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Social work sans frontières

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Mental health, Our profession

Georgina Hollingworth was, until recently, a mental health social work adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). She was seconded to the FCO through Heathrow Travel Care, a charity supporting vulnerable people passing through the UK’s busiest airport. During her time in the department, she spent one day a month in Heathrow working with clients in need.

We are delighted to host this guest blog from Georgina, written while she was still on secondment, in which she shines a little light on this interesting aspect of social work practice and its role supporting vulnerable people beyond our borders.

Exterior shot of the Foreign Office in Whitehall
A team of four social workers offer advice to FCO consular staff all around the world to support vulnerable British nationals overseas.

A day in the life

The FCO work is extremely varied and no two days are the same. 95 percent of my time is spent in a team of four social workers, offering advice to consular staff all around the world to support vulnerable British nationals overseas. Our areas of expertise include: homelessness and repatriation, older people and dementia, child welfare and safeguarding and mental health.

Before joining the FCO team, I had extensive experience of working within the NHS/Social Service teams supporting people with severe and enduring mental health needs. I start by reading a summary of the cases publicised in the UK media over the weekend, then I read emails from one of our many British Consulates around the world.

The issues raised in these emails are often varied and extremely sensitive. For example, we might be informed of concerns about a British national who is feeling suicidal in a country where to act on such impulses may have additional consequences for them, their relatives and loved ones.

My colleagues and I will need to consider the implications of any advice we offer, with the wellbeing of the individual involved foremost in our minds.

people around a table
Regular discussion about new and evolving cases is essential.

Meeting of minds

Next, it’s time to attend our bi-monthly social work adviser meeting. This is our regular opportunity to work through our agenda and discuss lessons learned from recent projects. Today, we review a great piece of work we undertook to repatriate an individual to a UK hospital from a South East Asian immigration detention centre.

We then move on to share concerns about an ongoing case in an EU country, where an older hospitalised person is ready for discharge but will require social care support on their return. This individual has been overseas for a number of years and will be returning voluntarily with no accommodation, family or friends to support them.

We talk about some of the difficulties they may face and the importance of understanding the details of the Habitual Residency Test and how this might impact their eligibility for benefits. Although they have links to the UK, we need to discuss arrangements for their return with the relevant local authority who are uncertain about the extent of their obligations.

We agree to share our ADASS and FCO Statement of Understanding with them, which sets out our official expectations of social services and vice versa. This usually clears things up, but we can escalate for further discussion and clarification if necessary – although this rarely needs to happen.

Mental health word cloudNational enquirer

We return to our desks and a colleague raises the case of a British National hospitalised in another EU country due to a deterioration in their mental health. Their family want them to return to the UK for treatment. The individual concerned has not given consent for any authorities to contact their family and there is no suggestion they lacked capacity to make this decision at the time.

I advise that we to speak to the family in general terms about the support we can provide British Nationals overseas. This includes signposting to FCO information on GOV.UK which sets out what we can and cannot do. As with all cases of this nature, we cannot share specific details of the individual unless they subsequently change their mind or if an emerging lack of capacity can be proven.

These are just some of the issues, challenges and intriguing dilemmas we deal with each and every day. It is an exciting, varied and stimulating role and one that is helping to support our most vulnerable citizens at home and abroad.

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