Feature: ‘My Mattress to fall on’

Broxtowe social worker Sarah Straw and team manager Sophie Eadsforth
Broxtowe social worker Sarah Straw and team manager Sophie Eadsforth

This week we were invited to join Notts social workers on a home visit and learn the amazing story of a mum’s fight to keep her family together.

Council social workers have taken a lot of flak over the years – feared by some as the faceless council employees who take your kids away, they carry as much stigma as the families they work with.

Changing economic circumstances, government cuts – any number of reasons are responsible for a staggering rise in the number of Nottinghamshire children being taken into care.

But what we often forget about social workers is that it’s their job to make sure kids stay at home with their parents, and the Advertiser has been invited along to meet one of the families they have kept together.

As we are taken to the family’s home, a woman is standing on her doorstep, waiting, with a dog by her side.

Sarah Straw, a Broxtowe social worker, has been working with the family for the past 18 months.

Emma, 27, is a mum of three boys: Harry, six, Ben, four, and Lincoln, three – all three have been on a Child Protection Plan for around 18 months.

She’s now on a Children in Need plan – it’s a step down, but there is still work to be done.

She welcomes us into the house as the small brown staffie gets excited.

“Don’t worry, he don’t bite,” says Emma. Sure enough, Robbie – just a puppy, really, only wants to say hello.

The house, three-up-two-down, is missing some carpeting – but the main room has a big open space for her boys, plenty of toys and games and a handmade fortress – three feet tall – complete with flags and drawbridge. Emma says it was donated by one of the neighbours.

She’s got charts on the wall – rotas for chores and stickers for the kids’ moods and behaviour. It’s a trick she picked up at Incredible Years, a parenting programme started in America which the council promotes.

Emma is quite proud of them – they’ve worked wonders with her boys.

She says: “They get to move their own name on the happy chart when they’re good, but they also have to do it when they’re naughty. It makes them realise what they’ve done.”

Her youngest, Lincoln, is in the living room. Cartoons are on in the background, but he really wants to show off his Spiderman books.

Children’s Services in Nottinghamshire were alerted to Emma’s case by a tip-off from another mum in the area who feared abuse. In reality the family had a number of neglect issues stemming from Emma’s own mental health, and stress from raising her boys alone – she just couldn’t cope, and she didn’t have a support network to turn to.

“My parents were struggling to stay afloat themselves, so I didn’t want to put on them,” she says.

Emma hit rock bottom when she got locked out of her flat one day taking out the rubbish, resulting in a phobia of leaving the house.

“It freaked me out, so after that I used my kitchen as a bin,” says Emma, who can’t stop herself from crying – she hasn’t had to think about back then for over a year.

The condition of her house got out of control, and all this came on top of extreme panic, depression, and post-natal depression after her youngest was born.

“For the first ten weeks after Lincoln came along I didn’t sleep at all. He just screamed all the time. People told me they’re often like that up to six weeks, but after six weeks he was the same. It got to the point that one morning, Lincoln was screaming and I was rocking him, matchsticks holding my eyes open, and all I could imagine was a pillow in my head.”

It was a real blow when the social workers first arrived in July 2013.

“The first thing they said when they arrived was “right you need to find somebody to take the boys while you get moved out, or we’re going to be taking them into care. It hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Emma.

Since then they have worked with her to promote better conditions at home and parenting skills as well as helping her through her own problems she’s had since childhood – this “cycle of neglect” is all too common.

Techniques like the wall charts have gone a long way, and support from Emma’s local children’s centre and a key team of support workers has helped her share ideas with other parents.

“The first thing I thought when I met with the team of support workers for the first time was that I didn’t feel intimidated, which is a big thing for me,” says Emma.

She had to go through a lot – discovering her boys had learning difficulties, hearing issues, and eating intolerances among other medical problems. Her oldest, Harry, had behavioural issues – anger and frustration – and four-year-old Ben had major problems with toilet training.

“If it wasn’t for social coming and stepping in when they did, I don’t think I’d be here in the position I’m in now.

“Everything was chaotic, always going wrong. If we didn’t get out of the house in time for school that would be it – I’d think “why bother”, the day was finished. I wasn’t coping and it rubbed off on the boys.

“With the social workers I’ve been able to work through one issue at a time, starting with the state of the house, then sorting out doctors’ appointments and getting the boys’ health issues looked at.

“And if it wasn’t for that initial visit… I needed that kick to the heart to find the motivation to change. Sarah and the other social workers have been my mattress to fall on, and they’ve helped me bounce back.”