New book argues social workers unfairly criticised

The scandal of Baby P saw them vilified like never before. But an AM says social workers have been demonised unfairly for 40 years.

THE death of Maria Colwell shocked the nation. Physically assaulted and killed by her stepfather in 1973, the seven-year-old’s death led to a public inquiry that blamed social workers for not preventing the tragedy.

Her name has remained in the public consciousness and been invoked when similar cases have come to light, such as the heartbreaking deaths of Victoria Climbié in 2000 and Peter Connelly – Baby P – in 2007.

Now a new book – Social Work on Trial – argues that the criticism derived from a gross over-simplification of what happened in 1973 means social workers have been vilified ever since whenever a child has died as a consequence of domestic abuse.

One of the book’s co-authors, Mark Drakeford, who was former First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s top adviser and succeeded him as the AM for Cardiff West last month, said: “Social workers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

“In cases like Maria Colwell and Baby P, when something goes tragically wrong, the cry is ‘Where were the social workers?’

“Yet in other circumstances, when they intervene and take children away from their parents, they are portrayed as officious and meddlesome bureaucrats.

“It’s important to understand that in every case the situation is never black and white. When we looked at the Maria Colwell case in detail, we found there had been some signs that the family situation was improving.

“The physical condition of their home, in particular, was noticeably better than it had been when some of the mother’s other children had been taken into care.

“There were some positives too in Baby P’s case.”

Mr Drakeford was a professor of social policy and applied social sciences at Cardiff University until joining the National Assembly last month. For 10 years, he was also a probation officer.

The book, co-written with Professor Ian Butler of Bath University, looks closely at Maria Colwell’s death.

In it, they write: “What the Colwell case provided was a ready point of reference for the further reporting of child abuse.

“It provided the first entry in the cuttings file for any journalist faced with an apparently similar case. Thus, whenever a child dies, the name of a previous child to die is invoked.

“Peter Connelly [Baby P] invokes Victoria Climbié, who invokes Tyra Henry, who invokes Jasmine Beckford, who invokes Maria Colwell.

“Even when no obvious similarities exist, irrelevant ahistorical but also potentially misleading comparisons may be made and dwelt on, not least in the pages of newspapers, especially if they are in campaigning mode. The ghost of each successive scandal haunts the next.”

Mr Drakeford said it is important to understand that each case is unique and has its own circumstances.

Another significant point he makes in the book is that social work was barely established as a profession in the early 1970s, when the Colwell case occurred.

Mr Drakeford said: “Reading the transcript of the public inquiry and other reports from the time make it clear there was a perception that social workers were not real professionals in the way that doctors, lawyers and the police were. This is something that has also repeated itself over the years.”

What he is certain of is that every day, social workers, through their interventions and the help they offer families, are doing good.

“I think it’s true that whatever system you put in place, things will go wrong and tragedies will occur,” he said.

“Social workers need to be optimistic or they could not cope with the work they do. They have to think that the situation of the families they are dealing with can be improved – otherwise they would think their work was pointless and give up.”

In today’s climate of cuts, Mr Drakeford said, it was vital the importance of social work was recognised and that cuts to the front line were avoided.

“Over the next four years, there will be cuts of £2bn to the public sector in Wales and £200m in Cardiff alone,” he said.

“We know that economic hardship leads to stress and mental health problems. It’s crucial that social workers and other professionals have the resources to do their work.”

Social Work on Trial: The Colwell Inquiry and the State of Welfare, by Ian Butler and Mark Drakeford, is available from the publishers, The Policy Press, at £56.