My name is Laura Lawrie. I am married, with two grown-up daughters. I retired five years ago at the age of fifty-seven, having worked for the Local Authority for twenty years as a Senior Practitioner Social Worker. I had always envisaged working until age sixty but when the opportunity to retire early arose, I did not hesitate.
It was exciting to start a new chapter in my life, one where we could plan a break at any time, without considering annual leave or work commitments. Feeling liberated, we planned trips to Europe and further afield, all of which were wonderful and full of new experiences. We had also enjoyed holidays in France for many years and therefore decided to split our time between our homes in Scotland and rural France.
Our plans like many others, came to an abrupt end with Brexit, a pandemic and Ryanair ceasing to operate direct flights from Limoges to Scotland. We were in France when lockdown was imposed and, not knowing how long the restrictions would last, we decided to head home to Scotland. We completed our mandatory Attestation forms detailing our reasons for travelling to Nantes airport; not surprisingly we were stopped by the Gendarmerie, who enquired where we were going. When we explained that we were heading for a flight to Edinburgh they looked perplexed, believing that all flights were grounded, and therefore asked did we have our own plane?
On arriving at a deserted airport and departure lounge, we questioned whether or not we had got things drastically wrong. It transpired that one hundred and thirty people had checked in online, but in the end only five had turned up! Our return flight was like having a private plane to ourselves. Edinburgh airport was like the Mary Celeste, only good old Marks and Spencer was open, but devoid of any customers. Needing to isolate for two weeks, we stocked up and headed for home.
The usual pile of post awaited us and I was intrigued to see a letter from the SSSC (work) asking if I would come out of retirement. The tone of the letter was one of ‘pleading’, with financial incentives and all red tape taken care of. The pandemic had highlighted the urgent need for the skills of experienced social workers, but many had left the profession as soon as they could feasibly do so.
High volumes of caseloads, little resources, unsupportive management, a blame culture and investigations that thwarted any creative, innovative practice. I had qualified later in life and even though remuneration hadn’t come close to my previous employment in finance, I was for many years passionate about work and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was part of a specialist physical disability team who in the main, assessed clients under the age of sixty-five who were looking for a service to manage their daily living.
Sadly, over the years I saw significant changes that were introduced to ‘streamline’ service which actually did the opposite. No longer was the assessment process shared with the service user to identify their medical, psychological, social and housing needs and the subsequent mobilising of resources. Instead, we saw the completion of a twenty-eight page assessment booklet of tick-boxes that did not come close to accurately assessing their need. Given that many of my clients were chronically sick or terminally ill, the completion of such a document was insensitive and at best, not user-friendly.
As a practitioner I had lost any professional autonomy and the role became more office-based where I sat for hours each day, inputting onto a computer the tick-box answers. Waiting lists inevitably soared and the continual changes to several new assessment procedures required attendance at endless IT courses, thus depleting any scope for proper social work. Lip service was paid by management when those on the front line complained that their skills were being eroded and that any unqualified person could complete the assessment.
For me, the introduction of giving service users a Direct Payment for them to arrange their own care as they saw fit, was the final straw. The concept of empowering service users was admirable and always preferable; I considered use of the provision in itself excellent, but it was the abuse of the system itself that was ludicrous and almost laughable. To highlight the ineffectiveness of the provision I can recall our social work admin team liaising with the travel agent in our local shopping centre as service users chose to spend their annual Direct Payment on foreign holidays for themselves and family. I remember one service user asking me if he had enough money in his account for “a wee Urquhart tour”! The saddest part was that unscrupulous family or friends took advantage, and service users were often left struggling after the ‘Florida Trip’ and invariably came back to social work requesting replacement funding. As the Local Authority has a duty of care, duplicate funding was granted, at taxpayers’ expense.
Despite the latter part of my social work career, I do have many good memories. I was privileged to be party to events or a crisis that required support. There were extremely sad times but equally there were times when I could advocate for a service user and bring about a positive change. One special memory that I hold dear was the invitation to a client’s sixty-fifth birthday party. She had been orphaned as a child and had stayed with her adoptive family her entire life. Technically I was not permitted to have any contact with service users outside work, and thus I tried to decline tactfully the Saturday night party. As my client was due to be transferred to another team and I would no longer be her worker, she was adamant that she wanted me to attend, and stated that she would change the date to accommodate me. I tentatively agreed to pop in for a few minutes. I had intended to keep a low profile and as the party was to be held in the garden, I thought this would be possible, but on arriving I saw her friends and family line the street and whoop and applaud, proclaiming that K***’s social worker had arrived. Apparently they had waited for me to arrive before playing my client’s favourite song; ‘I’m nobody’s Child.’ I could relay many funny and unbelievable stories but mustn’t do so in order to protect the guilty!
Social workers are rarely acknowledged for their tireless efforts to uphold and promote service users’ rights, or for their negotiating skills to obtain every possible resource to enhance lives, whilst balancing risk and protection concerns. Many times I heard weary workers proclaim that they were “damned if they did and damned if they didn’t”. It was a no-win, thankless task. Sadly, it took the loss and devastating effects of the pandemic for those in authority to abandon needless bureaucracy to acknowledge that skilled workers were required who could offer emotional support, counselling, carer support, liaising with health professionals and external agencies.
Within my previous department, none of the early retired social workers came back to work. Some did voluntary work in care homes to alleviate the pressure on already overworked and underpaid carers. As for the younger social workers in post and newly-qualified social workers, I can only commend them for their commitment to the job and hope that lessons have been learned from deviating from the core values of social work.