Social Worker Chiefs Call For An End To Demonisation Of Their Colleagues

The leader of Britain’s 81,700 social workers called last night for an end to the excoriation of the profession in the media and parliament, after the disclosure of mistakes in the handling of the Baby P case in Haringey, north London.

Ian Johnston, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said his members were tired of being made a political football, damned for intervening too much or too little depending on the circumstances of the latest case to hit the headlines. “We no longer want to see trial by media. The entire press is judging us in relation to action in one case. Social workers are not well enough supported and they have to work in a culture of fear,” Johnston said. “Some of our critics would never dream of going into the situations with which we deal.”

Johnston said that he would not defend bad practice, adding that Baby P’s “preventable death” highlighted issues the professional regulator, the General Social Care Council should deal with.

He said about 40,000 social workers worked in children’s services. About 11% of posts were vacant, rising to 30% in some of the most stressful urban communities. Staff turnover was high and managers relied on agency staff to fill their rosters.

Sue Woolmore, adviser to the children’s charity NSPCC, said that few people outside the professions involved in child protection understood the complexity of the work. “It is not a tickbox exercise. As a social worker you are trying to work with families to protect children. That requires understanding of people’s behaviour and motives,” she said.

“You may go into a family to see how a child is doing, but find the mother says she was beaten up last night by her boyfriend, the landlord is on her back for missed rent, there is no money for food, another a child is wetting the bed, the washing machine is broken and she doesn’t know how to do the laundry. You can be hit by a welter of things that distract you from the needs of the child. And sometimes families can create a smokescreen.”

She said that although the Laming report into the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 emphasised that the needs of the child must be paramount, social workers often had to deal with complex needs. “There may be a big group of siblings. If one child is acting up, perhaps refusing to go to school, the younger, quieter ones can drift out of focus,” she said.

“Quite often the houses you go into can be intimidating, with dogs and lots of adults who may be sneering or aggressive, shouting in your face, mocking or trying to humiliate you.

“If you have three social workers in a team that should have five or six, chronic cases may get put on the back burner. In some families, the problems may have gone on for generations. It is children from backgrounds like this, who are not on the child protection register, who are more likely to die.

“A toddler may put on weight, or speech may improve. An older sibling goes back to school. The social workers will be looking for signs that things are improving. There can be a collective optimism, especially when families engage in disguised compliance in the two or three weeks before a case review.”

She emphasised the role of the first line manager who could help case workers “make sense of what they are seeing and bring some analysis to bear”.

“The manager is not personally exposed to intimidation or difficult dynamics in the family home,” she said. “But many practitioners say they are not getting enough of that kind of support.”

Shaun Kelly, of the charity Action for Children, said child protection would not be improved by further legislation. “We should concentrate on how we manage, train and support staff who are making these complex decisions in difficult circumstances. Changes in legislation would further complicate matters.”
A social worker’s view

“It’s the social workers who are blamed in these cases, but in the case of Baby P there were lots of other people involved – the Crown Prosecution Service, paediatricians, the GP, the police. That’s not a defence: it’s the context. I thought ‘there but for the grace of God’. I’m a parent and I feel the same horror any parent would.

“What happens is that because of shortages people inevitably take shortcuts – preventive work disappears, assessments are rushed. Social workers are supposed to have a caseload of 10, but they will often have 30 to 40. Staff shortages are so low that you see social workers who are little more than teenagers who come out of university and go straight into the frontline.

“It is a really difficult job: if I was a manager, I’d want social workers to go out in pairs, because of the incredibly complicated levels of deception and threats of violence you regularly get in these cases. That the adults tried to conceal the injuries in Baby P’s case doesn’t surprise me. It happens a lot.

“There are many social workers who wouldn’t have slept until a baby at risk like that was taken away from the parents. In fact, the child was taken away but a case conference of a multi-agency group of workers decided that he should be returned. All the incidents should have been put together in an electronic form so that somebody should have said ‘Hang on a second’. It seems that didn’t happen in this case.

“If I suspect there is a risk to a child, I’m quite happy to face parents in court if I think it’s necessary to keep a child away longer. We need to recruit better people and hold on to them.”

• This social worker has two decades’ experience in child protection at an authority in the north of England. They spoke on condition of anonymity