Social care chief tells of pain over tragedy

IN more than 30 years in social services on Teesside, Jan Douglas has seen tremendous changes. Her career has been touched by the tragedy of the killing of Nikki Conroy and the controversy of the Cleveland Child Sex Abuse Crisis.

But as Mrs Douglas, 58, leaves work at Middlesbrough Council for the last time today, she believes social care has moved on and improved beyond recognition.

Born in County Durham, Mrs Douglas became head of children’s services in Middlesbrough in 1998, then corporate director of social services in 2003 and executive director of adult social care two years later.

She worked first for Durham County Council from 1973 to 1978, then moved to Cleveland County Council.

In 1986 she became the county registrar and inspection officer for under-fives, working with childminders, day nurseries and playgroups.

She said: “It was at the beginning of the shift in social policy where more mothers were being encouraged to go out to work and people needed to be sure that children’s day services were of good quality.”

She was not directly involved in the Cleveland Sex Abuse Crisis in 1987 but was involved in some of the practical arrangements for children caught up in it.

“It was a manic time. We were getting telephone calls that 20, 30 or 40 children a day needed to be assessed,” she said.

“I have to say the approach adopted in the council was one I felt uncomfortable with. I made my views known. It was a one-size-fits-all approach and the only solution or remedy was to remove children from their families with very little assessment of the risks those children were experiencing.”

But she said every local authority learned from the Cleveland experience.

“Looking back over my career I have been heartened by the way social services have changed over the years,” she said.

She spoke of how babies or young, single mums would no longer be placed in institutionalised care and how adults with disabilities were now living successful lives in the community.

But the tragedy in 1994 when a killer walked into a classroom at Hall Garth School in Middlesbrough and stabbed 12-year-old Nikki to death remains indelibly etched in Mrs Douglas’s memory.

She was involved in organising helpline and counselling services afterwards.

She said: “I remember walking into the entrance hall of the school and being faced with a bank of flowers from floor to ceiling and the scent of the flowers rocked me on my heels.

“It was a profound moment of grief for me but it was a pinprick compared to what family and friends went through.”

Mrs Douglas said she had worked with some wonderful people over the years and it had been a privilege to see the passion and commitment of people involved in social services.

“It never ceases to amaze me the resilience of people to cope with horrendous experiences and overcome them and get on with their lives.

“Social services, like every other public service, is entering uncharted waters,” she said. She said people would have more choice over their care in future but admitted funding would be a problem.

“But it will also bring opportunities because I see a re-emergence of community spirit,” she said.

Mrs Douglas is planning a holiday but plans to remain in the Great Ayton area with husband David.