Stephen O’Reilly is a Specialist Practitioner with Wandsworth’s Family Safeguarding Service – we learned how his unique role combines complex casework with driving positive change in practice and culture.

Stephen’s role with Wandsworth’s Family Safeguarding Service is currently the only one of its kind. His day-to-day work mixes social work practice with culture and skills development, and while balancing the two is not without its challenges, this niche has also allowed him to enact positive change within the service while still engaging with families.

“My role is really diverse in many ways, because I still work directly with families, so I’ve got one foot in practice, working with families as other social workers do. My caseload is quite low, but it tends to be families with a level of complexity and need that is higher. On the other side of the role, I support the development of practice culture. That means I’m supporting social workers through their work with families and generating feedback to continue to develop our practice culture.”

The practice culture dimension of Stephen’s job can be reflective, looking at creative ways to change the borough’s perspective on both the families they support and the outcomes they are looking to achieve. It also involves delivering training sessions and workshops to introduce and discuss ideas with colleagues from across the entire directorate.

“Social work was quite orthodox for many years, so it’s about creating new innovative ideas around how we view permanency for children, how we view what family life ‘should’ look like, how we move beyond just process work to really think about children in their home environments.”

From a relatively early life stage, Stephen was always interested in a career working with, and advocating for people. In school, he had initially wanted to become a barrister, but work experience in the field had made him reconsider, and a chance conversation with his school librarian led to him exploring social work as an option. 

“I’m from Derry in Northern Ireland, and I think growing up in the environment that I did, I knew lots of my friends from my school days had social workers. I always remember people being taken out of class to meet with a social worker, and there were always things being said. So although I didn’t feel conscious of it at the time, maybe there was something about my environment that subconsciously opened my eyes.”

After studying social work in Leeds, the draw of living and working in a larger city led Stephen to pursue a career in London, where he has worked ever since:

“I came to London immediately after uni. I wanted to live in a big city and have fun, to be honest! But what’s kept me here is that there are lots of social work opportunities. London is a big place, so I’ve been able to work in three different boroughs. Although I’ve always been part of the same type of team, the way social work is done can be very different, so I’ve been shaped by the different places that I’ve worked in London.”

After building up experience working across different boroughs, Stephen spent some time as an agency social worker in Wandsworth, before deciding to take on his current role on a permanent basis.  The creation of the Specialist Practitioner role in Wandsworth presented an opportunity which suited Stephen perfectly, and a workplace culture which made him feel valued: 

“What made me go permanent with Wandsworth was that I felt like I was given a voice and not just seen as an agency worker. When this role came up, I was encouraged to apply for it. At that point I probably wouldn’t have gone permanent as a social worker, but because of that I felt like they had invested in me, I felt seen, and I felt heard. I could see that they wanted me there.”

The hybrid role comes with a unique set of challenges, as it can be tricky to fit practice development responsibilities around the often-chaotic schedules of the young people and families Stephen supports in his frontline work:

“I think everyone in social work feels pressure at times, and because my role is split, it’s like balancing a 9 to 5 job with the realities of responding to families in social work, and that can be a hard balance to strike.”

However, this role has allowed Stephen to use his experience to contribute to practice innovation in a way that a purely frontline role wouldn’t, which brings its own set of rewards. One example of this is Family Space, a setup which brings together social work and family therapy practice to create conditions that allow families to talk through and develop solutions to their problems independently. This focus on being supportive instead of prescriptive has led to positive results for the families Stephen and his team work with:

“What we’re finding is that Family Space really helps to stop families from progressing through the system and remaining on a plan. The families we support are really quite resourceful, and getting them in a space where they’re able to think, and have that facilitation to help them think about what resources they have within the family, is really effective.”

Another area of focus for Stephen’s practice development work has been around anti-racist practice and unconscious bias. With black children and young people still comparatively over-represented on care plans, ensuring that social work practitioners are actively considering wider cultural and societal factors, along with their own biases, can make a huge difference to outcomes.

“It’s about thinking ‘How do I, as a white Irish man, see the world, versus how the young black mum in South London that I’m working with see the world? How do I make sense of her experience through her eyes and not my own?’ We always talk about bringing ourselves to work, but we also have to be aware of our unconscious biases in how we look at families – every family is different, it’s not just about what we experienced ourselves as children growing up. I’m really proud that we’re having these conversations, and that people are thinking differently. It means in practice our approaches are more creative.”

As someone who has built his social work career in the capital, Stephen’s tip for those considering social work practice in London was to get the most out of the variety that the profession and city has to offer, as the way that people outside the profession view social work practice is often mistakenly limited to safeguarding and child protection:

“It’s important to recognise that there’s more than just one team. Social workers develop really transferable skills, but there’s a sense that people need to work in a child protection setting, and I don’t think that suits everybody. It’s worth trying to have the experience, but you should know that there are so many other teams and contexts in which you can work. Find a team that brings out what you want to get out of the work.”

Find out more about working with Stephen in Wandsworth, and view their current opportunities.