‘You have to like people to be a social worker'
During a social work career spanning almost half a century, Janet Foulds has remained committed to frontline practice. She was instrumental in setting up Derby City Council’s Child Sexual Abuse Unit and used her social work skills supporting people in the aftermath of the Kegworth airplane crash and the Hillsborough stadium tragedy, both in 1989.
Being a social worker, she says, brings those who practice it into contact with the best and the worst of human nature in all its joys and sorrows.
After receiving an honorary degree from the University of Derby, Janet, a longstanding member of BASW and former UK chair, reflects on her career in an interview with PSW editor Shahid Naqvi
SN: How do you think society views social work?
JF: “Society values social work when it knows what it is that we do. I think it is time we put our heads up and say we do a very important job and we need to have the freedom to be a professional as well as an employee.
“One of the difficulties, particularly for those employed by councils, is often you are not allowed to speak. Because of BASW I have been able to speak at Westminster, on the radio, on the telly.
“I have been lucky in that I have managed to get the trust of my employer to speak out because they trusted me. But without BASW it would have been a very different story.
“I found that when you can have a conversation on the radio about what social workers do and the challenges they face people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that’. They are really interested.
“We need to up our game about talking to anyone who will listen and celebrate the job we do every day quietly under the radar.”
SN: What has being a social work meant to you?
JF: “I have been very fortunate in being able to stay in direct practice throughout my almost 50 years. Doing that frontline work has been the best thing about the job.
“It has given me massive opportunities, a chance to do a job with people and make a difference; a chance to work with people who believe in the right thing – social justice – and are sensitive.
“It taught me how social workers can do something really important with children and families. It taught me that it is you, the person, and what you bring to the profession that is the most important thing of all. It's no good going out with the procedural manual, it is about how you are able to reach out to people in distress or people who are angry, to understand why they are behaving like that and respect them for it, even if they are making your life difficult.
“I have seen children go from being so full of shame and not being able to go to school grow through that and learn it was not their fault.
“It has also taught me what I can cope with. Working in large-scale disasters such as Kegworth and Hillsborough, I didn’t know I would be useful but I found I could do it. I could hear the children talking about what happened, see their grief and be close to them.”
SN: What characteristics do you need to be a social worker?
JF: “You have to like people. You have to really want to communicate with people at a whole range of levels. In a disaster situation, you had very few words to use but you still had to communicate with people in a way that meant something to them, so they knew you were there for them.
“So communication skills are key. You can be doing one-to-one with children in the morning and then on your feet in a court of law in the afternoon having to represent your profession. You have to be able to write coherently about your assessments.
“One of the key things I look for in a social worker is humility and patience.”
SN: Are people born social workers?
JF: "A lot of it can be taught but I think you have to have that basic drive to do it. This isn’t a job that you can pick up and put down and just do the minimum.
“I say to people when I am training, we need to have empathy and show empathy. We need to understand walking in people’s shoes, how it feels. But that hurts and that is why social workers need support. If you are upset by something, that is not a failure - we are picking up what people are giving us. A lot of workers don’t get a chance to process that.
“The ideal social worker in my book would be someone who is aware of professional boundaries, the law and the framework, but all that is of no use if you can’t reach the person you are working with. And that is about empathy and being able to get their trust and help them to talk.
“If you get overwhelmed by emotions you can get stuck. So it is about being able to combine the two. But if you haven’t got the empathy, go and work somewhere else because the public know - whether it is an old or young person, they can tell if you care or not.”
SN: What are the challenges facing social work?
JF: “You go into it to work with people, and so often you are pushed away from the rewarding relationship-based social work into computer-based, task-centred work.
“Demand is through the roof which means we are doing far less of the creative, preventative work. When I started out, we worked in the community in a way that destigmatised the role. We were working closely with health visitors, welfare rights workers, nursery workers, police – we were all there on the patch and we could support each other.
“What saddened me is that the pandemic pushed everybody to working at home in isolation. This is all right for some jobs, but for social work I think it is a real risk, particularly for newly qualified staff.
“After being on a visit you could come back to the office to a varied team of workers, some who are very experienced, and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with this’, or if someone had told you to f**k off, a colleague would go and put the kettle on and have a chat.
“Another challenge is that many of the vital services that supported social work have been cut. It pushes social workers into coming in at the last minute, like the police, when things are really bad rather than seeing what you can do to make a positive change by building a relationship with a family. And all of that feeds the myth about social workers being a bad thing.
“The increased pressure of the economic situation has caused poverty levels to go through the roof.
“Also, the drugs problem has increased massively over the years. I don’t recall that being a major issue when I started work, but it has certainly become a major issue now.
“Fighting for our service has been a big challenge. I was told my unit was going to be closed in three months. We pulled out all the stops and fought like mad. We had a demonstration, a petition, got the press involved and won.”
SN: How can social workers respond to these challenges?
JF: “Maybe we need to be getting our social workers ready to be campaigners. I think silent social workers are less effective. We need to be speaking out because it is going to get tougher.
“Social workers need to speak out about what they see and what they know families are going through. They need to talk to politicians about the impact of their decisions.
“They need to have a voice because people who are suffering poverty often don’t have the energy, time or means to speak out. Joining BASW and being part of a larger group for the profession makes you feel supported.
“The times I have really enjoyed in my career is when we were going to Westminster and talking to committees and saying this is what we do.”
SN: How can social workers be better supported?
JF: “I do think we need to acknowledge the pressure on workers and invest more in supporting and sustaining them.
“This is not a computer based profession, it shouldn’t be. And we need to help workers feel competent and confident in relationship-based work and not see it as the little bit you do if you have time. It should be front and centre - that is why people come into social work – to make a difference and that helps everybody. It helps social workers feel good about what they are doing.”
SN: What’s your view on social work regulation?
JF: “I don’t know if it is doing what it should do. Many social workers I speak to don’t feel like they have any relationship with the regulator. They see it as a pain in the neck and you have to prove you have done this, that and the other.
“Social work has to be regulated because people have found their way into the profession and done bad things. But it becomes yet another administrative task for workers. And sometimes the fitness to practice process is more about back-covering for employers.”
SN: What role does technology and AI have to play in social work?
JF: “I sincerely hope that technology can be an aid to the profession rather than a substitute for it. Machines are no substitute because people value that human contact. I’m thinking of older people in particular having someone to talk to and listen and confirm them as people and value them. Machines can’t do that.
“For me the thought of machines replacing social workers fills me with horror.
“We are social animals basically. Let’s not pretend otherwise. So I think we need to use technology wisely and not take the humanity out of social work.
“Your starting point is about humans, the humanity is central to the profession.”
SN: What makes it all worthwhile?
JF: “The other night I was out with my goddaughter and we went to get a taxi and out of the pub comes a former client of mine. He said, ‘Janet, it’s great to see you’, and gave me a hug.
“If I hadn’t had the hope that people can change it would be a difficult job to stick at. But I have seen lots of lovely results and people coming back to me years later just wanting to pop in and say they are getting married or having a baby. People do remember you.”