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Meet the Team – Interview with Mark Willis, Chief Executive WillisPalmer

When Mark Willis didn’t become an overnight sensation as an international drummer in a rock n roll band, his mother – who incidentally had suspicions that he would make a very good social worker – took matters into her own hands. Mark’s mum was a senior nurse at Southend Borough Council and she approached the Assistant Director at Southend to suggest he meet Mark.

Mark

Given Mark was living at home and paying no rent, he had little choice and reluctantly went to meet the AD who recommended he try voluntary work in a hostel for 30 adults with learning disabilities, which Mark accepted.

However, after volunteering for a week, Mark was offered a permanent job and, loving the work, he stayed for two years before moving to an adult training centre for 20 profoundly disabled people with physical and learning disabilities which cemented his interest in the social work profession. Rock ‘n’ roll’s loss was social work’s gain!

Mark wanted to become qualified in social work and knew that, in order to do that, he would have to be working in children’s services in order to be seconded. He therefore began working as an unqualified social worker in children’s services and, in stark contrast to today’s world of children’s services, Mark held a caseload despite having no prior experience in children’s services.

Contrast to today in children’s services

“Contrasting significantly from today’s children’s services, I was working alongside some extremely experienced social workers who had 10 plus years’ experience. They carried out joint visits with me or took me along to court with them. There didn’t seem to be the same pressures as today and caseloads were more manageable and so they had the time to help and were extremely supportive,” said Mark.

“At that point, there was just one case of sexual abuse in the whole department. However, then the Cleveland child abuse scandal which included a wave of suspected child sexual abuse cases in 1987 in Cleveland, many of which were later discredited, completely changed things,” he added.

“As an unqualified social worker, I gained so much knowledge and experience from the support provided by experienced team members, even from discussions around cases. It was this experience that led to me to later develop WillisPalmer’s mentoring services whereby experienced social workers go into local authorities to support less experienced staff members,” said Mark.

His social work career was put on ice for a period when Mark and his then wife were offered the opportunity to run a pub, an insight which provided invaluable knowledge for his days running a business later in life. While being a publican may seem a world away from social work, Mark begs to differ.

“People would come into the pub and talk to you about the problems they faced. One customer came in and asked for a pint of strong lager, downed it, and I asked if he was alright. His wife had just passed away,” said Mark, adding that he felt completely out of his depth in terms of what to say.

Creative and innovative

After two years in the pub, Mark joined Southend working in the children’s teams and was seconded to complete his Diploma in Social Work. Mark worked in local authority child protection social work and spent three years as a team manager. However, heading into management took him away from direct social work practice with families which he enjoyed and, as a result, he became self-employed as a children’s guardian for Kent and Medway.

“I wanted to stay working in direct practice and the autonomy that self-employed guardians had to be creative and innovative in their approach and practice really appealed to me,” he said. Yet while he was practising as a guardian, more and more frequently Mark was targeted by solicitors asking him to carry out independent social work assessments, which he started to do in Essex and London alongside his guardian role. Mark also carried out specialist training in forensic risk and carried out a lot of assessments in that area.

It was a chance meeting at the University of East Anglia with Andre Palmer that turned into a friendship, with shared ideas around social work. In 2001-2, the duo started discussing ideas for their own business as Mark had always had his eyes set on running his own company and was already self-employed.

“We decided on a business providing independent social work services for local authorities and the courts,” said Mark. And from there WillisPalmer was born in 2004.

Mark left the ‘comfort’ of local authority work when he and his wife Alison had just moved house and she wife was four months pregnant with their eldest daughter Eavan. Thankfully, Alison was 100% supportive of Mark’s venture, knowing he was determined to run his own business at some point.

Anyone who has set up a business will know that it is no mean feat and WillisPalmer was no exception. Andre had a garden shed with power in it and Mark and Andre set up office in that very shed and launched WillisPalmer. Mark had contacts from the work he had undertaken and he introduced his customers to Andre and the pair started out carrying out the independent assessments themselves.

At the same time, Mark reached out to self-employed colleagues and asked if they wanted to carry out independent social work assessments for WillisPalmer. “From there, the organisation grew from Andre and I, to five contractors, to 10, to 15 – the growth was organic and much of the business grew through word of mouth.”

Massive risk

A momentous point was when Mark and Andre took on Sarah Stowe as their first employee in 2005 as a business administrator to support the business side of things while they carried out the social work assessments. It says something that Sarah is still an employee with WillisPalmer today and has risen through the ranks to become Managing Director.

“Looking back, it was a massive risk but at the time it just felt like the right thing to do. I had a gut instinct that the market for independent social workers would open up as there were delays across the system and there was not enough time in the day for frontline social workers to spend the amount of time required on an intensive and complex assessments. At that stage it was commonplace for care proceedings to take 1.5 years – way before the current 26 week completion limit which was introduced Under the Public Law Outline (2014) and the Children and Families Act 2014 – and the skills and expertise of independent social workers were required to work on the complex cases and free the system up,” said Mark.

“Furthermore, I felt very strongly that in the late 1990’s, many courts were instructing psychiatrists or, failing that, psychologists to carry out independent assessments and in my opinion this work could be carried out by good and experienced social workers. Children’s guardians were experienced at working flexibly and with more autonomy to be creative and I was keen to promote the idea to courts that ISWs could provide those services rather than clinicians. Psychiatrists were being called in to do parenting assessments which made no sense,” he added.

Mark and Andre both had young families with children of a similar age and always aimed to strike the right balance between work and home life, and as a result, they were careful not to overstretch themselves and grew organically and not too quickly.

Challenge

However, they were soon turning work away and therefore began spending more time in the office managing the work. While Mark took responsibility for the practice and quality assurance side of the business, Andre focused on the infrastructure, IT and the financial side of things.

They increasingly received calls asking for independent psychologists and repeatedly said this wasn’t a service they provided when Mark suddenly questioned why not? In 2008, WillisPalmer started to take on psychologists as well as social workers and thus a multi-disciplinary organisation was created.

“The first five years were fairly straightforward,” says Mark. “It was a challenge getting local authorities and courts to refer to us but as we grew, this increased.”

However, the first major challenge WillisPalmer came up against was the decision by the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to cap the fees of independent social workers (ISWs) who provide reports and evidence to the courts to £30 per hour outside the capital and £33 per hour in London from October 2010, in a bid to reduce the legal aid budget. At the time other expert witnesses such as psychologists were entitled to up to £100 per hour.

“This was the first major challenge we came up against,” explained Mark. “We joined forces with other independent social work agencies such as ISWA, and organisations such as Nagalro and BASW to campaign against the cuts. We then sponsored research carried out by the University of Oxford and researcher Dr Julia Brophy into the effectiveness of ISWs in court proceedings.”

“The research studied more than 100 children’s cases and found that the input of ISWs provided added extra’s to the evidence before the judges. Unanimously, judges were supportive that ISWs added value in proceedings,” he added.

The irony is that the fee has increased since then but just to a paltry £33 inside or out of London.

In response to the challenge, WillisPalmer established contracts with local authorities to be their exclusive provider of independent social work services. “Prior to the fee cap, 75% of our cases came through the Legal Aid Agency. Following the cap, 85% comes directly from local authorities,” said Mark.

Multi-disciplinary

After WillisPalmer came out of the other side of this challenge, Mark decided to focus his efforts on turning the organisation into a genuinely multi-disciplinary organisation and to ensure experts from different backgrounds and with different skillsets working together to provide the best outcomes for children and families. WillisPalmer now provides the Multi-disciplinary Family Assessment whereby a multi-disciplinary team work together to assess the family and their parenting capacity during an eight-week period. At the end of eight-10 weeks, a quality assured, evidence-based report is produced with advice and recommendations for the court .

Furthermore, WillisPalmer has recently introduced the innovative Systemic Family Assessment for public and private law cases designed to provide the court with the expert analysis it needs to be able to make final decisions for children in a timely manner.

“I felt very strongly that different disciplines working together could improve the outcomes for children given a common aim. The Systemic Family Assessment has recently launched and I am hugely excited about it given that we have designed the model whereby it can be funded through Legal Aid Agency rates,” added Mark.

Ethical

And so, the garden shed, two-desk, hands on operation may be a distant memory as WillisPalmer now operates an office in the University of Essex grounds with a staff of 12 and has a national network of more than 300 multi-disciplinary experts alongside Child Abuse Litigation social work teams in England, Wales and Scotland. But Mark is clear why WillisPalmer has grown to become the national organisation it currently is with a focus on high standards and an impeccable reputation.

“Our values are our strength. We are a social work owned and operated company and our social work values has enabled us to develop our reputation as an ethical organisation which places children at the heart of outcomes. We do not take work on where we cannot improve the outcomes of children’s lives and I will always stand by that,” stated mark.

The high-quality professionals that WillisPalmer works with also enables us to keep our position and reputation, says Mark. “In addition, the office team at WillisPalmer HQ all share our ethical values. We are very selective as to who we employ.”

WillisPalmer has a number of long-standing employees including Sarah Stowe, now managing director, and our business administrator Chloe Bach. Chloe has served over 10 years while Sarah was the first employee to be taken on. Mark attributes this loyalty to the family values of the organisation, being supportive employers and expecting employees to have a good work/life balance.

“I have to give credit to Sarah as managing director. She nurtures our team which is a huge strength. People are loyal to Sarah as she genuinely cares about our staff,” added Mark.

Mark’s aim for the next five years is to get WillisPalmer’s services out to as many local authorities as possible to grow the business further.

“To have set up a company with Andre from nothing – we have never had any investment and did it all ourselves – yes there have been ups and downs and challenges and finding funding from cash strapped local authorities has been a huge challenge. But to show them that our services are cost effective – such as the Multi-disciplinary Family Assessment Service where we work in a family’s home rather than place them in a costly residential unit – it’s been difficult at times but I am immensely proud of everything that WillisPalmer has achieved,” concluded Mark.

  • Incidentally, Mark’s drumming career on the side has also been pretty impressive!
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