Read Wednesday's child Online

Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child (page 4)

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I munched on dry brown toast and drank the coffee as I read the paper, Miles Davis’sKind of Blueplaying on a small stereo system I had unpacked. In my head I was going over the events of the previous day, wondering if I could have done things differently. Eventually I gave it up. Maybe I could have been more gentle with Sister Assumpta. But then, Gillian’sstate warranted the comments I made. Perhaps I could have handled the situation at the Kelly’s better, calmed Mrs Kelly, been more sympathetic. I wondered whether I should have refused to go out ten minutes after arriving in the office for the first time with an obviously sick man. Maybe, maybe, maybe … social care is full of maybes. There are almost no absolutes. I checked my diary for the day. There was to be a staff meeting at ten, which would take most of the morning, and I was visiting the McCoys, the family Andi had kindly passed on to me, in the afternoon. Hoping it would be quieter than the previous day, I got in my car and headed for town.


The offices of the Social Work Department were the busiest I had yet seen them. The full complement of staff, twenty people in all, were in for the meeting. I made my way up to my office. No Melanie this time, but a load of papers and files that were obviously hers were strewn across the desk. I knew that I would not last the week without having a showdown with her over this, and pulled up a chair.


I reached over to my file cabinet and took out the O’Gorman file. To say that it was huge would be an understatement. I was not even going to begin to try and read it then. I planned to take home some of my bigger case files to read in my own time (this was frowned upon by management as a security risk, but it was fairly common practice) and for now just riffled through the paperwork, looking for something specific. Five minutes later I found what I was lookingfor. Four coloured Polaroid photographs of Gillian were among the reports and letters. They had obviously been taken while she was on a trip with a group of other children – possibly even when she was in residential care. They showed her horse-riding; at a table in a restaurant with an enormous pizza in front of her; hugging another girl as they stood outside a cinema, both of them grinning and making antennae with their fingers behind each others’ heads; pulling on a bowling shoe and looking irritated at being photographed. The photos were similar to any you would see of a normal, happy teenage girl. What was jarring about them, and what had caused Andi to advise me to look them over, was the obvious change in Gillian. In these photos she was certainly slim, but she looked healthy and full-faced and pretty. The spindly, hollow-eyed creature I had met the day before was almost unrecognisable as the child in these photographs. I looked at them for a long time.


Photographs do not always tell the truth. People perform for the camera when they know it’s on them, putting up a façade and hiding who they really are. The best photos are those taken when the subject is unaware. The photo I kept coming back to was the one of Gillian on horseback. In it she was hunched over the pony’s neck, a riding helmet that was much too big for her head was pushed back on her forehead and she was looking to the side nervously. In the other three photographs you could mistake Gillian for a well-adjusted girl, full of fun. Not in this one.That pain I had seen was present here in those brown eyes. She was looking at something off on the horizon line, something that seemed to be moving away from her, something she could not quite make out. I wondered if she had ever managed to capture it, whatever it was.




The voice startled me. A tall woman, maybe thirty-five years old, with long, black hair stood at the door. She was dressed in a long, black dress and black, high-heeled boots with a white, crocheted cardigan loose over the outfit.


‘Hi,’ I said, realising that I had made my way through the assembled group without saying ‘hello’ to anyone and had come straight to my desk. I suddenly felt very rude and anti-social.


‘I’m Josephine, Team Leader.’


She extended a hand, smiling. Yesterday she had been out sick.


‘I’m sorry,’ I began, standing up. ‘I just wanted to check the file. I had no time yesterday and I had to go into a couple of cases fairly cold. I didn’t mean to ignore everyone.’


She laughed, brushing away the apology. She was full of abundant good humour, shaking my hand vigorously and placing her other hand on my shoulder.


‘Oh, don’t worry, I understand. I heard that you had some fun yesterday morning all right. Baptism of fire, or what? You must think that we are the worstcrowd going! I feel awful. I should have been here to meet you and make sure you settled in.’


‘Not at all! You were ill. I got on fine. I was quite impressed with Joe, actually. He got that knife off Mrs Kelly while he was only really semi-conscious. Had to be seen to be believed!’


She laughed again, leaning back against the door frame.


‘Will you join us in the kitchen for a coffee? There’s a nice bakery just down the road and we get some scones and cakes delivered up on Wednesdays for the team meetings. Call it a hidden incentive. One of the few rules that I have is that everyone make every possible effort to attend the team meetings. I understand if you’re in court or if there’s a case conference you have to attend or an emergency visit you justhaveto make, but that shouldn’t happen more than once or twice in a year. All the other weeks in the year, I want you here on a Wednesday morning.’


‘Got you.’


‘Good. Then we’ll get along fine. Now, come and have coffee and an apple sponge and meet some of your new colleagues. You look like an apple-sponge man to me.’


‘Well, I guess we’ll see, won’t we?’


She laughed again and led me out the door and across to the kitchen.


‘Yes, we will.’


The meeting itself took place in the room downstairs. A circle of chairs was pulled up and theassembled throng, most still clutching mugs of tea or coffee, gathered round. Minutes of the previous meeting and an agenda for this one had been distributed into our pigeon holes that morning. They were about cases and issues that I had, as yet, no knowledge of. There was also a notice that training in Child Sexual Abuse Assessment was being made available in the coming month, but only to social workers. I felt the old irritation at this kind of slight.


The lines of rank and file among the professions are clearly drawn out in Social Care in Ireland. In other countries, I had learned, they were far looser, but in the class-conscious society that has developed here everyone must know their place and live with it. The order ran as follows: at the top of the pile are the social workers. They run the cases and must make all major decisions as to how a case is operated. In practice there are many cases that have no social worker, and there are indeed social workers with a great deal of respect for their non-social-work colleagues, but the fact remains that rank can be and is pulled on an all too regular basis.


Next in line are the childcare workers. Their role, as I have already stated, is to work in a therapeutic and child-centred way with their clients, representing them at case conferences and presenting their needs and opinions to any agencies they are working with. Childcare workers are much more ‘at the coal-face’ than social workers. Their contact with the children is more constant and more regular.


The final link in the chain are the family support workers. Their job is to work with families in an holistic way, assisting with matters such as financial management, behaviour management with challenging children, hygiene and nutrition.


The reason for this hierarchy stems, probably, from qualifications. In the past, social workers had degrees while childcare workers did not. Family support workers, despite the hugely important work they do, were rarely qualified, and often only worked part-time. While this is no longer the case, the delineation remains.


The meeting rattled on until 12.30 or so, and then everyone broke for lunch. Lunch happened in a pub just down the road from the offices. I stood at the bar, feeling uncomfortable, like a child on his first day at school. I ordered coffee and a club sandwich, and then found Andi at my arm, leading me to a table.


I remember reading an article inEmpiremagazine about the making of the moviePlanet of the Apes. It observed that during breaks in filming, the actors playing the apes in the movie would automatically congregate in the canteen with actors who were wearing make-up of a similar breed of ape. So a visitor to the set would see a table full of gorillas, a table full of orang-utans, a table full of chimpanzees. No one forced this, it wasn’t a ‘method technique’, it just naturally occurred.


In the pub this lunchtime, I found myself participatingin something very similar. At the table Andi led me to were the two family support workers, Marjorie and Betty. Andi pushed me into a chair and sat down beside me. And there we sat: childcare workers and family support workers, the two lowest primate groupings on the Child Protection Team.


‘So you’re the new boy in class.’ Marjorie smiled at me.


Marjorie was dressed in a long, tie-dyed skirt and beaded top with Doc Marten boots. Betty was very smartly dressed in a suede suit, a cigarette already smouldering in her hand and her eyes languidly half-closed.


‘What in the name of God brings you to this godforsaken part of the universe?’ she asked, blowing smoke out of the corner of her mouth.


‘I’m a sucker for punishment,’ I said, shaking my head at the proffered box of cigarettes.


‘You must be.’


‘You’re not from around here,’ Marjorie said, putting sugar into her coffee and helping me to move plates and ashtrays as our food arrived.


‘No. I’m from Wexford. I have family here, though. That’s how I know the area.’


‘So you’re not quite a blow-in.’


‘Well, I’ve only really been here on visits before, so I’m hardly a local.’


‘Well, you’re very welcome anyway.’ Betty grinned.


‘Thanks. Any hints on survival?’


‘With the cases you’ve been given?’


Marjorie and Betty shared a wry glance.


‘Well, I reckon you’ve got two choices really,’ Marjorie said, solemnly patting the back of my hand.


‘And they are?’


‘You can drown or you can thrash your arms about and scream for help.’


I raised an eyebrow.


‘I don’t follow.’


‘I’ve seen people who were loaded with the real problem cases, who worked themselves ragged, never complained, never caused a fuss and who ended up actually quite poorly as a result of the stress. D’you see Melanie over there?’


She gesticulated with her head towards the person in question, who was sitting at a table on the other side of the pub with a group of cronies.


‘Could I possibly miss her?’


‘They tried to do it to her: gave her the worst cases, ran her ragged. And do you know what happened?’


I glanced in the direction of the subject of our discussion. Melanie’s voice could be heard above the rest of the chatter in the pub, and her booming laugh punctuated our conversation like a depth charge.


‘You know,’ I said, ‘she doesn’t look like she’s under too much strain.’


‘That’s because she just refused to continue with it. She threw a terrible strop, brought her case right to the childcare manager.’


In the Community Care Department within the Health Boards in Ireland, teams were led by teamleaders, who are always social workers. All the teams are co-ordinated by the senior social worker. The senior social worker (as well as the heads of Disability Services, Residential Services and a range of other teams and providers) is answerable to the childcare manager, who was usually a social worker but was sometimes a therapist or psychologist, as our childcare manager was.


‘Her caseload was cut right back. She wasn’t popular for it, but they never took her for granted again.’


‘That’s good to know.’


‘Now take her side-kick there. Sinéad.’


Sinéad was the social worker Andi had mentioned to me in relation to Gillian O’Gorman. Petite and gregarious, she was sitting with Melanie, and was almost as loud.


‘Sinéad is a different story,’ Betty chimed in. ‘She arrived here practically straight from college. Full of enthusiasm she was. Wanted to save the world. No case was too tough for her, no working day was too long, no assistance was ever asked for. Every child and every family was a crusade.’

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