The singing social worker

Singing sensation Siobhán Patton on the day job that moves her to tears

Social worker Siobhán Patton was undoubtedly the star of the BBC programme The Choir: Sing While You Work, in which choirmaster Gareth Malone trained amateur, workplace-based choirs. There was hardly a dry eye among viewers when she herself welled up, thinking about all the terrible things she sees in her working life.

But this moment of celebrity is not what gives Siobhán her greatest sense of achievement. She feels more pride when she thinks about a young woman whose file she recently closed.

When they met, the woman was a prostitute and heroin-user who was about to have her child taken away by social services. After a year of support and interventions from Siobhán, the woman is drug-free, no longer a sex worker and bringing up her own child.

“I saw so many positives in her. She was ready to make her life better,” says Siobhán. “We managed the risk, and supported her. And now she has a reason to stay off drugs, for the sake of her child.”

Needed more than ever

In times of economic hardship, social workers are more necessary than ever. When people are struggling financially, it can result in a range of problems – depression, alcohol and drug addiction, child neglect and even abuse – that professionals like Siobhán are required to sort out.

But this comes at a time when the professionals themselves are under attack and their services cut. And social workers get a terrible press, portrayed as incompetent on one hand, uncaring on the other. While it’s the horror stories that get publicity, little is written about the countless lives that are redeemed or saved.

“As a society, we can’t completely prevent bad things happening,” says Siobhán. “The police can’t always prevent people murdering each other. Firefighters can’t always prevent people dying in fires. It’s unfortunate that in social work no one knows about the cases where we do save people.”

Siobhán is unfailingly upbeat and smiley, with a ready laugh. She talks about her service users with empathy and kindness. “If you think of someone trying to give up smoking, how many times will they fail? Isn’t it exactly the same with people who are trying to turn their lives around?

Birmingham city council

“You have to keep positive, keep supporting them and never give up. Only at the point where a child is at risk do we intervene to remove them from the family. I went into this because I wanted to keep families together. Removing children is the last resort. You only do it in order to save a life.”

She notes that with job losses and benefit cuts, families who are already struggling are often pushed over the edge.

“You’d think that the more time parents are around their children, the better it is. But it’s hard to be all under one roof 24/7,” she explains.

“We all know that being able to work gives you confidence. Equally, if someone loses a job it can sink them into a depression. Being unemployed can turn people to alcohol or drugs – I see that happen all the time. That can lead to all sorts of other problems – debt, neglect of children, domestic abuse. What we have to do is see how things were functioning before, and get them back on that track. We remind the parents that they were doing fine before, and they can again.”

The work requires patience, tenacity and courage. “I do get on with all the service users, even the aggressive ones,” laughs Siobhán. “They can be in my face shouting, I’ve even been spat at. But a lot of them thank me in the end”.

She recalls the case of a young family where the wife insisted that nothing was wrong. But Siobhán noticed that as she was talking she was nervously bending back each finger. She spoke to the woman alone and advised her to go a phone box and dial 999, as she didn’t have access to a phone in the flat. Within a week the woman had dialed 999 after having been violently assaulted by her husband.

“Experience counts for a lot. It’s about having that instinct to think, ‘There’s something not right here, I’m not going to walk away from this’. You have to just keep going back.”

A voice on behalf of social workers

But time is money, and money is in short supply in public services. As a result of cuts, there are fewer social workers left to deal with increasing workloads, especially in a huge, diverse, urban area like Birmingham.

“The trickle down of all those cuts has affected me,” admits Siobhán. “We used to have people answering the phones for us, but now all the service users, all the foster carers, the legal team, other social workers, police officers, health visitors, schools, drug counsellors all have my mobile phone number and phone me day and night.”

On top of that, personal crises don’t conform to normal offices hours. Siobhán will often find herself sitting with a frightened child, waiting for an emergency foster placement at the time her own daughter is coming home from school – and frequently still waiting there at dinner time.

“That’s why social workers are always late,” she says with a smile. “I see the job as a lot of spinning plates. You can’t let any of them fall. You just can’t.”

Another result of understaffing is the very real danger of violence. Social workers always used to go out in pairs, to minimize the risk when visiting aggressive, addicted or disturbed service-users. Now Siobhán is almost always on her own.

“You get used to constantly assessing the risk,” she says. “If I’m worried, I can call up another professional to come with me. You do get used to it, but to be honest it makes me a bit paranoid in my personal life.”

With such high stakes, the stress is considerable. No wonder she enjoys the outlet of singing, as she did so movingly on The Choir. Did a little part of her enjoy the spotlight as well, perhaps? “I liked the fact that it gave me a voice on behalf of social workers. Often our side of things doesn’t get heard, but I have a voice now.”

Clare Bayley

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of U magazine