Our Social Responsibility To Social Workers After Baby P

If we want to attract and keep people to work as social workers, we need to give them respect for what they do, says Alan Warner.

Tragic recent events in north London have turned the spotlight on the recruitment and retention of social workers.

With such media vilification following the case of murdered Baby P, who would want to be – or stay being – a social worker?

If only the impact of such a public outcry was restricted to the specific case. The problem is, the whole profession inadvertently gets thrown into the same pot.

No social worker would defend bad practice, and they will all be devastated by what happened in Haringey. But the consequential media frenzy has the potential to make things worse.

There will not be a children’s services director in the land who has not communicated with their staff to remind them to follow good practice, but also to reassure them they have the support of their organisations.

Social workers do an incredibly difficult job, dealing with tough and sometimes very sad situations. They receive good training and the procedures and processes are clear, and there to be followed.

What is more difficult to train for is the area of personal resilience. Having to witness and deal with things most of us would find heart wrenching and stomach churning is part of their everyday working life.

Dealing with people who are sometimes known to be violent or are paedophiles, or who are just too unwell to properly look after their children is on the list of requirements. Errors of judgment can have massive consequences.

The impact of hostile media coverage on social workers is hard to measure. It lowers public confidence, it can worsen relationships with clients, and it might lower their own personal confidence levels and make them question why they continue to do what they do.

Society needs social workers. It also needs the public at large to row in behind them and not see them as alien robots.

In recruiting and retaining we, of course, must do all the things mentioned in Peter Gilroy’s article ‘What can we learn from Baby P’ (The MJ, 11 December), but we also need to put more emphasis on self-esteem and respect for what people do.

Interestingly, the constant message from social workers recruited from abroad is that in places such as South Africa and Canada, the status of the profession is much higher than in the UK.

Status and respect have to be earned, and surely much of what is required could come from us communicating much better about the excellent work that is done, about the successes, and about how good social work contributes to society in a positive way.

The messages have to be continuous and, if necessary, contain a business case, ie, by doing X we were able to achieve Y.

Teachers and nurses have high-profile annual awards. What about one for social workers?

We should not defend the indefensible, but we need to recognise in every which way the great work that goes on, and if the only publicity is bad publicity, the recruitment and retention of social workers will only get worse.

Alan Warner is director of people and property at Hertfordshire CC