A blog by Dr David Wilkins

‘The audacity of hope’; a terribly unoriginal title but I hope on World Social Work Day 2019, an important message for social work all the same. In the late 1980s, talking about a painting by G.F Watts entitled ‘Hope’, the Reverend Dr. Sampson said:

“With her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God … To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope, that’s the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt’s painting.”

Whether you are religious or not, the message that when we think we have nothing, we can still have hope, is a powerful one.

As a social work researcher, one of the benefits is hearing many different stories about social work and my interest in the power of hope came from one such encounter. I was leading a research project in one authority, which involved interviewing parents about working with social services. In these interviews, we would often hear about some very difficult situations, and this one was no different but the mother involved kindly gave us permission to share her story.

The mother had recently given birth to her first child and was finding life very tough. She had been kicked out of home by her violent partner and was sleeping on a friend’s sofa. Having been isolated by her partner from her own family, she had nowhere else to go. She had post-natal depression and no contact with health services who might have been able to help. She felt alone and overwhelmed. She went to a local train station with her baby and was seen to be acting strangely. The police were called, and she told them she had been thinking about taking her own life. The baby was placed with foster carers and the mother taken to hospital. She was allocated a social worker from the local children’s services department on the same day.

By the time the researcher I was working with met her, it was about four months later. Now, she was living again in her own flat, without the baby’s father. The baby was back home with her too, albeit with daily visits from social services. She had started to reconcile with her own mother (the baby’s grandmother) and was receiving help also from a local health visitor. Life was still difficult – but things were manifestly getting better.

The mother spoke at length about all the help she had received from social services. Yes, she had a flat, benefits, and practical support from her family and professionals, all of which were vital to her well-being and for her care of the baby. But, she said, she would not want anyone to misunderstand what the social worker had really done for her.. The researcher asked what she meant. And she told them – “before, I had no hope. And now I have hope.” The mother elaborated, when they first met, the social worker had told her – things are a mess right now. This is not where you want to be, and this is not how you imagined your life as a new mum. But I believe we can fix this, if we work together. Will you help me to do that with you? And from that initial spark of hope, flowed all the other things she now had – hope by itself would not have been enough, but hope was necessary to start the process of helping. Before she had no hope, but now the social worker had helped her see things differently.

Done well, isn’t social work amazing? Happy World Social Work Day 2019!