Future You podcast transcript

Life as a social worker

Henry Godfrey-Evans, Editorial assistant
August, 2022

In this episode of Future You, we speak to Emily Otvos about the life of a social worker, the appeals and the challenges alike. Hear about which characteristics serve you well to drive you forward in the profession


In order of first appearance:

  • Henry Godfrey-Evans - editorial assistant, Prospects
  • Emily Otvos - newly qualified social worker, Hertfordshire County Council


Henry Godfrey-Evans: This is our first episode in the 'life is a...' series where we get a backstage chat with individuals in particular professions to find out what the job is really like.

Hello, and welcome to Future You, the podcast brought to you by graduate careers experts, Prospects. We are here to help with your career goals. My name is Henry Godfrey-Evans. And in this episode, we speak to Emily Otvos, who's a newly qualified social worker. To get to know more about the role we delve into the rewarding experiences, the challenges and discover things people just don't know about social work. So Emily, would you like to introduce yourself?

Emily Otvos: Sure. So my name is Emily. I'm a newly qualified social worker, based in Hertfordshire, completed the Frontline programme last year, so I qualified in September, and I've been in my current role for nearly a year (11 months) based on children's emphasis.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: And what did you actually study at university and what happened for you to start considering a career in social work?

Emily Otvos: So my route into social work was kind of non-conventional, I guess, it was never something that I'd really considered or heard about or thought of. And I studied international relations and history at uni. And always had kind of thought I wanted to go into law in some sense was kind of a long term plan, but really loved humanities at schools, I want to study that at uni as well. And, and then in my third year, I was working in a bar in the student union alongside my degree. And someone came in one morning with a flyer for the Frontline programme and asked if they put it up. And I was like, 'Oh, let me just see that before you put up'. And I was like, 'Oh, this actually looks really cool'. I'd never heard of it before, never, as I said, considered it and applied and was accepted. And that's kind of how I ended up here. I felt like it fit with a lot of the things that I was looking for in terms of, I wanted a role that was kind of advocacy-focused social justice inspired, working with people at grassroots working within communities, trying to help, in the least cheesy way possible. And this kind of ticks a lot of boxes, and it was just an avenue that had never really been opened or even spoken about before as something that I could potentially do.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: So what was the application like?

Emily Otvos: Oh, it was really long

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Was it?

Emily Otvos: It was... I'm trying to remember now. So it was probably like an initial written application, initial testing, video interview, and then an assessment centre for a day with five different exercises. And so it was quite a process. I think it probably took around two months, a month to two months overall. So yeah, it was it was kind of like any other job. I guess they they wanted to make the assessment process quite rigorous. I know from friends, in terms of corporate assessment centres, and it sounded quite similar. The things that we were made to do. So yeah, quite a quite an intense application process.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Yeah, what does your typical day look like now?

Emily Otvos: So typical day, I currently have 18 children on my caseload. So newly qualified social worker supposed to be capped at 15. In fact, we've got a lot of cases and kids at the moment. And those those children range in terms of thresholds that we work at. So I work in a family safeguarding team, which essentially means the initial assessment of the family, and where they're kind of at when that assessment takes place is already done. And then it comes to me if it meets certain thresholds. So the lowest threshold that we work at is child in need, which means, kind of, risk of or suffering impairment. So it could be, you know, less significant things, than kind of violence, but still maybe aspects of domestic violence, or, home conditions or issues around finances, and how that's contributing to the children not meeting their development goals, behaviour... it's called Section 17 within the Children's Act. So that's the kind of lowest threshold that my team take cases on. But the majority of my cases are on something called Section 47, which is child protection. So that's defined as the child being at risk of or currently suffering significant harm. So significant harm is defined as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or neglect. So that's kind of the major when we think of our child protection teams. That's that's the kind of major remit that we work in. The goal is to obviously always get families moved off child protection and back down to child in need and then to closure. But, yeah, I'd say probably most of my cases, start on child protection or escalated to. And then we work in PLO, which is the Public Law Outline. So that's the step before we go to court. So it's kind of between child protection and courts. And then we have court proceedings as well, where if the risks are that significant, or the harm is that significant, we have to initiate care proceedings and go into a legal framework. So they're the kind of four thresholds there, I guess, with all of my families based across those four thresholds? Majority of my children are still living with their parents, but I've got a couple of children that are in foster care, or in their early adoption placement.

Every day, sorry, to return to the question, every day is completely different in terms of, obviously, the types of interventions that you're going to be doing with your families massively range across those I guess four remits, so your family that you're working with or children in need, would be very different to the family that you're working with in court, and the risks would be different. I'd say generally, it's comprised of kind of parenting sessions. So we have in my team family safeguarding modules, so we go through kind of a programme of work with parents, one to one, I do school visits to my kids that are in school, home visits, and my kids that aren't in school yet, or we also have to do home visits, of course, and see children at home and at school. But the school visits, and sometimes, home visits as well involve kind of direct work with children. So gathering their wishes and feelings. Sometimes it's just playing games and having fun, because you don't want kids to come and resent you and think, 'Oh, my God, she's here again. And I have to do tell her my deepest, darkest secret' says a bit of a mix of the work with kids. And some days, I'm in court and being cross-examined by barristers around my care planning. Some days, I'm just trying to catch up with a mountain of admin. Chairing reviews. So every family once a month has a review, regardless of the plan they're on, you're coordinating essentially, all of the different professionals that surround that family. And there can be, I'd say, probably at least like five to 10 professionals involved with every family. So you have to kind of remember everyone and everything and what everyone's saying, when somebody calls you remember who the health visitor is for that family and this domestic abuse practitioners working with them and not with them. And so yeah, it's a lot of kind of coordinating other professionals and agencies and really making sure the family has support across every single round that they possibly need support in. So yeah, sorry for that very long answer for that.

Henry Godfrey-Evans

No it's great, it's comprehensive.

Emily Otvos

Always important to just explain the different thresholds, because, yeah, sometimes social work and Children's Services is kind of seen as quite homogenous, and we will just, I don't know what people... I know what I thought before I went in, which was I had no clue what a social worker did, and what the remit of social work intervention was, and who do they work with? Who do they not? But yeah, it's helpful for us as well, legally, and kind of keeping us in check to have those four remits of really clear. These are the different thresholds that we work at. And it makes it easier to analyse risk, as well.

Henry Godfrey-Evans

Okay, so that's really interesting. I know, some of the examples you mentioned earlier, like they sounded quite harrowing, as you'd probably expect. But are there any sort of very rewarding aspects to your day to day job?

Emily Otvos

Definitely. I feel like, you know, social workers are famously or infamously, in the news, when a catastrophe happens, something goes wrong. And, of course, I have my cases, which are incredibly difficult, and the risk level is extremely high. And I'm even scared sometimes going into a house not knowing what to expect. But largely, the majority of the cases that I've had and worked with, you are really able to, like change people's lives. And I know there's a lot of issues with our system, and oppression and power, etc, in social work. And I think the main thing, I've noticed, I'd say at least, like almost all of my colleagues, or everyone that I've really come across in children's services, we care so much about the families that we work for, and we're all working towards the best outcomes for the children that are involved. And that's what I'd always say to parents as well, when I first meet them is look, like, you see me as the enemy and I know why. And I know what kind of, you know, biases and everything that's going on, when I come into your home and say, right, I'm here now we need to do x y and z, but we're very much taught from a motivational interviewing as our kind of guiding practice around partnership working and empowerment, and genuinely just saying to parents, like look, we all have the same thing. We all want your kids to be happy, healthy, thriving. Living with you, living their best lives. How do we all get to that point by working together? And the outcomes can be really amazing when the issues are addressed. There's no better feeling than closing a case, and thinking you know what, like, the change, from when I started working with this family to now, is staggering. I think my best cases have been the ones where the kind of odds have been stacked up against parents. Coming in from assessment a kind of view of, yeah, we already know which way this is going to go. And the situation is so severe, and to actually be able to work backwards. And sometimes you're starting at the highest point, which is a public law outline, which is the step before we go to court, and being able to work it back down to a child protection and then to a child in need, and then closing, is amazing. And you can see parents really changing and accessing support that previously wasn't available to them. And you just see these amazing outcomes, and the children are happier and safer in their homes, and you don't need to be there anymore. And that's what we all work towards. So yeah, those days are really, really rewarding.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: So it's like a, sort of, de-escalation that you can achieve?

Emily Otvos: I mean, our goal, like our services goal is to keep children within their families, that is our primary motive, regardless of other, you know, impressions of our service. That is our goal, we want to keep kids with their parents, and we want to do everything we can to support parents going through a plethora of different issues. Most of my parents have been under the age of 20. So you're really working with sometimes children who are having children, or teenagers or parents in their early 20s, that are not long removed from their own childhood, and largely, realistically did not get the help and support from Children's Services when they were a child, and had been left with outstanding trauma and unresolved issues that then factor into their life as parents that they're like, now I need support with and need help with. And I think, you know, the most annoying thing about our job is that we are largely kind of preventative that we only get involved when things have got to a certain level. Whereas actually, I think, you know, the intervention that we do. Yes, it is preventative, but then hopefully, that those skills will be kind of kept on for if parents want to have more children in the future or different circumstances to happen. That mean that we don't we don't need to get back involved and that they can do it by themselves. They don't need us.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Yeah. Would you say you have a proudest day? Being a social worker?

Emily Otvos: I think my proudest day was closing a case of like I'd said, it was an unborn baby case. And as soon as I got the assessment, it was it was kind of clear that the assessment had indicated this child needs to be removed from its mother at birth, mum was still in care on a full care order, and had grown up in care in multiple different placements. The risks were quite significant. And there was a lot of discussion around what's going to happen. I think that case will always stay with me. Because sometimes, unfortunately, there are people that jump to foregone conclusions. And maybe it is my naivety as a newly qualified social worker, that I'm trying to stop the inevitable from happening and trying to be creative in the way that we care plan and think, right, that is always the last resort. A removal at birth from the trauma for not only the parent, but also the trauma for the child and the baby of being separated from its mother at birth is so significant. How can we avoid that? And I literally, we spent weeks doing all of these things to make sure that this mum could be given a chance to parent her child. And she had the baby and kept the baby. And we closed the case. After I think maybe it was five months when we closed the case. So that was definitely my proudest day in terms of thinking, you know, how different life could have been for everyone involved if we hadn't put that effort that needed effort in, and being creative in our care planning. And just thinking right, it's done and we don't need to be here anymore because the baby is doing so well. Mum is doing so well. That's it. So yeah, that I'd say that's probably my proudest day so far.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: What distinct skills and personality traits do you think you need to become a successful social worker?

Emily Otvos: I think for me when I was a student last year, and shadowing kind of more experienced social workers, the quality that stood out the most to me was just like being a person. Like, I know that sounds really basic, but just the most the way that you're gonna enact the most change for families and for the children, is if you have good relationships with their parents, and if you forge those relationships, and, you know, we, as much as possible, need to, you just need to be personable, you need to be able to get on with anyone, you need to be able to go in and say, and not confusing, being personable with kind of, like, overly friendly, like, obviously, you have your personal boundaries. But not every conversation needs to be extremely serious. Sometimes, like, the best conversations I've had with parents are like, we're laughing about something, and then something comes out. And then you're like, 'Okay, let's deal with this'. Or, like, we'll be on a walk, or I'll be driving a mom to a hospital appointment, and something will come out and like, it's just, you need to build relationships, and they need to trust you, because you're not gonna be able to trust them if they're keeping stuff from you, because they feel like you're not trustworthy. And just the social workers that I admired the most are the ones that had, like the best working relationships with their families. And it's not possible in all cases, of course, it's not, but also a part of that professional relationship is your capacity to challenge. So I guess the quality of resilience, but also, transparency and honesty, in some cases, like brutality of 'this is how it is', like, I always say to my parents, I'm not going to sugarcoat this because I never want you to be sat in a meeting and thinking, What on earth is Emily talking about? She's never said this to me before, blah, blah, blah. Like, I always say to my parents, you are going to know everything, when it comes to that meeting that I'm going to sit there and say, because I would have said it to you the second something happens, I'm not going to keep this from you.

And, you know, go back to my team and try and work something out. The first person, if I get a police referral, that an incident occurred or something's happened, I'll be knocking on your door and saying what is going on. And it's, it's you need to have that resilience, I guess, and capacity to challenge as well. It's a fine line that you need to draw. And the best social workers that I admire the most are the ones that kind of straddled that line perfectly, in terms of you've got that professional working relationship, which can be trusting and open. But you've also within that got the capacity, because then parents trust you and they know you're going to be honest with them, to say it how it is and not not leave things until the last minute. So I guess it kind of personality traits they are, they're kind of significant. I can't lie, the job is not for everyone. It you know, as much as you think that you are going into something and are going to be prepared for it, nothing can prepare you for some of the circumstances you've seen. I mean, even now, I've been doing it every two years. And I've still have situations that I meant where I'm genuinely like, I don't know what to do. I've never been in a situation before. And you've obviously got the support and supervision of your colleagues. But there are every day presents new and different challenges. And you will have parents screaming, shouting, swearing, you throwing stuff, shutting the door in your face, you are dealing with peoples' lives, and most of the time of the most vulnerable people in our society. Of course, you're gonna have days where things don't go to plan or something happens after you think that you've done so much work for the family. And then you get this police referral. And you're just like, What is this? I thought we've got over this. Like, you do have to be quite thick skinned, and just say, right, this is it. Let's move forward that day was a bad day. How do we how do we make tomorrow better? How do we go about this a different way if this situation arises next time. And I guess that's just a skill that you do have to develop over time because you're no help to anyone if you're a mess, to put it bluntly, if a mum was telling me something, and is in floods of tears, sometimes parents say things which you know, resonate with my own experiences or something and you want to sometimes I just get my car and just, not necessarily cry, but just be like, 'Oh my God, that was so intense'. But you're not human if you don't feel that and empathise with them, but also recognising. You're not going through what they're going through. And in that situation, the last thing they need is someone sat there crying with them, you need to be the one that is there to kind of motivate them to move on from it and look at different options to to rectify that situation.

And so yeah, what have I said? Resilience, personal relationships, I guess organisation is a massive one. Like, I've got 18 kids. I'm juggling visits appointments. I could have one family and fill my working week with just working on that one family, let alone 18, let alone 23 when it goes up in October, when I've finished my first year, like, it's a lot, it's a lot of pressure, it's a lot of responsibility. It's a lot of appointments and memory and remembering everything that happens for every single child, you need to know, every child's name, date of birth, who their best friend is in school, what they like for dinner, what food they like. You need to get to know your children. And it is just a lot of it juggling appointments and things and cancellations. And it can be quite intense. So definitely organisation. And just, yeah, I guess, knowing when to ask for help as well, like the job is stressful. We have horrible days, we see really difficult things sometimes. Yes, there are those incredible moments of light and rewards. But a lot of it is tough. And you're not going to be an effective social worker, if you don't know how to recognise your own limits and say, 'You know what, I'm really struggling with this case, or I just can't have this conversation with this man today, because I'm not going to be on my best form. Who can I ask for help?'. My colleagues are incredible. My manager is incredible. I'm really lucky with my team. And we all are like a little family and we just all support each other. And it's being kind of brave enough to be like, this isn't going to be seen badly, if I actually need help with this, it's going to make me better at my job. So yeah, sorry, I feel like all my answers are really long haha

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Nah it's all good! So what was your Masters on? And how did it help you in your career?

Emily Otvos: Um, so my Masters is, so I get a free paid for Masters with the Frontline programme I'm doing, which was who trained me. So Frontline in general, most social workers have to do a three year undergraduate degree in social work. Frontline, condense that into a year whilst you're working. So last year, before I qualified in September, I was working full time and studying full time, and it was a lot. And then once you qualify, you then complete the second year, which is a 12,000 word dissertation. So it's based in action research. It's not your typical kind of literature review. It's more around, essentially identifying a concept in your social work practice that you'd like to change, and then going out and trying to change it with the families that you're working with. So my title for my dissertation is, how can I remain child focused when working with families with unborn babies. So something I noticed in my own practice, and around kind of, I guess, system constraints and organisational contexts is kind of what I was saying earlier around kind of foregone conclusions, but also me struggling to manage, you know, working with the parents before baby gets here, when there's no actual kind of physical baby in the room. And also babies aren't- unborn babies aren't recognised as people in the law. So we can only, you know, do things in court, etc, from the second the baby's born. And kind of working to make sure that in my interactions, pre birth, and when I'm doing pre birth assessments, I'm always keeping, in my head, what is life going to be like for the child, and yes, helping the parents, I'm trying to get them into the best position before that child gets there. But I sometimes feel like I, you know, you get on with the parents and you resonate with them, and you want them to succeed. And some of that I felt like, almost over optimism was then clouding my judgement of risks to the baby. So that's essentially, in a nutshell, in a long winded way, what my dissertation is on is looking at how I can better kind of rebalance and recalibrate myself and make sure that yes, while I'm working with the parents, remembering that there is a child that is going to be here, and what is his or her life going to be like when it arrives? So yeah, that's my, that's my dissertation. It's been really, really useful. It's due in like, a couple of weeks time, so I haven't finished it yet. But it's been a really useful exercise in terms of really strengthening my knowledge and readings and really realising that actually, there is so little pre birth legislation or context in social work with specific kind of research around pre birth assessments and babies. And yet, percentage wise, the most amount of children are removed as newborns relative to any other age. And that then usually correlates to care plans of adoption because of that age. So this is a massive, you know, issue in social work of removals at birth and working with babies. And yet none of that pre birth period really has any proper guidance or legislation. So yeah, that's what my dissertation's on.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Huge thanks to Emily for such an insightful interview. If you want to find out more about being a social worker, then visit Prospects.ac.uk where we have lots more content, including job profiles and case studies as well as job and course listings, for now it's thanks for listening and see you soon.

Note on transcripts

These transcripts are produced using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. The audio version is definitive and should be checked before quoting.

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