Karen Ritchie is a Family Support Worker at Safe and Sound and talks here about how returning to education has enabled her to change her career path and find the job that she loves.

My change of career path began eight years ago at the age of 47. Before I had my four children I worked as a full-time receptionist which I returned to part time after my eldest daughter was born. But, as my family grew, it was not financially viable as I would have paid more in childcare costs than I was earning. I therefore sought employment working unsociable hours which allowed me to look after my children during the day and my husband took over the childcare in the evenings.

It was during a college visit with one of my daughters that I made the decision that I would like to re-train and so my journey began and do something for me. I went to college in the evening to gain GCSE Maths and English. In my second year I also completed an access course in Health and Social Care level three with the intention of looking for employment.

I did not plan to apply to university as I did not consider myself to be academic enough to achieve a degree. Growing up in the 1980’s on a council estate, people and particularly girls like me did not attend university because I had left school with CSE’s. When I chose my options in secondary school I was encouraged to choose needlework, childcare, cookery and typing. I left school and secured a YTS training as a BT Telephonist.

However, as my college assignments were being marked with merit and distinction, my course leader persuaded me to apply for university which I did. I enrolled on the Youth Justice Course at Nottingham Trent. As a mature student I found studying challenging, it seemed to take me a longer to complete assignments than the younger students. Additionally, all four of my children were still at home so independent studying was difficult, and I would often work into the early hours to meet my deadlines.

During my final year Covid hit and as the country went into lockdown which brought additional challenges. I however graduated with a high 2:1. As part of my course I went on placement with a Youth Offending Team which led to me volunteering as a panel member with them.

During my trajectory of studying, I discovered my son was being exploited by his friend’s older sibling – selling and using drugs. As a family we all suffered the impact as it changes the atmosphere in the family home especially the outbursts, the worries for his safety and the drug testing. Fortunately, there was a turning point when he joined the RAF.

The combination of my degree, interest around County Lines and my lived experienced helped me secure my current position as a family support case worker. My role is to raise awareness with parents and siblings around exploitation, offer lots of emotional support and advocate on their behalf with statutory services. I help families with funding, housing and education and my professional knowledge of the youth criminal justice system has allowed me to help parents and their child through court.

Our parents are important partners in safeguarding their children so it is important that they are empowered to have a voice. I am particularly proud to have helped train some parents as mentors for others and also to produce resources to help inform and support other parents. I have developed a peer group where parents have a safe space, where they will not be judged or blamed and support each other.

Family support is not 9-5 so I need to be available late in the evenings for parents so that we don’t miss the opportunity of a reachable moment if, for instance, their child has been arrested. A parent may also need emotional support if their child is missing or has been harmed.

I love this job and my passion, hard work and empathy has enabled us to establish a family service in the city which has gained positive feedback from both parents and other professionals.

Having returned to education later in life, I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to mentor colleagues and university students which has given me the further confidence to progress my own career.