Formal social work practice started in Bermuda in the Sixties, through the informal efforts of many groups including the Salvation Army, the Brangman Home, The Sunshine League, parish vestries, nurses and probation services.
As a result of these loosely knit efforts, a formal Council was formed under Gloria McPhee, the then Minister of Health and Social Services.
She was concerned with the state of Bermuda’s children as the number of children’s orphanages was growing and so was the need to monitor and regulate them.
Mrs McPhee started the Government Department of Social Services under the directorship of Allan Robinson.
Due to the growing number of children needing help, the Government decided to send a few individuals to Dalhousie University to obtain Masters degrees, in order to have qualified social workers.
David Critchley, a Bermudian, had graduated and become a social work lecturer there.
In 1972 he returned to Bermuda under the request of Mrs McPhee and assumed the role of the Director of Child and Family Services.
He started Child Development and reorganized the adoption system.
Ida James became the first qualified Bermudian social worker, having obtained a Masters Degree from Dalhousie. She returned to Bermuda to join a team of expatriate contemporaries.
Over time however, local clients preferred local social workers and the field of social work began to attract more local talent.
Mr Critchley is believed to be the visionary for Bermuda’s public social services system.
Shortly after assuming the post of Director of Child and Family Services he branched out to look at seniors and the disabled.
He extended other services such as Government-run residential care facilities, extending Child and Family Services.
Medical social work at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital had also taken form.
Mary Lees was the original hospital social worker. Mrs Lees’ work was financially supported by Sir Richard Gorham of Gorham’s Supermarket.
Sir Richard established a foundation that financially supported hospital clients in need of help, locally and abroad.
In 1981, social workers in Bermuda became unionized. They fought for pay increases, as by now most social workers had Masters degrees but were being paid at a Bachelor’s level.
The social workers won their battle for pay increases.
In the backdrop of these activities, an Association of Social Workers was formed.
One of their first tasks was to help people being denied help from the parish vestry.
Parish vestries were given money from the Government to take care of members of their parish in need.
However some parishioners were not qualifying for this help and many were being evicted from their homes due to arrears in rent.
Members of the Social Work Association started writing to Government representatives about this growing housing problem, and the Bermuda Housing Corporation was born.
The association went on to become very active, hosting conferences and undertaking numerous advocacy initiatives.
Among the associations’ original members were Olga Scott, Randy Dickinson and the late Ida James.
These individuals are among the social work pioneers of Bermuda, as they later went on in their careers to become an intricate part of Mr Critchley’s vision of a more comprehensive social system.
Many of our social services heroes of the past have retired or passed on but they have left their mark on the early development of a social services system that would support one of the most prosperous economies in the world.
Where are we today?
Today, we face some of the most challenging social issues of our time: Chilling gang violence; a challenged public education system; and the ageing of our population, all against the backdrop of a contracting economy.
In order to honour the legacy our social work pioneers, today’s social warriors must rise.
How will you answer this most important call?
• Claudette Fleming MSW is the executive director of Age Concern Bermuda. This article was written in memory of the late Ida James, who provided content for the history of social work. Ms James’ impact in the social services continues to thrive in the lives of those she has touched and inspired. The 66-year-old was found dead at her Paget home in September 2011. A 53-year-old man was charged with murder and is awaiting trial.