Making a difference to vulnerable young people: Yorkshire children's social workers offer insight into 'vital' profession

From the age of 15, Victoria Coen was confident in the career path she wanted to take. There was only one direction that she could foresee – and it was motivated by her own childhood experiences of the country’s care system.

Victoria had already been involved with several organisations working to improve the experiences of young people in care. Inspired by the kindness shown to her by one of her children’s social workers, she signed up to a children and young people’s workforce apprenticeship, before going on to complete a social work degree. Since qualifying in 2018, she has helped many families and children, including those who have been at risk of neglect, emotional harm or domestic abuse.

“Mental health, drug and alcohol issues, poverty and bereavement are just some of the issues facing the families we work with,” reflects Victoria, a senior children’s social worker at City of York Council. “A big part of what I do involves supporting them in accessing the help and services they need, be it via schools, local health agencies, food banks or charities, who might offer anything from clothing and furniture for those living in poverty, to refuge for those fleeing abusive relationships.

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“Whilst we work closely with these agencies, we always look to the family in the first instance when trying to find solutions...We often find that families can be very good at healing themselves once an issue has been identified...As a children’s social worker, it’s imperative that a child’s voice is always heard, by taking into account how they feel, what they want and what they need.

Anna O’Brien qualified as a children’s social worker in 2020 and works at Hull City Council.Anna O’Brien qualified as a children’s social worker in 2020 and works at Hull City Council.
Anna O’Brien qualified as a children’s social worker in 2020 and works at Hull City Council.

"They might be acting out, missing school or have mental health issues of their own as a result of what’s happening at home...Sometimes they just need someone to listen to them and sometimes that person is us. Essentially, our job is about listening, hearing and empathising. We all have emotions and one of the hardest things about my job is that you sometimes take it home with you. But I’ve found that letting a family see a little bit of you and showing them you care, goes a long way.”

“Research and our own social work experience tells us that children are at their best when they’re with their families,” Victoria adds, “and our role is very much centred around keeping families together rather than separating them. I love my job because I’m able to make a difference and have been part of so many success stories. Even as a last resort when a child has had to be removed then returned to the family home, I’ve seen how families have been given a new lease of life because I’ve helped them break a negative cycle of behaviour.”

Victoria is one of a number of children’s social workers from across Yorkshire backing a regional-wide campaign to inspire others to take up the role. The campaign, during Social Work Week this week, sees the workers feature in an online video describing how they have been able to make a difference to the lives of local vulnerable children and families. They have also opened up about some of the challenges, misconceptions and rewards that come with the job.

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Anna O’Brien, a children’s social care worker at Hull City Council, joined the profession after personal experience, after her own family were impacted when a relative had struggles with substance misuse. “We needed what a lot of families need – some support from the right services,” Anna says. “And having experienced this first-hand, it encouraged me to pursue a career in social work.”

Victoria Coen works as a senior children’s social worker at City of York CouncilVictoria Coen works as a senior children’s social worker at City of York Council
Victoria Coen works as a senior children’s social worker at City of York Council

“What I enjoy most about my job is the relationships I get to build with families,” she adds. “Even if I work with them for only a short period of time, I’m always able to make a connection, providing advice, support and reassurance where needed. Being there, even if just to lend a listening ear, can often make a huge difference in giving someone the courage and the confidence they need to make positive, long-lasting changes to their life.”

Anna started her career in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic. She explains how as the country went into its first lockdown, “we had to find ways of making sure we could keep vulnerable children safe and provide practical and emotional support to those in need”.

Speaking about her involvement in this week’s campaign, she says: “If you want to make a difference to vulnerable children and young people, you really should consider becoming a children’s social worker. It is often a misunderstood profession, with a general lack of understanding around what we do. This can have a knock-on effect on staff morale and on recruitment, so raising awareness about the role and highlighting the many positive outcomes, can only be a good thing - for both the sector and for the vulnerable children and families that we work with.”

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Since 2011, all 15 local authorities across Yorkshire and the Humber have been working collaboratively as part of the Children’s Social Work Matters programme, which aims to champion the role of children’s social workers, raise industry standards and attract, support and retain staff. Pauline Turner, Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says: “Few would argue the importance of protecting society’s most vulnerable at a time when they need it most. But attracting, recruiting and retaining children’s social workers remains one of the biggest challenges; something that is not unique to our region.

“These social workers provide an honest, yet valuable insight into what is arguably one of the most rewarding of professions, which we hope will help raise awareness about the role and break down some of the barriers that exist.” To find out more, visit