Life as a novice support worker

“Don’t ask them direct questions”, “don’t go into their rooms without other staff present”, “don’t let anyone not in the diary through the front door” and “don’t show sympathy, only empathy”. And so began my introduction to my new role as a support worker to eight 16–18 year olds in a home in West London. Mere moments after gratefully receiving these brief nuggets of wisdom from my new colleagues in lieu of any formal training, I was beckoned to examine the case files of each of the residents of the home. If I was intrigued about the world I was stepping into before, I was soon paralysed by my fears that I wouldn’t be able to relate to many of the residents as I had few reference points in my own life that mirrored some of the challenges they’d already faced. Some had fled war, lost family members and had been smuggled through several countries eventually arriving in the UK without the ability to speak English. Others had been harmed by the very people that were meant to protect them — their parents and wider family.

But before I had time to imagine how I might interact with the residents, I soon learnt the reality that faces many support workers. Bureaucracy. Lots of it. In response to various abuse scandals over the years, care homes obsessively monitor their residents and the goings-on in the area to ensure as much as possible that the residents are protected. Events that might seem insignificant at the time may gain greater importance later on. When a resident remains out after curfew, for example, the car that has been parked opposite the home all evening but is now gone, may need to be investigated. This focus on surveillance is reinforced by the physical geography of the main office I work in, which acts almost as a sentry tower providing 270-degree of vision across the street. My inexperience results in immediate paranoia leading me to suspect almost any individual of nefarious deeds. My colleagues with instincts honed over decades are, in contrast, far more adept at identifying suspect behaviour.

After a few days and having spent time with some of the residents eating takeaway pizza and playing board games, I’m confused. In the outside world, some of the residents face criminal charges and I’ve been warned about their potential to be volatile. But here in the house, they are pleasant to be around even if they — like most young adults — have short attention spans. I’m told this is at least in part because they are curious about me, especially as I’m closer in age to them, but I’m also assured that with time some of my initial impressions will be shattered. These initial glimpses though lead me to reflect on their vulnerability and I can’t help thinking that for some of them, their harsh exterior is borne of challenging circumstances. As one of the residents said to me, “out there, I can’t show my emotions”.

Despite my inclination to see the residents in a softer light, there are already two questions I’m grappling with in conversations with my colleagues. For residents like the ones I’m supporting, what represents progress? One colleague identifies progress in the behaviour of one resident who now leaves the house to smoke marijuana, whereas before she’d smoke in the house. Another highlights that getting the residents through their time at the home safely should be considered an achievement in and of itself.

But these debates about progress also tie into another question that emerged after two of the residents missed a mandatory monthly house meeting. What, if any, consequences do the residents face for poor behaviour? I soon learn that short of kicking out a resident, there are few meaningful consequences. The problem is the residents know this and enjoy the freedom it gives them. Any willingness to abide by the rules is largely reliant on their respect for key staff, of which it should be said there is plenty. But the inability to teach the residents about the consequences of their behaviour poses some tough questions both about their potential to learn from past behaviour and also about the type of adult that is being produced by such a system. We may be failing in many cases.

But there is another perspective. Many of the residents have only known turmoil and instability in their lives prior to moving to the home (and continue to do so). To have a place that is a true refuge, where they won’t — in all but the most extreme cases — be rejected and cast out for their behaviour (as many have previously been elsewhere), is something that perhaps every single resident needs. They are given a safe space to learn from their own mistakes at their own pace. Progress might be slow. Progress may not manifest until a decade later. But a two-year stint in the home gives them a fighting chance of righting themselves.

On my first day, one of my colleagues described herself as a “frontline foot soldier”. After finishing my first week, it’s hard not to disagree with her. Social care is where you can see the messy reality (and often failure) of successive government’s policies in a role range of areas such as education, child sexual exploitation, drugs and gangs and even the UK’s policing culture. It’s easy to see why some of my colleagues are cynical and battle-hardened. On a daily basis, I’ve already seen that they fight on behalf of the residents against a system which doesn’t always make sense, particularly when it comes to the sentencing of those who have sexually exploited a child. On the frontline of social care, you soon find your beliefs being tested. I don’t yet know what I’ll take away from this experience, but I do know that I’m already better for it.

Sunil Suri is an Autumn 2016 Year Here Fellow. Year Here is a one-year social innovation course that aims to build the next generation of social enterprise leaders.