What does a social worker do?

There’s an old saying in social work: social work is whatever social workers do

I prefer to look at it this way. Social work is what’s left when all of the people with proper jobs have done their thing.

Let me put in another way. Imagine a brick wall. Each role in the community is a brick. There is a doctor brick, a lawyer brick, a nurse brick, a builder brick, a postman brick, a teacher brick, a church brick, a kaumātua brick, a family brick, you get the idea.

All these bricks that make up a community. Ok. Keep that brick wall in your mind.

Now… where does social work fit in. I’ll tell you. Social work is the mortar.

We are the people that sit in the gaps and the cracks keeping all of these different bricks in contact with each other, changing our shape depending upon the pressures that are on us.

We are last thing you see when you look at the wall, and our role can get a little forgotten because the bricks stand out so much. But if we disappear, the slightest breeze or rumbling in the ground will send that wall crashing down, regardless of how solid each brick is.

When Tim asked me to say a few words my first reaction was to look back at my files. I have been at jigsaw just over three years, and it surprised me that I have had contact with about 70 families in that time.

That might not sound like a lot, but when you consider that these are families we see weekly for long periods, often years, 70 is a huge amount in three years.

And then I thought about the number of kids in those families. It numbers in the hundreds. So one worker, in three years has had some influence on hundreds of children. Now multiply that by the number of workers at jigsaw, home-based, SWiS, programmes, Teen Parents, and then by the number of years some people have been at it. Many, many years for some – not looking at anyone in particular.

It adds up to a staggering amount of children and families that we have worked with, safeguarded and made positive changes with and long term positive change is exactly what jigsaw aims for. We are not about making things safe for the weekend, or giving a kid an hour’s break from a difficult home life. We are about changing that home life, about making families see that there are different ways of living and the key to this is having contact with a social worker who believes that you can and will make those changes.

I don’t want to sour a cheerful evening with hard out stories, but here are a few of those positive influences from my own recent work.

  • I had two young brothers who could not be in the same room without fighting as a result of growing up in a violent household. They had been through several schools and CYF were poised to remove them because Dad could not control them. They are now playing guitar together, able to play and control their anger, and are doing better at home and school than they have for years, which is freeing Dad up to address his alcohol issues and return to work. A year ago the kids were the boss of the house. Now Dad is in charge.
  • A young mum with a long history of drug, alcohol and partner violence who was on the edge of losing her children is now clean, sober, violence free, CYFs free, and on the verge of getting her driver’s licence back. Her kids, one of which has a disability, are doing really well at school.
  •   A grandmother who described herself as ‘at the edge of a cliff’ who is now completely set into solid routines with her ADHD/autistic grandson. She is receiving the support and respite she needs and is planning to start her own business.
  • A solo Dad written off as a deadbeat, whose parents were raising their four grandchildren after mum walked out for another man. Over a year of visits the Dad stepped up to his parenting role, allowing the grandparents to take a step back. Dad eventually realised that various skills gained through his working career applied directly to parenting, and he emerged as one of the most naturally-gifted parents I have ever met. When I left him he was full of plans for the future for him and his kids.

And finally…

  • A mother who was estranged from her 20 year old daughter and who was about to go the same way with her 14 year old daughter. Mum and the 14 year old are now getting on really well, and mum and her 20 year old are now in contact. The 14 year old had not seen the 20 year old in two years. Mum had not seen her in 4 years. Now, when the 14 year old says the name of her older sister she smiles wide enough to light up the room.


If you get the mix right, mortar can be pretty effective stuff.

( Pauls words to the supporters at the soiree)