Let’s get rid of social work’s blame culture
Social workers should be able to complain without being sacked, and be allowed make practice mistakes in a supportive learning environment, says Liz Davies
I recently visited Maria Ward and Gillie Christou the social worker and team manager, respectively, for Baby Peter. It was how I imagine it might be visiting someone under house arrest. Shutters drawn, secret venues, sneaking out at night when no one would recognise them, and jumping at every sound. I’ve also spoken to Lisa Arthurworrey this week, social worker for Victoria Climbié.
Nearly 10 years on from Victoria’s death and having presented evidence at the criminal trial of the murderers, the serious case review, the Haringey disciplinary hearings, employment tribunals and appeal, the appeal against the General Social Care Council (GSCC) for refusing her social worker registration, and the appeal to the Care Standards Tribunal against her name being placed on the Protection of Children Act list, Lisa is also mainly confined to her house. She is also 10 years older and still awaits GSCC registration three years after a judge said she was fit for practice “as of today”.
This is a very depressing picture to paint for my social work students who fear that when they make a mistake, which is inevitable in a profession that works with the complexity of human beings, they may also be subject to such relentless punishment.
Maria and Gillie have just begun these legal processes with three sets of investigations ongoing. They have already given evidence at two serious case reviews, the criminal trial, and the GSCC and Haringey disciplinary hearings. Thanks to a recent House of Lords ruling, no social worker can be placed on the Protection of Children Act list without a hearing. It is also to be hoped that the legal decision in Lisa’s case about the use of the list for professional mistakes as “an unusual occurrence, to be used only in the most clear cut of cases” will bode well for them in this respect.
Nevres Kemal, social worker and whistleblower, was sacked by Haringey council but fought it at employment tribunal and won an out of court settlement. She remains out of work, despite still being registered. Who wants to employ a whistleblower? These are four ex-Haringey social workers who have no salaries and no professional employment, and three who fear public recrimination every moment of every day.
What can be done to end this misery? None of these social workers acted maliciously in any way. They all worked very hard, often late into the night, struggled with massive caseloads, lack of quality supervision and essential child protection training and practiced in the midst of service uncertainty and restructuring. All of them had previous spotless employment records; in fact Maria was made into a permanent worker after Baby Peter’s death. Having supported Lisa through her various hearings I wonder where Maria and Gillie will have got to in nine years time. There has to be another way.
Lord Laming stated in his latest review, The Protection of Children in England. A Progress Report, that the time has long passed when the most junior employee should carry the heaviest burden of accountability. A comment that is more than a touch Orwellian given the government response to the Baby Peter case and Haringey’s second round of disciplinary hearings.
Of course social workers must be accountable, but in the current climate many would argue that they cannot “just do it” as Laming has suggested. Social workers often work in isolation within multi-professional teams, losing that peer support which certainly got me through many crises when I was a social worker and social work manager. They complain about working without phones, desks or computers – with no familiar office space to slump down in when the going gets tough.
Others talk of carrying laptops through dangerous areas and fearing assault. It’s called “smart working”. One whole team resigned because of it. It was the last straw. Another recurring complaint is the hours spent entering data and complying with performance targets which do not provide them with solutions to difficult cases, but instead amass volumes of information about the child and family and tick management boxes.
Despite containing the word “protection” in the title, Laming’s review failed to mention any of the key child protection protocols such as joint investigation with police or investigative interviewing of child victims and witnesses. This was hardly a surprise as it was his idea to abolish the child protection register and for police to narrow their focus to act at the level of a crime rather than at the Children Act 1989 threshold of significant harm.
In the absence of systems and structures conducive to the protection of children, social workers are working against the odds. Social workers do not get large salaries but they rarely campaign about this. When authorities offer high rates they still find retention difficult if working conditions are unsafe.
Social workers want to be able to do the job they are paid to do to protect children, be able to complain when things go wrong without being sacked, and make practice mistakes in a supportive learning and work environment that isn’t obsessed with “blame”. Most of all, the perceived “mistakes” need to be examined in the context of work conditions and government policy.
• Liz Davies is a senior lecturer in children and families social work at London Metropolitan University