‘Put the hammer down, Billy’ – Memoirs of a Social Worker
Never shout at a man while he is wielding a chainsaw, particularly when it’s buzzing. I’d had enough though. The ceiling in the portacabin was shaking, the light fittings rattling like loose teeth. The noise was unbearable, mechanical diggers churning up the earth and a pounder pummelling away.
I yelled at chainsaw man that we were trying to work with troubled kids. His angry response was: “Don’t talk to me about troubled kids, you b******s made my life hell.”
Before returning to slicing through metal, he revealed that he had grown up in care. Barely making myself heard over the din I said I was sorry to hear that, realising that the demolition wasn’t going to cease for us.
Feeling intense frustration, I rang Steve, one of my managers. “I’m f*****g sick of this,” I told him. I’d already reported the issue to ‘Cool Hand Luke’, my other manager, but he wasn’t listening.
Steve was actually quite a good bloke; we’d recently been on a big night out and ended up in a dodgy rock bar having a drunken debate about who was the best 80s ska band. He’d stayed at mine afterwards and despite the late night I found him troubled at the sink washing up at 6.30am.
I asked him if he was a stress head? He told me that he liked doing the dishes because he got a feeling of satisfaction at the end, having made the effort. I quipped unlike social work then. Anyway, our professional relationship was tested by the increasingly dangerous conditions.
Anyway, back to the phone call… Forcefully, I asked Steve how was I expected to safely run an alternative to custody for high risk offenders with an old school being bulldozed next door? The criteria for young people being on the programme was that they had committed crimes which had a maximum sentence of 14 years or more – arson, GBH with intent to endanger life, rape. We could hardly claim it was a safe environment with all the work tools lying around.
The trouble with Billy
Billy was a wild kid with a wilder mother. Her opening line to each worker was always: “Are you qualified, and do you know what you’re doing?”
Billy had bitten part of another lad’s ear off in a Tyson-esque altercation. His mother dismissed it as kids’ stuff. She had a ‘phet’ [amphetamine] problem, although despite her hostilities would give gifts to workers she liked. I had to remind one of them that accepting a leather jacket from her was blurring the boundaries.
Billy was proving difficult to contain. He had grabbed the steering wheel of a worker’s car while they were doing 40 miles an hour down a dual carriageway. He was currently on bail for throwing a hammer at an adult, fracturing his skull.
And now, Billy was swaggering around, swinging a new hammer in his hand.
When I shouted at him, “Put the hammer down, Billy!” Steve thought I was winding him up. Unfortunately not.
Steve told me to look for another office. But Cool Hand Luke pompously asked him whether he thought it was up to him, giving that he was only the regional programme manager.
One of the difficulties of having two separate lines of management was it was always unclear who was the decision-maker. Steve’s working relationship with Cool Hand Luke was marginally better than that of the previous manager’s Pam. I would sit in supervision relaying his instructions to her.
Pam’s considered response was that she didn’t give a f**k what he said, and it wasn’t up to him. You can imagine I found this situation frustrating and confusing. I spoke to my doctor about the various difficulties I was experiencing. Conscious that relatively recently I’d been off with work-related stress, she observed that it was like putting someone recovering from lung cancer in a smoke-filled environment.
Cool Hand Luke rang me asking me to come to a meeting. Not for the first time I refused. An older and calmer colleague, Fred, however, convinced me to go and so reluctantly I walked into a room where my nemesis, his deputy and the head of HR were sitting officiously behind a long table.
I asked if I was being suspended again and told them if so, I would be putting in a grievance.
I turned to walk out. Cool Hand Luke stuttered, asking me to hold on. He clearly didn’t want his bullying examined and exposed by anyone.
I said that as a team we wanted to achieve results, and I wanted the unacceptable conditions sorted out. Unable to make a decision, as usual, he pontificated, saying he wanted me to take some time off as he was worried that I was going to “pop”.
Feeling I was likely to lose it, I reluctantly agreed and went to inform my team. They were incensed and barged into the manager’s office complaining about how confrontational it was when all that was being asked for was reasonable working conditions.
Later on, Cool Hand Luke said to me that he was shocked by how my team had appeared in his office tigerishly wanting to defend me. I was tempted to reply to him that I suppose he didn’t know how being liked feels.
Resolution, of sorts
Ultimately, the wholly unacceptable situation was only resolved when the demolition workers dug up the path to the portacabin, preventing any access.
Cool Hand Luke got his comeuppance when an exploitation scandal broke. He was asked to explain his strategic plan to elected members. As he was tongue-tied and incoherent, they asked him to step down.
Fred retired early saying that the job was going to kill him. He subsequently moved over to manage a child protection team but had not worked in that area for years. He found the pressure relentless, and it began to impact on his health. Having been tee-total for years he began drinking again. Previously we had done fell runs together, but he no longer had the energy for this. Consequently, he put on weight and developed diabetes.
A few years after he retired, the first lethal wave of Covid struck. He contracted it in December 2020 and by January 2021 he was dead. I cannot say the job killed Fred, but it made him vulnerable. He was a great man and a great friend and is missed by all who knew him.
Despite the above challenges we did indeed achieve fantastic results. The programme was well resourced. It was the flagship of New Labour’s ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ approach. I had taken on the management role halfway through the first year and I couldn’t spend the funding quickly enough, ultimately having to give a large chunk back.
The 25-hour a week programme consisted of employment, education, and training, offence focused work, reparation, and constructive leisure activities. All the young people on the programme had been permanently excluded from school. However, this provision gave them the opportunity to re-engage. Many undertook conservation work reconstructing bridges and clearing overgrown woodland paths. Each came away with an ASDAN award.
Self-esteem was built through a simple work routine, being given rigger boots and a bacon butty for lunch. Young people who had frequently been told they would amount to nothing given the right conditions were able to feel they could make a positive contribution. They frequently asked to be put back on the programme after it had finished.
The inspectorate came and were incredibly impressed by what they saw. Having spent a week with us, including a substantial amount of time with the young people, we were graded as excellent.
It is one of the collective achievements of which I am most proud.
I have no wish to end on a negative but after a number of years the funding was cut leading to the programme being disbanded. It was apparent that no consideration had been given to the vast amount of money saved by having an alternative to prison.
Sam Waterhouse is a newly retired social worker who spent most his career working in the south of England. BASW members can read the next extract from his memoir in the August/September edition of Professional Social Work magazine. Names and some details have been changed where appropriate to protect identities