‘Being non-judgmental encourages people to engage and change’- mental health social worker of the year – Community Care

John Leavy, Mental Health Social Worker of the Year, 2021

A central focus of child social work is to protect children when their parents experience the so-called “triad of vulnerabilities”: mental health problems, substance abuse and domestic abuse.

But what about those parents?

Helping them is what drives John Leavy, recently crowned Mental Health Social Worker of the Year at the 2021 Social Worker of the Year Awards.

“When it comes to very vulnerable clients, those who suffer from [domestic violence]mental health and drugs and alcohol, when all three are around, they sometimes get a raw deal,” he says.

passion and defense

“And I’m passionate about helping them, so I advocate for them and try to use my influence to give them the support and a care package, which saves them heartache and also the resources of the various agencies involved.”

Leavy applies this approach as the only adult mental health social worker at Achieving for Children, the social enterprise serving children in the Kingston, Richmond, and Windsor and Maidenhead districts.

She works within the First Family Team (formerly the Strengthening Families Team), which is offered by the government’s Family Support Program (formerly the “Families in Trouble Program”). It helps families with multiple problems to face the challenges they face, be it the trio of vulnerabilities or unemployment, poor housing or school exclusion.

The team, which covers Kingston and Richmond, includes a psychologist, domestic abuse workers for both victims and perpetrators, and employment counselors.

Leavy, who worked on the Richmond council and then Achieving for Children for nine years, primarily offers support to parents experiencing emotional distress, whether or not they are diagnosed with a mental health issue. In all cases, the children of the families also receive support from the children. social care as children in need or in child protection schemes.

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Resistance to participation

The parents Leavy supports have often experienced childhood trauma and may resist professional involvement due to previous bad experiences.

“I think some of our clients are suspicious of the services because of the impact previous services have had on them,” he says.

Addressing this takes time to build relationships and tailor your practice to the person’s needs.

“The first month with a new client can be just about building a relationship between them, gaining their trust, and showing that you’re going to do what you tell them you’re going to do,” he says.

working off hours

“I really like to think that I will do what I said I would, and if I can’t, explain why that won’t be the case.” He says his managers give him the freedom to take this approach, which is significant in the context of child protection cases, but he also works outside of office hours to help build these relationships.

The approach is also in line with the Signs of Safety model, implemented at Achieving for Children, with its focus on working collaboratively with families and developing plans to keep children safe based on families’ strengths and resources.

Colleagues have praised Leavy for her enthusiasm for listening to other people’s perspectives and implementing them in her work.

“That has been evident in the work that she has done with the adults and families that she works with and because of that she has been able to engage them in a process of change,” says Roberta Evans, associate director of early help at Achieving for Children.

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Collaborative and nonjudgmental

“It’s a collaborative approach and a nonjudgmental approach that encourages people to participate and change. It’s about being open to hearing other people’s points of view,” says Leavy.

As the only adult mental health social worker at Achieving for Children, Leavy is a source of advice and support for her child social care colleagues.

Evans adds, “John has a service presence that brings kindness and compassion to his colleagues, but also to the management team.”

This has been critically important during Covid.

Evans adds: “He has always brought awareness to mental health and the impact of the pandemic on anyone’s mental health and that includes colleagues and also the families that we are working with. With that there has been a push to make sure he is available and flexible.”

pride during covid

Leavy says the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems, leading to increased anxiety, depression, domestic violence and drug abuse.

He says he is “proud” of how the team “stood up” during Covid, providing families with “consistent and safe service”.

But he expresses a greater admiration for the people he works with: “What’s really amazing is that people overcome adversity and I think our clients have shown, sometimes more than us, that they can keep going, and we really have to be humble in what we see.”

Leavy, now 60, is now looking ahead to the next phase of his career.

“I think at my age and this stage in my career, I still enjoy and love this role,” he adds. “I can see good results with the people I work with. I see a future for myself until retirement.”

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