For retired social worker Alistair Findlay poetry helped deal with the stress of the job

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THE newborn baby lies cradled in a nurse's arms, looking the picture of innocence. As she sleeps, she is blissfully unaware that her mother has already left the hospital – to go to a drug rehabilitation clinic.

She may be just a few hours' old but already social workers are trying to work out who will look after her – her grandmother is too ill and her grandfather, a convicted child abuser, has died in prison.

And will she be resentful about the decisions made by those social workers when she grows up? It's a question retired social worker and poet Alistair Findlay considers in his poem The Newborn Baby – recalling just one of the heart-breaking decision which were part of his life for 35 years. His job was to remain professional and impartial, thinking only of the best interests of the child. Now this slim volume provides an outlet for the sympathy he had to keep in check and the "tears he could not weep".

Child sex abuse, drug addiction and mental health issues, all set against the background of inefficient bureaucracy, are not obvious subjects for poetry. But Alistair, a former co-ordinator of Lothian Region's child protection services, writes with compassion, taking readers into normally hidden parts of society.

The collection, entitled Dancing With Big Eunice, sounds like very heavy reading, but there are also lighter moments. Alistair has a genuine rapport with many of his clients, painting affectionate portraits of some with learning difficulties. In one of his more entertaining verses, he imagines a modern-day Robert Burns being treated for his alcoholism and womanising.

An established writer, he has already published books on such diverse topics as football, John Knox and Scottish Marxism. But this is the first time he has used his work as inspiration. In the title, "Big Eunice" is a metaphor for his clients, while "dancing" is the experience of trying to relate to them. "Government reports and statistics can only tell you certain kinds of things," he says. "But poetry can convey the loss, and despair and joy.

"When I started my experience in life was that of a respectable, working-class boy. Suddenly I was confronted by the full spectrum of humanity. The only thing I could compare it to was the loss of innocence – or losing your virginity.

"Part of your training is to be able to cope with emotions. Social workers need to be able to cope in very stretched emotional circumstances. If you're working with seriously abused children or rape victims, and let your emotions take over, then you'd be useless to do the work."

Alistair, who was born in Winchburgh, West Lothian, became a social worker almost by accident. He was signed by Hibs football club as a youth player, but by the age of 20 realised it was not the career for him. He planned to train as a teacher at Moray House, but when he approached a local community education manager for work experience, he suggested trying the new social work course.

He remembers, with a smile: "He told me social work needs folk like you. It's full of judge's daughters, and it needs more working-class guys."

He started training in 1970, before taking on his first job in Falkirk. He returned to the Capital in 1980 where he became a senior social worker in Craigmillar, before being appointed regional co-ordinator of child protection in Lothian Region.

One of the major issues of the 1980s was the growing awareness of child sexual abuse. This had been rarely spoken about in the past, and doctors and health professionals were just beginning to realise the extent of the problem.

He says: "It was a closed subject. The children didn't reveal it, and if they did, people usually wouldn't believe them.

"Then these cases became apparent to the medical profession. It was often through the experiences of the women's movement –women who had been abused as children began to get together and speak out."

In one poem, The Senior Social Worker, he mentions a case where a police officer raped his nine-year-old daughter. The man, who purported to be a committed Christian, hurt his daughter so badly she might never be able to have her own children. Written in sparse, matter-of-fact language, Alistair reveals the harrowing reality of a social workers' life.

Alistair says one of his aims is to counterbalance the often vilified image of social workers. Because most of their work is behind closed doors, it is poorly understood. Social workers are under increasing pressure, while strict legal guidelines mean it is difficult to act on "hunches", even if they suspect abuse. People often demand black-and-white answers, but he says these rarely exist.

He says: "It's little understood – what comes to the press's attention are the failures. There isn't an appreciation of how complicated the issues are. There's a total condemnation.

"If a doctor or health professional causes a child's death through ineptitude, then they are blamed, but it doesn't affect the whole profession. In a social work case, the whole profession gets the blame.

"People think these issues are black and white when in fact they are grey.

"Social workers are trying to help groups who are unpopular. We are seen as identifying with them."

Two poems deal with the high-profile cases of Baby P and 23-month-old Brandon Muir, who both died after suffering horrific abuse. Alistair describes being haunted by a photograph of Baby P's "expressionless gaze", but noting that this type of evidence would not stand up in court.

He says: "We have to walk a daily tightrope. When these disasters happen, they affect us all. You know that there are risks you are taking, but the alternative is taking every single child away.

"When I look at that case, there were a whole range of resources and staffing issues that made it more likely to happen. It's not just down to individuals. There's a large turnover of staff in that area, and a large proportion of unqualified social workers. In large cities, these disasters are more likely to happen."

It can be hard to see what kept him going, when his job often involved one step forward and ten back. Social workers are routinely criticised in newspapers and radio phone-ins, but unable to give their side of the story.

Alistair says the camaraderie of colleagues helped a huge amount. His partner is also a social worker, but they both learned to switch off when they got home and kept their family life separate.

He found writing poetry therapeutic, and wrote the first of his collection while working. The rest were written following his retirement last year, after receiving a writer's grant from the Arts Council.

He says: "It's the occasional success that keeps you going. If children have to be removed from their homes, they can actually get on very well. And sometimes if the circumstances improve they can return. We're always travelling hopefully but prepared to be disappointed."

Dancing With Big Eunice by Alistair Findlay is published by Luath Press, priced 7.99