Mike Bazzard may have been a qualified social worker for fast approaching 40 years and an independent social worker for 21 of those, but from January, Mike took on a fresh role as WillisPalmer’s Consultant Social Worker, responsible for quality assuring the reports written by our expert social work professionals.
Mike’s experience means he is ideally placed to take on the role within our quality assurance team – not least due to the fact that he has been working for WillisPalmer ‘on the other side of the fence’ carrying out expert parenting and kinship assessments and filing chronologies for the Child Abuse Litigation Service.
Furthermore, Mike was partner and founding member of Targa Partnership, a private social work agency providing assessments of parents, relatives and other carers for courts and, in this role, Mike was responsible for the quality assurance of the reports submitted by their social workers.
“Whether I’m writing reports or quality assuring them, at this stage in my career both come naturally,” said Mike.
‘I don’t sit easily in the hierarchy of a local authority’
He actually started out as a librarian after leaving school while he took time to consider his career options. From there, Mike did a four-year degree in teacher training, although he acknowledged after qualifying that to be responsible for 30 plus children at the age of 23 was a challenging thought. However, his training had shown him that he enjoyed working in small groups of children and so back in 1979, he contacted the local authority where he lived at the time in Bristol and asked if they had any vacancies working in children’s homes. Mike was put straight through to the head of residential care at the local authority who informed him that they had numerous vacancies and, following an informal face-to-face conversation, they took Mike on to work in an 8-bedroom residential children’s home where children aged between six and 16-years-old were placed in long-term placements.
Having gained some invaluable experience, Mike wanted to follow his dreams and experience city life and so moved to London. He got a role at a residential centre and a perk of the job enabled him a shared house share in a council flat with other residential social workers paying minimal rent. Here, Mike worked in a larger centre with 16 children aged between 0 and 18, including emergency placements caring for children while they were assessed as to whether they could return to live with their parents or need to be taken into care.
Mike was fortunate to work for some good senior staff from whom he learned a considerable amount. One particular colleague has been a great influence on Mike throughout a large part of his career and the two began discussing the theoretical side of social work including psychodynamics and from there, Mike studied to become a social worker at Bedford College, London University.
During his early years post-graduation, Mike and a team of like minded colleagues, set up The Breslaff, a residential family centre, which began functioning in 1989.
Mike was a senior practitioner and provided therapeutic intervention and family assessments for local authorities and the court. He had experienced local authority social work after qualifying as a generic social worker in a neighbourhood team, working primarily with child protection issues.
Even in his early career Mike “didn’t sit easily within the hierarchy of local authority social work” and his experience at the centre enabled him a greater understanding of the legal framework regarding children and families. While working with families to keep them together where possible, Mike also had to be aware of when families could not be assisted and children needed to be taken into care and, when that happened, ensured that families were supported through the process.
Mike’s ambition, however, was to be a guardian ad litem and at that time the vast majority were self-employed which paved the way for Mike’s later moves into independent social work. While working closely with the children’s solicitor, Mike was responsible for his own caseload and deadlines, working predominantly autonomously and creatively and presenting his findings to the courts.
As Cafcass was introduced in 2001, Mike decided he wanted to work completely independently but given the amount of time he had spent as a guardian ad litem and the many contacts he had accrued, Mike was confident that he would be commissioned and had done his networking and research to ensure that there would be work coming in once he went independent.
“I think if you are going to be an independent social worker, you need to be a bit of a risk taker – it’s not always easy. I set up Targa Partnership but in 2000’s, the Legal Services Commission capped their fees for expert advice in family court cases, at £33 an hour in London and £30 outside the capital meaning it was no longer feasible to run our agency,” said Mike.
“If I was advising a young person today about going independent, I would say it is harder today and be careful you know where your work is going to come from. I had good contacts and I knew it would be viable for me to go independent. You can’t predict things like fee caps, but you have to be good at networking and making contacts to ensure that you know you are going to receive work,” said Mike, adding that while technology and social media make it easier to network nowadays, there is nothing quite like face-to-face contact.
As Mike’s independent work grew, it enabled him to be at home when his daughter was born, providing a better work/life balance than if he were employed in an office working long hours. Mike specialises in parenting and kinship assessments and he says in this role it is vital “to have strong analytical skills while being warm and empathetic to encourage individuals to open up to enable you to understand the presenting problems and advise them on their options”. Relationship-based social work is key, he adds.
Mike has been working with WillisPalmer for three years carrying out parenting and kinship assessments as well as completing expert reports for the Child Abuse Litigation Service, under supervision from Phil King. Mike compiles chronologies which are the basis for each of the expert reports into potential abuse. Mike receives all files relating to the case which can sometimes be over 10 lever arch files per case and is in paper form rather than received electronically.
Mike examines, files and sorts the records which will come from the applicant’s medical reports, school records, social work reports and background information and the files are then arranged into date order and each category is analysed. The detailed process requires an expert social worker to sift, analyse and sort the files into a manageable form. Critically, this professional eye is essential to constructing a fair and balanced chronology. A solicitor needs to be able to interpret the chronology to form an idea of the person’s life and experience of the care system.
While once happy to go chasing work, Mike now benefits from the process at WillisPalmer whereby he has the ‘safety net’ of work being provided to him, which is ideal at this stage in his career. He now embarks on a different role within WillisPalmer as Consultant Social Worker advising independent social workers about their reports and assessments. “I want to help the professionals who are writing reports,” he adds.
As well as his experience and expertise, Mike says he has always had a keen eye for detail which has become more acute during his career. It was instilled in him as a guardian, that there would be intelligent, knowledgeable people reading his report and therefore he wanted to it to be of the highest quality. As he has got older, Mike says he is even more conscious that each report is of the highest standard possible.
Mike explains that a career as an ISW fluctuates much more than if you are progressing through the ranks at a local authority. However, if you are willing, it can provide you with a huge variety of work, he adds.
Mike states that it is highly likely that there is going to be an increased need for parenting assessments as vulnerable children and families emerge from lockdown given it has been “much harder for social workers to get to families with children not at school and a lack of agencies working together”.
“There is likely to be a peak in demand,” said Mike.
He also warns that as many vulnerable children in lockdown may have been left to fend for themselves, they may develop all sorts of coping strategies which are not healthy in the long-term. “It is healthy for a child to adopt a strategy which suits them at that time, but this can be hard to break from once circumstances change,” he said.
Mike concludes that he is hopeful for the Independent Care Review – particularly as it has not come off the back of a horrific child tragedy which has been the case in the past following the deaths of Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter Connelly.
“I am optimistic for the Care Review and I hope that [chair] Josh MacAlister is given free rein to explore the right ways of working and is given the opportunity to incorporate his child-centred views into government policy,” concludes Mike.