John Leavy, Mental Health Social Worker of the Year, 2021
One of the primary goals of child social work is to protect children when their parents face what is known as the “trio of vulnerabilities”: mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence.
But what about those parents?
Helping them is what motivates John Leavy, recently crowned Mental Health Social Worker of the Year at the 2021 Social Worker of the Year Awards.
“When it comes to highly vulnerable clients, those who suffer from [domestic violence]mental health and drugs and alcohol, when all three of these are present, they are sometimes treated poorly,” he says.
Passion and Advocacy
“And I’m passionate about helping them, so I advocate for them and try to use my influence to give them support and a care package, which saves them the distress and the resources of the various agencies involved. also.”
Leavy applies this approach as the only adult mental health social worker at Achieving for Children, the social enterprise that provides services to children in the boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Windsor and Maidenhead.
He works in the First Families Team (formerly the Family Strengthening Team), which runs the government’s Family Support Program (formerly the “Struggling Families Programme”). It helps families with multiple problems to meet the challenges they face, whether it is the trio of vulnerabilities or unemployment, poor housing or school exclusion.
The team, which covers Kingston and Richmond, includes a psychologist, domestic violence workers, both for victims and perpetrators, and employment counsellors.
Leavy, who worked at Richmond Council and then Achieving for Children for nine years, primarily offers support to parents in emotional distress – whether diagnosed as a mental health issue or not – In any event, children from Families are also supported by child social care as children in need or as part of child protection plans.
Resistance to involvement
Parents supported by Leavy have often experienced childhood trauma and may be reluctant to professional involvement due to previous bad experiences.
“I think some of our customers are wary of the services because of the impact previous services have had on them,” he says.
Addressing this takes time to build relationships and adapt your practice to the person’s needs.
“The first month with a new client can just be about building a relationship, gaining their trust, and proving that you’re going to do what you tell them you’re going to do,” he says.
Work out of hours
“I really like to think I’ll do what I said I would, and if I can’t, then explain why I can’t.” He says his managers give him the freedom to take this approach — which is important in the context of child protection cases — but he also works outside of office hours to help build those relationships.
The approach is also consistent with the Signs of Safety model, in place at Achieving for Children, which emphasizes working collaboratively with families and developing plans to keep children safe based on strengths and family resources.
Colleagues have praised Leavy for her enthusiasm for listening to others’ perspectives and implementing them in her work.
“This is evident in the work he has done with the adults and families he works with and through this he has been able to involve them in a process of change,” says Roberta Evans, Associate Director of Early Help at Achieving for Children.
Collaborative and non-judgmental
“It’s a collaborative approach and a non-judgmental approach that encourages people to engage and change. It’s about being open to hearing other people’s perspectives,” says Leavy.
As the only adult mental health social worker at Achieving for Children, Leavy is a source of guidance and support for her children’s social service colleagues.
Evans adds: “John has a presence in the department 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 an awareness of mental health and the impact of the pandemic on anyone’s mental health and that includes colleagues and also the families we work with. With that, there has been a desire to ensure he is available and flexible.
Pride during Covid
Leavy says the pandemic has exacerbated issues that were already there, leading to an increase in anxiety, depression, domestic violence and substance abuse.
He says he is “proud” of the way his team “resilient” during Covid, providing families with “consistent and safe service”.
But he expresses greater admiration for the people he works with: “What’s really amazing is the people who go through adversity and I think our clients have demonstrated, sometimes more than us, that they can go through something else, and we really have to be humble in what we see.”
Leavy, now 60, is now considering the next phase of his career.
“I think with my age and this stage of my career, I still appreciate and love this role,” he adds. “I can see good results with the people I work with. I see myself a future until retirement.