I’m Your Social Worker*

social-workersThey’re often on the front lines in domestic situations. And they’re the ones who are called in when children may be at risk. I’m talking, of course, of social workers. They have a thankless and sometimes dangerous job, but the vast majority of them do their very best. There’s a high turnover rate among social workers, as you can imagine. The pay isn’t good, they often have a very much heavier caseload than anyone can reasonably be expected to handle, and they’re not always welcome at homes where they pay visits.

Yet, their work is vital, and can save lives. We do hear occasional horror stories of social workers who are incompetent or worse. But, as I say, the vast majority are hardworking, conscientious individuals who care.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of social workers who make appearances in crime fiction. It’s a natural fit, if you think about it. And they can add an interesting perspective to a crime story.

For example, in one plot thread of Jonathan Kellerman’s Blood Test, we learn of five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes. He has a treatable form of leukemia, but his parents refuse treatment. Instead, they want to choose holistic and other non-medical treatments. This could be fatal for Woody, so his doctor, Raoul Melendez-Lynch, asks a former colleague, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware agrees, and  Melendez-Lynch puts him in contact with Beverly Lucas, a social worker attached to the hospital. She’s worked with the Swopes family, and Delaware is hoping that, together, they’ll be able to make some progress. Instead, Woody’s parents remove him from the hospital. Then, he disappears. Now, Delaware and Lucas must find the boy while he still has a chance to stay alive. Then, his parents are found dead. The only link to the family is Woody’s twenty-year-old sister, Nona, who has her own serious problems. In this novel, Lucas shows how important social workers can be when families have medical crises.

In Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House, DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson takes up his new duties at Tradmouth CID, in Devon. He’s no sooner settling in when word comes that the body of a young woman has been discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. The CID team begins the work of identifying her and trying to trace her killer. The trail leads to a local caravan of travellers and young man named Chris Manners, who may have some information. When it’s discovered that he has a little boy, Daniel, living with him, Social Services gets involved in the form of Lynne Wychwood. Among other things, she has to assess whether the boy is safe and living in an appropriate environment. And, if possible, she has to do that without alienating Chris; it’s going to be much easier if he sees her as an ally rather than The Enemy. Lynne doesn’t solve the case. But her work with Chris and Daniel proves very helpful, and it’s interesting to see how social workers try to be flexible and do what’s best for the child when they can.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In Exile, the second in the series, Mauri is working at a Glasgow shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. When one of the residents, Ann Harris, goes missing, not much concern is raised at first. Residents are free to come and go as they wish. But when Ann doesn’t return, Mauri begins to get concerned. Then, Ann’s body is found in the Thames a few weeks later. At first, Mauri is convinced that Ann’s husband, Jimmy, is responsible. But his cousin, who runs the shelter, insists that he’s innocent. So, Mauri tries to trace Ann’s last days and weeks. The trail leads to a London solicitor’s office where Mauri meets social worker Kilty Goldfarb, who’s also Scottish. The two strike up a friendship, and Kilty turns out to be helpful in this case. She returns in Resolution, the last of the trilogy, and her experience in social work turns out to be useful in that novel as well.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night introduces readers to Delhi social worker Simran Singh. At the request of a former university friend (who’s now Inspector General for Punjab), Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur. She’s there to work with the police on a very difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for murdering thirteen members of her family, and then burning the family home. There is evidence against her, but there is also the possibility that she, too, was a victim who managed to stay alive. The police can’t determine Durga’s role in the tragedy, because she hasn’t spoken about it. The hope is that Singh will be able to get the girl to open up and talk about what happened. At first, Durga is unwilling to say much of anything. But, bit by bit, she begins to trust Singh, and starts to talk about her family. Little by little, we learn what happened that night, and the dark secrets that led to the deaths. Among other things, this novel shows how social workers sometimes have to be creative when it comes to doing their best for the children they are charged with protecting.

Social workers take on a wide variety of roles. For instance, In Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, we learn that Chapman (who is a baker) works with the Soup Run, a Melbourne group that provides food, (non-alcoholic) drinks, blankets, and sometimes medicine to Melbourne’s street people. One of the other people involved with the Soup Run is Jen, a local social worker, who

‘…can wedge a client into a lodging house with pure force of character.’

Admittedly, Jen is not a main character who helps solve mysteries. But she shows the dedication that most social workers have to doing their best for those in need.

There’s also J.M. Green’s Good Money, which introduces Melbourne social worker Stella Hardy. When one of her clients, an émigré from Africa, is found murdered, and then a neighbour disappears, Stella starts looking for answers. And she finds that the truth is a lot more dangerous than she thought. I admit, I haven’t (yet) read this one. It was just too good an example not to mention. Want to know more? You can read terrific reviews here and here on Fair Dinkum Crime, the source for Australian crime fiction.

There are a lot of other social workers who appear in crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glasvegas’ Geraldine.


Filed under Denise Mina, J.M. Green, Jonathan Kellerman, Kate Ellis, Kerry Greenwood, Kishwar Desai

21 responses to “I’m Your Social Worker*

  1. I have so much respect and admiration for social workers x x x

  2. Not an easy job at all – I’ve seen some of them in action and the choices are nearly always heartbreaking rather than clearcut. Plus the scrutiny!

    • You’re right on both counts, Marina Sofia. They do get second-guessed all the time. And, as you say, they’re often faaced with awful choices, none of which have positive outcomes.

  3. I think Social Workers tend to get a rough deal in crime fiction (as they do in the media) It’s easy to forget that they are generally making the best of a bad situation – not a job I’d want! That said you’ve reminded me that I must finish Denise Mina’s Paddy Mehan trilogy so that I can begin the Garnethill one.

    • I think they have a very difficult time of it, Cleo. As you say, they have to make the best out of situations that most of us never have to experience. In many cases, it’s a matter of the lesser of two evils, and that has to be awful for them. Not a job I would want, either, if I’m being honest. As to Mina, I do recommend the Garnethill novels. They’re well written (it is Denise Mina) and have some memorable characters. Gritty, realistic, and engrossing, in my opinion.

  4. Thanks! I enjoyed (and appreciated) this post, having been a social worker for thirty years before my retirement (and “third act” as a writer/book blogger). I love when a social worker in a novel earns the respect of the other characters.

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, Laurel, and thanks for all the work you did as a social worker. I’m sure you have a lot of insights and stories to tell. And I agree: it’s always nice when fictional social workers earn the respect of other characters. Most social workers are dedicated professionals with a real commitment to their charges. I like it best when they are portrayed that way.

  5. Nice post Margot. Simran Singh and Stella Hardy are two of my favourite fictional social workers and I look forward to more of their outings.

    • Thanks, Angela. I’ve yet to fully meet Stella Hardy, but that one’s coming up soon for me. And I really do like Simran Singh. She’s a complex, interesting character, and I like the look we get at her professional life as well as her personal life.

  6. Hmmm…I don’t think I’ve read a crime novel that featured a social worker. Oh, wait. Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane had a social worker in it, if memory serves.

  7. It’s always good to see social workers portrayed positively, since as you say the vast majority of them work hard to improve the lives of their clients. In Val McDermid’s new book Out of Bounds, when a young man is found dead, the investigating officer is quick to decide it’s suicide. But DI Karen Pirie’s not so sure, and she turns to the young man’s social workers to find out more about his character and personality. The social workers only have a small role in the book, but the way they’re portrayed feels very authentic.

    • I’m glad they are, FictionFan (and I really ought to read that new McDermid!). Like you, I prefer it when social workers are portrayed in an positive way. They really do, as a group, work very hard at a thankless task, for which they get paid very little. Even if they have a small role ion a story, I like it to show that, even if they do have their flaws, as we all do. And sometimes, those minor characters can add leaven to plot. For example, if we’re looking for reasons a person would disappear/commit a crime/etc.., a social worker who knew that person could, in real life, add insight.

  8. kathy d

    I come from a family of social workers and have a neighbor who is one. Very hard work and not well-paid either, one of the lowest paying professions. And people have a slew of clients, too. I have great respect for social workers in real life.
    And loved the Garnethill trilogy and Simran Singh. Denise Mina’s three books and Witness the Night are excellent. Read the second Kishwar Desai book but it wasn’t as good as the first. But Desai understands the mistreatment of women, especially those who are impoverished and also, the Dalit, who are mentioned in book two, which is about surrogacy in India, a very complicated issue.

    • I didn’t know you had social work in your family background, Kathy – that’s interesting! And you’re right; they work very hard for low pay. The vast majority of them care deeply about their work and their clients, too. And yes, they always have a lot of them (clients). You’re right about both Mina and Desaie, I think. Both write excellent books.

  9. Social workers get a rough deal, it often seems that whatever they do is wrong, and they can’t win. I guess fiction reflects that…

    • I think it does, too, Moira. And you’re right about social workers. It really is a can’t-win situation for them many times. And the vast majority of them really do work hard and do their best.

  10. tracybham

    That is a new one for me, Margot, social workers as sleuths. They certainly would be useful to other sleuths.

    • That’s quite true, Tracy. And you know, I hadn’t thought about social workers in crime fiction, either…until I thought about it. They really are interesting characters, and in real life, so important.

  11. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 6…12/19/16 – Where Genres Collide

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