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  • The language of social work and young people

    Luke Rodgers, Director of Strategy at the Care Leaders and Julie Tyas, registered social worker and Senior Strategy Lead at Servelec, explore how the language used in a young person’s care record can impact their future…

    Social workers are masters of effective communication. To be able to help the vulnerable young people in their care, they’ve had to acquire a repertoire of skills, including; relationship building, listening, observing, as well as developing a cultural awareness and sensitivity.

    When it comes to recording information into a child’s care record, that effective communication becomes even more important. The language used could go on to impact that young person’s future; even acting as a barrier or a passport to how they’re treated.

    The narrative we identify with

    Luke Rodgers, Director of Strategy at the Care Leaders, an organisation that encourages young people from looked after care to break away from traditional stereotypes of underachieving children, took the opportunity to discuss the importance of language in care recording at Servelec’s National Social Care User Conference, held in Birmingham earlier this year.

    “The way the ‘world’ talks about us, acts as a guide to how others view us, and gives us a narrative to identify with,” said Luke, who himself spent time in care. “The narratives that society creates become our internal beliefs of ourselves.

    “For example, the word ‘crisis’ subliminally triggers us all. It significantly impacts our approach to situations, yet it’s used as an umbrella term in case recording – it can be used to record serious incidents such as a suicide attempt, but can also be used when a young person swears at their foster carer.”

    Children in care are among the most vulnerable in society, so their care record should clearly explain what has happened to them. It should track and record any subsequent key events, both to inform those who are providing support to the child today, and, for when they become adults, to help them understand why certain decisions were made for them.

    An overstretched and understaffed care workforce means that a lot of positive events are often not recorded. As Luke explained, the result of a long list of negative behaviours that have built up over time, create a certain profile of a person that may not tell the full story.

    “These incidents often don’t contextualise, they don’t give a lot of detail, and more often than not, they’re not written with a view that the child will one day be reading it.”

    Luke believes that as well as including all statutory information, care records should give a wider context to help care workers understand why incidents might’ve occurred. He gives some examples below:

    • Statutory information: Michael has low attendance at school and is disengaged with other pupils.
    • Moral obligation: Michael has been to 11 primary schools and feels like he’s always losing friends.
    • Statutory information: Michael has stolen previous foster carer’s car in the night.
    • Moral obligation: Michael felt frightened and alone about being in foster care and took his foster carer’s car to see his mum. He was shaken and deeply regrets his actions.

    Former social worker Julie Tyas, echoed this sentiment: “When recording information into the case management system, that data is based on things like policy and procedure. Because of time constraints, there’s often very little scope to record a deeper insight into each person’s situation and their environment.”

    The tools to tell the story correctly

    During her time as Servelec’s Senior Strategy Lead, Julie has partnered with a number of social care teams in local authorities across the country to help them update their use of language and core terminology as part of a wider step-change to improve social work case recording.

    She added: “We’ve been helping social care teams to get a full insight into each person’s situation and their environment, and to help them collate that crucial social care data in their Mosaic case management system.

    “We recently ran a series of workshops with local authorities to find out what changes they’d like to see in social work terminology. As a result of that, we’ve changed ‘looked after children’, also recorded as ‘LAC’ to simply ‘looked after,’ on our social care forms and in the front end of Mosaic, to remove any negative connotations or assumptions. The term LAC is so widely used across the sector, but the evidence from our workshops suggested that young people did not want to be known as ‘LAC’ and if this is no longer used in recording, we believe if it’s used less we’ll start to see a wider cultural change across the care sector.”

    An age old problem for social workers is how you record information – do you record in the first person or third? What level of detail do you give? Do you quote the child verbatim? Online portals, Julie said, are a great way of getting a young person’s voice and views into their care record, in their own words, helping to provide that much richer story and more accurate language. “And in the midst of a pandemic, online portals can help further support the continuation of care when social workers may not be able to make 1:1 visits,” she added. “At Servelec, we’ve reacted quickly to produce new COVID-19 forms, which can be accessed via Mosaic’s online portal and help with the recording of information.

    “A case record is not just a bank of information about a young person, but a tool to assist social workers in making the best decisions, and we believe these small but significant cultural changes help ensure that every step of recording adheres to that.”

    The administrative pressure around recording information needs to be balanced with the fact that it can greatly contribute to and strengthen the relationship between a social worker and child. The words we choose to record information can create a narrative of someone, it can paint a picture of them on the page, and that narrative can go on to influence how they’re treated, and it can greatly shape the decisions they go on to make when they enter the adult world.


    Stuart O'Brien

    All stories by: Stuart O'Brien

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