Social Work: Charles Gibson

Charles Gibson BA (HONS) (1971) GDip Social Studies (1975) has dedicated his life to supporting people and the wider community with his social work training. The breadth of his experience spans many areas including child protection, family support, emergency relief, disability services and more.

What led you to study at the University of Melbourne?

Initially, I wished to major in History with a special interest in both Ancient history and Australian social history. The University of Melbourne had a strong History Department in both areas which really grabbed my interest. Here, I wrote my Honours thesis on Australian Divorce Law reform in the 19th century.

When it came time for me to enrol in my post graduate degree, the University also had the most established and well-regarded Social Work course in Melbourne so, it was another simple decision.

What are your strongest memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

Being a resident at Ormond College meant that I had great access to University resources and to the many social opportunities which were available on campus. Engaging with a diverse group of students and teachers was an enriching experience, as were the broad subject offerings in the Arts course.

What goals did you set yourself when you finished University and have you stuck to that plan?

After I completed my Arts degree I changed my career path and enrolled in the Diploma of Social Studies. I obtained a cadetship with the then ‘Social Welfare Department’ which enabled me to move straight into employment following completion of the course.

What motivated you at University?

I was motivated by great lecturers and tutorial leaders and by an engaging group of peers. I was very keen to move into the social work profession and the agency placements organised through the School of Social Work offered many great experiences for me in four quite diverse fields of social work practice – child protection, aged care, public hospital and local government.

What motivates you now?

A continuing passion for social justice and strengthening communities.

What advice do you have for current students?

It is important to be open to the range of experiences and opinions you encounter whilst undertaking any area of study. Where possible, it is also important to find some balance so you are not burnt out by the study load. Making time for social activities and friendships is well worth it. This can be challenging, especially if you are engaged in employment to enable you to pursue your studies and have the means to live. Employment does, however, have the advantage of keeping you grounded and demonstrates your ability to be successful in a workplace environment.

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

I always had a strong interest in people and growing up in a Christian household was encouraged to consider the needs of others and the importance of social justice. Social work training opened up a very diverse range of career options and enabled me to frequently take on new and challenging roles which brought new learning and work environments.

What are some of the highlights of your career so far?

I was able to work in a range of roles as a case worker, supervisor and manager of social work teams. It was exciting to have opportunities to work in areas such as child protection, family support, volunteer management, emergency relief, early childhood, disability services, residential and foster care, and planning and policy development.

My last two roles prior to retirement were a highlight. I worked with UnitingCare Victoria and Tasmania, eventually as Director of that organisation. This involved both working with the committed staff and volunteers in a network of 30 agencies across the two states and also provided opportunities to be involved with the social advocacy work of UnitingCare Australia at a national level. In my final two years, I took on the role of Executive Officer to assist the Uniting Church to respond to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This involved both responding to the needs of those who had been survivors of abuse and also developing strong policies and procedures across the church to do all that we can to keep children safe today and into the future.

What is the most unexpected thing that you have learnt along the way?

Whilst “starting where the client is” was a strong message in the social work training, the experience of the resilience of those we worked with has stood out.  The importance of listening and taking on their suggestions and thoughts, both in terms of their own situations and in relation to the systems and procedures they are involved in has been present throughout my journey. A key theme in the work of the Royal Commission has been the dire consequences which have resulted from children who were abused not being listened to and the need to heed those lessons as we strive to protect children and other vulnerable people today.