Inspiring social workers, teams and organisations from across England have been recognised for their contribution to the profession after winning awards at the national Social Worker of the Year Awards on Friday 29th November at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London.

We are delighted that Denise Smalley, who was a shortlisted finalist in the Making a Difference category, won the Silver Award for her work with PAC-UK!

Director of PAC-UK Jan Slater, who attended the awards with Denise said:

As Director of PAC-UK I was delighted to attend the national Social Worker of the Year Awards with Denise and share a sense of pride in social work practice nationally as well of course in our own organisation and in particular to recognise what an amazing contribution Denise has, and I have no doubt will continue to make, to young people and adults from care and adoption. Denise lives and breathes empathic, caring and compassionate social work and delivers this with great humility and a selfless approach – I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

Below is a message of thanks from Denise, and some background information on other organisations and causes Denise supports.

I was shocked and surprised to be nominated by The Open Nest for the Social Worker of the Year Awards in the Making a Difference category, and even more surprised to be shortlisted and to receive the Silver Award. Those who know me well have been quietly amused by my awkwardness around this nomination and award event, as I’m not one for the spotlight or awards. I have been asked to write a little about my nomination so I hope I can tell you a bit about my interests and passion, and perhaps encourage you to get more involved in issues you are passionate about.

I’ve always been very interested in people; drawn to listening, supporting and helping- when I was fourteen I began volunteering at the local Mencap group and play schemes for disabled children and before qualifying as a social worker in 2004 I worked in residential care homes and day centres for adults with learning disabilities and complex physical needs. Prior to joining PAC-UK as an Outreach Social Worker in the PAC-UK Adults Services team I worked as a social worker in local authorities; firstly with teenagers and their families, trying to keep families together and to prevent young people from entering care when possible but I also supported children and young people in care; I saw first-hand the difference warm, loving and committed foster carers made in improving life and outcomes for young people in care.

I wanted to be more effective and create greater stability for those very vulnerable young people so I began volunteering on training sessions with foster carers which the local (sadly now restructured) Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service used to provide. This experience led me to take up a post in a fostering team where I stayed for some years supporting and encouraging foster carers to provide the very best care possible to the children they were looking after; I soon realised how skilled some foster carers are and just how difficult their role can be as they balance the day to day care of the most traumatised children in a stretched and underfunded system.

I began to focus my development on therapeutic interventions and practical steps and support that might help carers, parents and young people and went on to undertake a BSc (Hons) Degree in Health and Social Care Practice (Child and Adolescent Mental Health) which I graduated from in 2013. Following this I qualified in EMDR an effective treatment for PTSD and earlier this year I completed Level 2 DDP, my sincere hope is that I can use these therapeutic interventions with families and individuals who might otherwise be unable to access or afford such support.

Throughout the last few years I have been campaigning for a kinder more stable care system for children in care and greater consultation with and support for older people who have experienced the care system. Sadly I know too well that many children have far too many moves when they enter care and too often they are moved to foster carers away from their home town due to the national shortage of foster carers.

From 2014 I began supporting the Every Child Leaving Care Matters team and was pleased to be a board member for a while, more recently staying on as an ambassador to help the small committed team raise awareness and question why young people in residential care are not able to remain past their eighteenth birthday and have to cope with another move just as they might be finding stability and starting to think about their options. Please do look up the campaign and sign and share their petition. Young people who have experienced trauma and a difficult start need careful support towards independence when they are ready and it’s vital they have a safety net to catch them as they find their way in life, something many of us take for granted.

More recently I was asked to join the core team of The Care Experienced Conference which was a great privilege; this event aimed to bring some of the care experienced community together to discuss and decide their own priorities for action and change. Most consultation is undertaken with the under 25’s and what I know for certain is that views and reflections on our experiences change and develop over time; that life events such as marriage, parenthood and the loss of loved ones shapes our opinions, priorities and understanding of our own childhoods and life experiences. It seems extremely short sighted and biased not to consult with older people who perhaps have had more time to reflect on their experiences.

Through the whole time of planning, the conference day itself and follow up events (in my own time I hasten to add) I have been extremely moved and impressed (not surprised though) by the skills, wisdom and passion held within the care experienced community. I hope that the two conference reports are widely read and the 10 key messages which arose from this consultation event continue to be discussed, shared and built into care planning. That there isn’t more frequent and wider consultation with older people who were in care as children or adopted as children is a real puzzle to me and I hope this changes.

Recently, with concerned others I have formed Parents, Families & Allies Network (PFAN), a collective which aims to promote principals of social justice and human rights in social work interventions in the UK, recognising the impact that austerity and shrinking public funding has had on families.

I have also tried to help other campaigns along the way, volunteering at The Open Nest Conferences and raising awareness of the many great charities and campaign groups trying to support and lift others out of hardship, difficulties and loneliness. This Christmas I will be making and donating keyrings for some of the Care Leaver Christmas Dinner events, a very worthwhile cause- please check them out.

Within my role on the Adult Services team at PAC-UK I have been fortunate to be able to listen and learn from people adopted as children about the impact of being adopted; I hope that there will be more opportunities to strengthening their voice and involvement in developing services and I will do my upmost to promote this. I’ve also had the opportunity with members of our PAC-UK Leeds Birth Parent Support Group to attend events to discuss and highlight their experiences with the aim of improving support to them and improved post adoption support in general to all affected by adoption. In September 2019 the group were very kindly offered an area in the ancient woodland of The Open Nest’s new home where the group have begun to develop a garden of remembrance. The “Forget Me Not Garden” is a space where parents whose children have been adopted can go to remember their children and spend private time in a beautiful location to holding their children in mind.

Thank you for reading, and all this said we are only human and busy and don’t get everything right but I do believe that we should all try to be compassionate and make a positive difference, no matter how small, as we make our way through life. Big thanks to those who nominated me and sent supporting statements.

Denise Smalley | Twitter @weirhopper