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The Social Worker’s tale

Blog | By Barbara MacArthur | Nov 15, 2019

On call 24 hours a day: Barbara MacArthur at home with her departmental telephone

In the Beginning

In 1960 I reported for work at Cardiff City Hall to start my new job as a welfare officer (the title later changed to social worker). My boss, an ex-army officer, showed me to my desk and told me to start compiling information from questionnaires received from the Council’s twelve residential homes for the elderly. I realised it would take a while before I would be allowed to go out and save the world! The columns about the residents were headed ‘slightly confused’, ‘confused’ and ‘very confused’, but one column was blank. I asked what that column was. ‘Daft as a brush!’ replied my boss.

Fleas and Other Critters

One of my first assignments was to admit an elderly lady to a residential home. I was warned that her house was infested with cat fleas. The home’s matron accompanied me in my car. The warning was correct – the carpet in the lady’s living-room was alive with fleas. We helped her pack and escorted her into the car, then the matron and I stood on the pavement taking it in turns to lift our skirts so that the other could pick the fleas off our panties, much to the amusement of the neighbours. Just as I was about to drive away the lady remembered she had left her favourite pair of shoes behind, so I had to go back inside and cross THAT carpet again, and the whole rigmarole had to be repeated.

I had to provide my own car. I often had to thoroughly disinfest it myself because of clients (nowadays described as ‘service-users’) I’d had to ferry around. It wasn’t just the car: I sometimes had to delouse and de-flea myself and treat myself for scabies. At one time I tried to claim for the cost of the scabies medicine. My application was refused as the Director said it was ‘an occupational hazard’.

When we knew we were going to an infested address the doctor wore a belted mackintosh, bicycle clips at the bottom of his trousers, a trilby hat pulled down over his ears and he puffed on a pipe (he didn’t smoke). But I wore as little as possible – a short dress and sandals. When I returned home I just dumped my clothes into hot soapy water to soak while I disinfested myself and my car.

The Rent Collector

Because the tenants of temporary accommodation had mainly been turned out of previous addresses for not paying their rent, I felt I had to make sure that they paid regularly so that they would find it easier to be rehoused. I disliked the fact that I had been made the rent collector but had to get on with it. You would not believe the tricks I used. With one family who never answered the door, I would wrap a blanket around a box, knock on the door and stand back so they could see me through the window and think I was bringing them something. I felt like a cheat, but it worked.

The Trouble-Shooter

I became a trouble-shooter for the department, taking over interviews for social workers who ‘could not face aggression’ or ‘were afraid of losing their temper’. I was also sent to deal with problems in which other social workers had ‘encountered problems’, e.g. in gaining access. In one of them I went to the back door, which was held shut by string, and used a watering can to pour water on the string to stretch it. I managed to get in without causing any damage. I suppose the reason I succeeded where others failed is that I occasionally bent the rules.

Open All Hours

I recently read about a bank intern who was found dead after working for 72 hours without sleep. It reminded me of my social worker days. I was on 24-hour call with a telephone at home provided by the department. One year my telephone number was in the local telephone book for four services, including Emergency After-Hours contact and Mental Health. We had no clerical staff and carried out additional duties nowadays dealt with by other organisations. You could work three days and two nights without sleep dealing with day-to-day work and out-of-hours emergencies. Even if you were out all night on emergencies – seeing relatives of suicide victims, sectioning, helping families made homeless by fire – you still had to sign on for work at 8.30am or you would be on the carpet. And you didn’t get any overtime pay or time off in lieu.

Skirts

My director complained about my trousers, saying he expected all his female staff to wear skirts. That was until I pointed out to him that I couldn’t climb over walls, clamber through windows or help the police deal with awkward clients if I had to wear a skirt.

The Paranoid Schizophrenic

One day a hospital psychiatrist telephoned to say that he was concerned about a homeless paranoid schizophrenic who was not taking his medication and had not turned up for appointments. Would I find him and take him to the hospital? I found out he was known in the Bay area and a local café told me that he was black and was known as ‘Bob Hope’ and had no teeth. They said to look out as he carried a knife. I was lucky that I couldn’t find him that day as later I discovered he’d been arrested and it had taken eight policemen to get him into the van. The psychiatrist had neglected to tell me that the patient was over six feet tall and a karate expert.

The Graduates

In the 1970s our Director decided to take on more qualified social workers direct from college or university at an increased salary. Among the first of these ‘dynamic social workers’ (the description he coined) were two young ladies. Instead of visiting singly, which was usual, it was decided they visit together. Upon their return they exclaimed: ‘Phew! We hate old people!’ I smiled as I thought they were just joking, until I realised, with a shock, that they were serious. Another of these new recruits, obviously from a well-to-do family, was up in arms about a family who had been refused a replacement for their old-fashioned white bathroom suite with a fashionable coloured suite. I didn’t tell her that we lived in an old terraced house and, like our neighbours, had NO bathroom, no garden and an outside toilet.

One day I got several of the young social workers together and asked one of them to drive an old lady with gangrene to hospital – they had to act quickly before she changed her mind. No one would go – they said they would not take her in that state in their cars. I thought of the number of times I’d had to fumigate my car and disinfest myself. Times had changed. At last the department was being forced to consider the welfare of its own staff and not just pay lip service to the welfare of clients.

The Babe Magnet

In my desk drawer I had the usual forms and papers, but also kept nappies, colouring books and crayons for occasions when children were abandoned at the office. I used to wonder why I was always the one who had to nurse the deserted baby on my lap when dealing with telephone enquiries. I once tried to say that I would not deal with children but it made no difference. I seemed to be a magnet for dumped youngsters.

The Flat With No Floor

I once got a referral from a hospital asking me to deal with the property of a patient. He lived in a flat at the top of a large building that was due to be demolished. The building was dingy and deserted. I climbed in the dark to the top floor. I was about to step into the flat but I stopped just in time. There was no floor. There was NO flat. I would have stepped into space and fallen several storeys down onto piles of rubble.

Unusual Requests

A gypsy once came into the duty room to say that his teenage daughter ‘must be taken into care’. He said his family were ‘real gypsies’ but his daughter was going out with a boy from a travelling family who were ‘just Irish tinkers’. I explained why we could not accede to his request. ‘But she might get pregnant!’ he said. I said that even if we took his daughter into care she might still get pregnant and that going into care was not imprisonment. ‘Yes, but then my wife and I would not be responsible!’ he replied.

Once a lady phoned saying that her young child had to be taken into care for a few years. She and her child had just arrived from Nigeria. She had been accepted for a university course and could not take her child with her. Later on a lecturer called to chide me for not doing my job properly, saying we must make arrangements for the child to be taken into care. I suggested that it would be a good idea for him to help the lady secure suitable accommodation. I did not hear from either of them again.

Eleanor Rigby

A girl who had been sleeping rough was found dead in Cardiff and nobody knew anything about her. Part of my job was to obtain enough information to register the death and arrange the burial. This was often very difficult, but fortunately she had some papers on her and I was able to discover her name, her age (28), and enough information to register her death. I read all the crumpled bits of paper and discovered bits and pieces about her sad life and, gradually, felt that I knew her. She seemed such a nice person.

Much later when I was at home frying some sausages I heard on the radio the latest Beatles song, ‘Eleanor Rigby’:

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

I never regarded myself as a sentimental person – if I was I could not have carried on my job – but I had to turn off the gas and sit down to have a really good cry.

A social worker’s mantra is ‘controlled emotional involvement’, but, eventually, that has an effect on you. After I retired I realised it was just in time because I had become so dulled about the edges I had suffered burn-out. It wasn’t that I didn’t cry, but that I couldn’t cry. It took me a long time to get back to normal. It’s not only soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Postscript

In 2009 I was stunned to receive a letter offering me £50 an hour to return to social work – even though I was 82. I knew they were desperate for social workers, but I didn’t think they were that desperate! The letter, from Evergood Associates, asked for my ‘current availability and future career plan’, adding: ‘We look forward to receiving your completed form at your earliest convenience.’ Of course it was a mistake and I received an apology, which was unnecessary, as it was a good laugh. They sent me a beautiful bunch of flowers for which I thanked them, but passed them on to a friend as I do not like cut flowers in the home. I would rather see them in a park or garden.