Child Protection Week: “I am doing something that I am passionate about” – Probation and Social Services Officer Ira Ali

By Lakhram Bhagirat

Child Protection Week runs from September 20-26, and this year it is being observed under the theme, “Together, Let’s Keep Children Safe”. The week places focus on the challenges faced by Child Protection Officers as well as the country’s response to protecting the welfare of every child.

Sunday Times this week is highlighting the stories of some of our Child Protection Officers, who go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that every child is treated with respect, and nurtured in an environment that gives them the opportunity to thrive.

Without a doubt, we all have a story to share. Sometimes our story is adventurous and other times it is about overcoming adversities. These stories are a vital part of who we are, and can influence decisions concerning our life. Like everyone else, Ira Ali has had her fair share of challenges, which only motivated her and made her resilient.

She recently shared her story with Sunday Times.

The 26-year-old is currently a Probation and Social Services Officer attached to the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security.

Growing up, Ira was always encouraged to follow her own path in life, and received the support of those around her. She observed her parents’ many acts of selflessness, which she wanted to emulate.

Despite being born in Guyana, Ira spent most of her early childhood years in St Kitts and Nevis. She attended both nursery and primary school there, and enjoyed the island life up until her family relocated to Guyana.

In Guyana, she wrote the Common Entrance exams and moved on to secondary school.

Initially, she had some challenges adapting to the environment and change in culture, but was able to successfully navigate her way through school. After completing her secondary education, Ira decided to further her education at the University of Guyana (UG).

She wanted to read for a degree in Psychology, but it was not being offered at the time, so she ended up choosing a degree in Social Work, since it had some of the courses she initially wanted to study.

“During my university years, one of the challenges was bridging the age gap, since majority of persons reading for said programme were working adults, whilst I was the youngest members of the class (being 16 years of age). I successfully completed the degree programme in the year 2015, and I passed with a distinction,” she said.

During her internships, Ira applied at various agencies for a job, and was eventually called by the Childcare and Protection Agency for an interview.

“I had been working with children during all of those internships, and I had the chance to work alongside them before; so, naturally, it seemed like the best fit for me to expand into the world of Social Work. It may not have originally been my dream career, but it grew on me to become a passion.”

At the age of 21, she became a social worker, and has been in the field ever since. However, it has not been a smooth ride for her. The profession is laced with challenges, and she anticipates more in the future. There are times when Ira had to detach herself from situations in order to effectively deal with the issues. That is not something that happened only to Ira, rather, many social workers often experience these situations.

“The overall consolation is knowing that you are working on behalf of a child and in that child’s best interest. Despite the challenges, I am doing something that I am passionate about every day, and even if it is difficult at times, my focus remains on building individual strengths so people can contribute to making stronger and healthier families and communities.

“Further, I cannot think of a profession which would be better suited to my interests, skills and passion.”

Human beings, especially children, despite their personal circumstances, can sometimes show us how resilient they can be, and they can teach us a lot about overcoming adversity once they are given a voice to express themselves freely in a nurturing and loving environment.

“Our most common frustrations as social workers are not typically from our client-related experiences, but from our systems, which sometimes create barriers. Social workers are a compassionate and supportive group of people, therefore much of our strength to push on no matter what comes from each other. We celebrate our successes, and help each other get through our most challenging times. I continue to be proud to identify myself as a social worker. I always try to promote my profession to others, and try to convey my gratitude to each colleague and client who allow me to play an integral part in their journey, no matter how big or small, so they can achieve healthy interdependence and a happy life,” the young social worker has said.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought about a number of changes and restrictions in how we go about doing things, and it is no doubt that social workers are affected. At the start of the pandemic, Ira and her colleagues knew they would have to adapt and implement changes to address the needs of the most vulnerable.

Rather than constant in-person meetings, they provided services over the telephone, and sometimes video chats wherever the internet was available. Ira also continued some of her face-to-face meetings with some cases that required her to be present whilst following the COVID-19 protocols.

“A lot of the cases we could not see and verify. We had to take the verbal agreement of our clients, because we could not be there to spot and identify issues they may have been facing. So, it was difficult for us to get the full picture at times, and I felt that the quality of our services had decreased in these moments.

“Personally, in my field, I saw a rise in cases due to victims being in close confinement with their perpetrators, and perpetrators taking advantage of the situation to shut us out because of COVID fears, which led to a lot of cases being underreported until they finally came to light.

Ongoing school closures and movement restrictions due to the curfew in place left some children stuck at home with increasingly stressed abusers. The subsequent impact on these protection services and on social workers meant children had nowhere else to turn for help, which led to the increase in cases I saw during the pandemic,” Ira reported.

Ira has said she tries to ensure that her best is always provided for her clients, and urges her fellow social workers to understand the complexities of every person. She also advises that they should take care of themselves.

“You will touch the lives of all you work with in different ways, even if you don’t see it right away. Be realistic about what to expect. Also, this type of work, dealing with social ills on a daily basis, may trigger feelings and thoughts in you; sometimes you will take those feelings and thoughts home, but be mindful to respect client confidentiality. In addition, we are so good at taking care of others in this field that sometimes we forget ourselves in that process. So, learn to take better care of you, find ways for stress relief, and make time to laugh. It is extremely important to work toward a balanced life, including time for you and your family and friends.”