting help to access education or childcare, was rejected.

Care managers said that they could not fund the vast majority of her requests, limiting assistance to financing a perching stool and a food processor to help her in preparing meals.

The council then offered a compromise by offering money for a personal assistant, which initially made Jacqui feel even more stressed. She told the packed conference of her concern that a personal assistant would undermine the abilities she does have, and the tasks she is able to undertake for her family, rather than supporting her to do more things herself.

During a tearful account of her experience, Jacqui spoke of “decisions made by people who don’t know me or my family”. However, she also reflected on the impact the funding refusal also had on her social worker, “I felt for my social worker because I felt that she really wanted to help me.”

Jacqui is now prepared to accept the offer of a personal assistant, while also starting her assessment process again. She ended her account by saying that she often hears “but you don’t look sick”, which she tries to take as a compliment – part of trying to “be the person I was before” – but that her problems often go unseen. “I act like I’m not scared, but I am. These are the feelings we need to get social workers to hear.”

Her counterparts in the Personalisation Forum Group, Darron Heads and Martin Haythorne, began their presentation by describing how the group was formed to challenge the council’s decisions, and how no other social workers apart from Ms Hicks would support the challenge because the local authority “paid the wages”.

They said although many of the social workers the group had previously met with may have agreed with their service user perspective, they were constantly overruled by their managers. “We feel frustrated that the people with the knowledge and experience are overruled by those without,” Martin Haythorne said.

Working with Kelly Hicks, however, has proven very different, the pair explained. “She wasn’t there to steer the group but to help with directions”, said Martin.

He commented: “We appreciate how brave Kelly has been and have witnessed the unfairness she has had to battle. We have a strong bond and affection for Kelly, as she became part of our lives, not in charge of them.”

Martin went on to express a frustration at the professional boundaries observed by social workers, which he said can often pose a barrier to an equal relationship with service users. For example, he pointed to how Ms Hicks does not feel able to go for a social drink to celebrate important successes with them: “We don’t like how she can’t share in the joy of our personal success due to her professional boundaries and ethics. We think we should be able to say ‘thanks, and that we like you’ [to social workers]. We should be able to be friends and share with the people who help us.”

They then showed a short film of group members warmly praising Kelly for her support, with one person saying: “She’s one of us, she talks to you on a level. It’s not like ‘I’m up here, and you’re down there, and you must do what I say’”.

BASW’s Hilton Dawson reminded the audience that social workers need the help of service users to challenge local authorities, especially in England. He said social workers are finding it increasingly hard to practice their profession and are seeing an erosion of the social work role. Urging the Health Professions Council (HPC) to pursue the issue, Mr Dawson said: “Social workers are not allowed to advocate for the people that they serve; they are not being allowed to speak up for their profession in the media, and in some instances they are even banned from circulating BASW information to their colleagues”.

For more information about Doncaster’s Personalisation Forum Group, email contact@pfgdoncaster.co.uk