Over the last month I have had occasion to appear on BBC Radio to give a social work viewpoint on a couple of child protection issues that had arisen in the news. Both were completely unrelated (one on children in care running away and the other on sexual abuse failings by a local authority) but both led to the same thoughts on the issues: early intervention and proactive social work. Then I read today that a report on child protection in Guernsey concluded that early stage intervention stopped more significant problems arising in the future. Job done then. That’s all sorted. We have the answer. Just turn of the lights on the way out.
Hold on a sec, just one small point that may throw a spanner in the works of this revelation. We’ve heard it before. In fact we’ve heard it in nearly every report (national, and local), serious case review and “quick we better be seen to be doing something about this” review since I can remember. Research evidence, on the ground outcomes and just a chat with any decent social worker will tell you without any doubt that early intervention works. Child protection workers have always been screaming out for more of it. Just ask one.
So between the historical shouting, long sighs of “deja vu all over again” and the thud of your head hitting a brick wall, it is worth noting that following the usual and deserved moral outrage from politicians and the media that follows yet another, all too regular child abuse revelation, the one thing that has proved to have worked has been incrementally removed. Early intervention is becoming the exception rather than the norm. Yes indeed there are some excellent projects and initiatives out there, but for the rank and file social worker, well funded, effective and readily available early intervention is the unicorn of child protection. A mythical beast that is only ever seen in writing.
Child Protection, like many other publicly funded services, has never been resource heavy. But for a while with initiatives like Sure Start, talk of Children’s Departments and a realisation that more workers were needed, things looked like they may be going in the right direction. Over recent years with squeezes on local authority funds, child protection has regressed so far that is now becoming purely an emergency service. Threshold criteria have now been raised so high, in order to “focus” services, that practically only the most serious and immediate of cases are given time and limited resources. The result of this is the bumping along or even closing of “low level cases” often to return months or years later when they have finally reached the required threshold. In the meantime there is little to no protection given.
On the BBC discussions on those 2 unrelated subjects it soon became apparent that the lack of “low level” intervention and/or proactive work enabled children to be groomed and increasingly concerning patterns of behaviour were not picked up. Social workers were either too busy or criteria for services were not met,which would have certainly have had a negative impact upon the ability to protect those children. The personal knowledge of those children and their families and the building of those relationships, that perhaps happened in the past, was replaced with the firefighting of immediate problems only. Like any good firefighter, todays child protection workers are desperately trying to put out the flames, giving them little time or resources to see what is smouldering.
Colleagues have told me of backlogs in even interviewing children who have disclosed abuse. When child protection gets to a stage where even those firefighting services are stretched to breaking point, then it stands to reason that early intervention is so far down the list it appears to hardly register.
Child Protection done well has always been, and shall continue to be, resource and time heavy service. But where referral rates are up and budgets are down, one does not need to think hard about the implications for front line services and the protection of children. Moral outrage and urgent reviews are all well and good but again and again the lessons are not learnt. The protection and well-being of our children should be the number one priority for any civilised society. Perhaps it is time to stop, take a breath and realise that the slip into a place where the welfare of our most vulnerable children is seriously at risk is right on top of us.
It should be time for social work and those working in child protection to find a stronger voice. To respond to those reports that say early intervention is needed and demand a fully functioning service. Child protection has strong public support but so often is only paid lip service to by politicians. It is very easy to say the right things when needed but almost never is the right, and often obvious, action taken. Early intervention remains the most obvious route to a more effective and protective service where proactive work will have a positive effect all the way down the line. However that takes time, money and a belief that the lives of all our children are more important than the next headline or vote. Does anyone in power care enough to do what is right and necessary or is easier just to keep blaming the people who choose to do the difficult work that protects children? Previous experience suggests little will change and the march away from a service to protect all children to one that only intervenes at the point of utter crisis will continue to its inevitable conclusion.
We hear yesterday (26.08.14) the full extent of the heartbreaking story of children in Rotherham. A paedophile ring so vile and widespread in a relatively small areas that over 1400 children children (at current numbers) were subjected to horrific and longstanding sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Although it would be more than right to concentrate on the effect upon these children, their families, friends etc … instead the failings on many levels of the child protective services is something that needs some urgent discussion over and above the condemnation of the failure to protect so many children.
Rotherham has a population of roughly 250,000 and children between the ages of 10-17 account for about 25,000 of that population. If the figures are correct, and I’m no statistician, the 1400 children would account for about 5% of the total population of children in the age range indicated in the report. If the majority of these were girls as suggested, then we are perhaps looking at a full 10% of the 10-17 year old female population having suffered, not just now but long into the future. These figures are beyond horrific and suggest failings on a huge level across services and from the community itself. A perfect storm of failure of a huge percentage of Rotherham children.
We cannot get away from the personal failings of many organisations in Rotherham. It cannot be one or 2 police officers or social workers or teachers etc., but instead a failure of management and the whole system of children protection. We can easily, once more, get into the blame game and in certain incidents for those who knew and did nothing there should be significant consequences, but we now cannot and should not ignore the fact that child protective services in the UK remain patchy, uncoordinated and at best average. There is of course some excellent work that goes on but this is perhaps the exception rather than the norms. Certainly on the ground evidence suggests that no real positive change has happened and that services, management and policy are far from where they should be.
Consecutive governments have talked the talk about child protection and have rarely put their money or energies where their mouths are. Child protection remains at the bottom of a pile until the next great scandal. Then are the right things are said and, in general, not a great deal changes. This is not a matter of taking political sides but instead who cares. At the moment it appears that not enough really do until a scandal means they have to.
So why a perfect storm? What has come out in Rotherham is a microcosm of all that is concerning about child protection in the UK. The lack of political will and covering up of mistakes and failings, a management structure that prevents professionals protecting children properly, the process and organisation appear more important than the children, a lack of any preventative services, no real communication or resources for significant abuse rings, no responsibility for mistakes and decision making from management and politicians, a concern about political correctness, a community that was unwilling ir unable to be involved in child protection, whistleblowers censured, the de-professionalisation of expert child protection workers in favour of process and targets, underfunding and understaffing of ALL child protection services, family court reforms looking at targets and money and not children … i really could go on and on. Again I will say that their a good pockets of work but as a service nationally we have failed and continue to fail our children.
However in one area in particular there should be a very real concern that perhaps sums up the concerns. In Rotherham many of the victims were themselves either child in care or having just left care. Children who were particularly vulnerable where workers and services should have been there to continue to support and protect. The failing here reflect a very real problem with those children across the country and in particular the failings to support the most vulnerable into adulthood. Leaving care systems remain a little acknowledged national problem with 1000’s of children being placed in places of danger without proper support or funding.
What lessons to be learnt from Rotherham? To be honest people both inside children protection and the general public must be sick and tired of hearing this. Some lessons are always learnt from these scandals but in the end they continue to happen. There must now be a recognition that child protection has to change both in terms of systems and funding. There are so many disparate parts of it that disfunction is more likely that cohesion and effective protection. It is important that there is an acknowledgement that child protection is a place for everyone and not just the services that work on it everyday. That the community and the nation should be actively involved and feel that it is wholly right to make child protection a national priority and not a political football.
The lesson to learn from Rotherham is not where do we need to tinker at the edges or who is to blame but it should be how important are children to the country to the community and to start to design a service that does the best for them. Rotherham, the perfect storm of all that is wrong with child protection, should not be a lesson but the start of real change that shows us to be the society that puts children above everything else. This is not just a change for the child protection system but how we as a society value and protect our children. Unfortunately, at the present time, we cannot say we do anywhere near enough and therefore we wait for the next storm and the next ……
Three cases in close succession, 2 today, have rightly left right minded people asking themselves how this could happen. We have heard in response to the Williams serious case review, lessons will be learnt. Unfortunately we have heard this again and again. And yet the same issues seem to raise their head: lack of agency communication, lack of analysis from professionals, management failings, practice failings……the list is long and troubling.
Although it would be easy to blame individuals, certain agencies and of course the parents, the pattern of mistakes of these serious cases seem to note a pattern of agency failings that transgress simple explanation and/or blame. At some point the system itself, as a whole, should and must be looked at. People do not go into child protection to fail. They are there to help children and their families. The majority of time they do this to the best of their ability in the given situation. However too many in social work and other child protection agencies find themselves in situations where they are unable to give their best. If a system does not allow the very best from our child protection workers, then it cannot be fit for purpose.
Today we hear of management bullying where the opinions of social workers are overridden. Also of agencies who refuse to even sit in the same room together to discuss inter agency working. Also of a lack of any real independent oversight of child protection. These issues have been the same for many years and although some agencies have good practice in many of these ares patchy at best. More often than not local budgets and politics get in the way of looking after the welfare of our children. In the end lessons aren’t and cannot be learnt because the fragmented nature of child protection in the UK do not encourage it. The gaps both regionally and between agencies continues to fight against a shared goal of protecting children.
Almost all I meet who work in children protection share the view that there are numerous and longstanding issues in the system. If those working within he system do not have faith in it, it seems there must be something wrong. The public and media outrage and failings can only grow if the list of names of dead children who were not protected by professionals continues to grow. If you consider that scare mongering, as some have, then talk to any front line child protection worker in the UK. I can assure you that the answers you will get will be very similar and concerning.
If we were starting today with no child protection system and we’re planning one, would we plump for the one we have now? Almost certainly not. Then we should, as a society and our politicians specifically, seek to encourage a full debate on how we design the best system for caring for and protecting our children as well as supporting our families in need.
Time and time again researching and reporting say that early intervention, joined up services work not only in child protection but also with child welfare and development in general. However what we get is reactions to serious case reviews only and not the failing of a system as a whole. People working with children should be working together, should to shoulder. Then they are able to get a good sense of a child or family. Thus showing the patterns of difficulty that seems to be being missed. Sharing information would be so much easier when people work together. In this age of IT and information sharing, surely it is within us to be able to design a simple information sharing system. But this overarching, cross agency, cross region issues seem impossible to resolve. This is perhaps a good example of how this fractured system seems incapable in any consistent way to join up in a common cause.
We must acknowledge that there is some exceptional practice out there and that almost all people work with children because they care. However over a number of decades and particularly over recent months it has becomes apparent that a drastic rethink is needed.
This is an issue about how we treat and see our children as a society. We can and should be upset by poor practice and child deaths, but until we see a holistic, national approach as the way forward the likelihood is that the list of names will continue. This is certainly not about a panic as a result of high profile cases but instead a very real concern about how children are protected and their welfare (health, education, safety etc) is considered as a whole.
Social workers have long felt that they have a troubled relationship with the media. The profession often feels that criticisms of social work are only periodically punctuated with the even a balanced story, let alone a positive one. For us its like being invited to a party and only briefly being allowed to engage in meaningful conversation, as long as it is a darkened corner, before being publicly water-boarded in the middle of the room.
It is perhaps then understandable that many social workers just do not want to go to the media party. The odds never seem to look that good. This leaves social workers in a constant state of anxiety about the media. Anxiety is never a healthy thing. So what is to be done?
Social work has never been an easy thing to describe. If someone was asked to describe the work of a teacher or nurse or police officer, most people would readily be able to get a reasonably accurate portrayal of them. However ask the same questions of social work, there will almost always be a lot of “ums” and “errs”, unless of course that person has had direct experience of social work.
Social work remains something that happens, in the most part, away form the public gaze. It often deals with the issues that most trouble society and yet most of society has little or no concept of the role of social workers. It has been easy to fill this void with at best misunderstanding and at worst dishonest portrayals. Those with an axe to grind or a point to prove have been given the open goal and far to often social workers, their agencies and organisations have not even been on the pitch.
Participation with media is often blocked with reasons such as confidentiality or legal proceedings. These are perfectly reasonable justifications for not engaging openly with the media but they only add to the sense of a closed, secretive and potentially untrustworthy area of work. This ever decreasing circle had pushed social work, more often than not, to stand firmly behind the ramparts and sporadically shout about how unfair it all is.
It seems more recently that there has been a positive change, perhaps less from corporate social work, but instead from individual workers who have found a voice through new and social medias. This human and real face of social work has slowly started a process of demystification and education but, at present, only to a limited audience.
This proactive, personal and honest view of social work is one that would help to open up real social work to society and one that could be embraced by social work organisations and agencies.
In looking at writing this piece, the phrase “people fear what they do not understand” often seemed an appropriate adage. Apparently this comes from a latin proverb “damnant quod non intelligunt”, which literally translates as, “they condemn what they do not understand”. It is up to social work to increase that level of understanding and a certain amount of bravery will be needed to do this. If social workers do not do this, then it is unlikely anyone else will
Presenting a view of social work as one that is confident and most importantly able to fight it’s corner will need the media, whether it be entertainment or news. In doing this, workers cannot always push for the positive view of social work only but instead should advocate for an honest portrayal. We have accepted the bad cop or poor teacher on our TV screens because we knew thats exactly what they were, not the norm but the “bad” character. With social work, it has not always been that clear. As we have seen in the recent Eastenders plot line, social workers should correct gross factual and procedural inaccuracies rather than insisting on the positive only view.
There is no doubt that social works more proactive involvement with the media would be a bumpy ride, but the ultimate outcome is much ore likely to a positive one. The opening up of the work done, including the mistakes made, will humanise social work. In doing this our time at the media party is likely to be less torturous enabling us to move into the light and engage in meaningful media conversations.
This article appeared in the Guardian Social Care Network on 30th November 2012.
The Jimmy Savile abuse story has mushroomed into daily revelations that become increasingly disturbing. Certainly, what seems now, significant evidence that he was abusing children is in itself abhorrent. What has followed has gone beyond this and becoming truly shocking.
Perhaps it is the fact that Savile appears to have abused children over a number of decades that should shock us. Or that he molested children in hospital where they were more vulnerable and in need of protection than normal. Maybe it was that it seems that there were professionals that knew of his behaviour and instead of protecting the children, looked the other way. All these issues are, of course, deeply troubling.
What, I would suggest, is perhaps even more troubling is that Jimmy Savile continued to be promoted by national organisations as a significant public figure to, not only advocate for children but also to protect them. Those of us of a certain age in the UK knew him as synonymous with the Clunk Click advertisements, which promoted seat belt wearing, yet, for instance, he also appeared in a handbook on child minding (see below). We cannot forget him as the presenter of his most famous program, Jim’ll Fix it, a program about making children’s dreams come true.
All this endorsement of Jimmy Savile as an individual who was safe, kind and thoughtful of children now comes with the knowledge that he was widely known, especially in media circles, to have been abusing children. This is perhaps the greatest disgrace. Not only did people’s inaction cause further suffering to children but that people, in effect, facilitated and sanctioned his abusive behaviour through peddling these untruths.
There has been much discussion over recent days about the fact that it was a very different time in the 1970s and child protection was perhaps not as clear in the publics mind as it is now. I will remind people that Jimmy Savile died on 29 October 2011, less than a year ago, with a list of honours – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Savile#Honours (and I doubt this is an exhaustive list). The fact that he died so recently, in a time where child protection has been a significant public debate on several occasions, and yet no one stepped forward, should shame those who knew and did nothing. In this, I certainly do not mean, or blame, the victims. Instead I turn to the professionals, media and people in positions of influence who, by their own admission knew of his abuse of children. Those people were content to let him die an exalted man.
Child protection can never be a matter for just professionals but instead must be a concern for the whole community. Those who see or know about the sexual abuse of children should have little doubt about its destructive outcome and how utterly wrong it is. Therefore there can be few excuses for allowing it to continue. There is ALWAYS something you can do.
I am sure we are only at the beginning of a worrying journey concerning this and there have been clues that maybe the light entertainment industry has more questions to answer. As someone, like many, who grew up with Savile on the BBC, this whole episode has left a bad taste and has significantly tainted my previously high regard for that organisation. Unfortunately, apologies and independent enquiries may do little to mend the damage done to many childhood memories and more importantly to the victims of Jimmy Savile who were led like lambs into his hands.
Yet again it appears we must trust in those people and organisations who looked the other way to the sexual abuse of children to investigate their own inaction and apathy. There seems little we can do. Or have we heard that before?
A copy if my article in Guardian Social Care Network. It can be found at:
The first office I worked in had two pictures side by side on the smoking room wall showing a social worker being lynched. In one, the crowd said: “Why didn’t they do something?” In the other, “Why are they sticking their noses in where they’re not wanted?”
The ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ tag is always brought up when it comes to child protection.
The new documentary on the BBC, Protecting Our Children has, for a short time at least, brought the realities of the children and families social worker to the attention of the general public. Normally the only time social workers come into the media spotlight is when things are, or have been perceived to be, horribly wrong. Most social workers feel the perception of them is poor.
But whenever I’m asked what I do and I reply that I’m a social worker in child protection, the response I almost always get is positive. I get comments like “what a worthwhile thing to do”, and “I couldn’t do such a difficult job”.
I know that the people who generally ask are not those who would as a matter of course come into contact with child protection workers and therefore would not see them as a threat. However there are sections of society who do see social workers as meddling, overbearing but incompetent do-gooders.
In many ways the social worker is a parent who has to both set firm boundaries and to care. As many parents know this is often a difficult line to tread and not always an easy one to get right. However this split in the social worker’s role does in create some of the difficulties in the perception of them. Child protection workers are tasked to get alongside often vulnerable and disenfranchised people and help them.
One of the issues that social workers face relates to their place as a “professional”. In perhaps all other professions we trust these people as in general terms they are more expert in their fields. With, for example, doctors, teachers, architects and accountants, they know things we don’t know or perhaps know a little about. We see them as the expert there to help us. With children and families social work everyone has a view on being a parent and having a family.
Everyone has their own views and experiences and often strongly held ones. This invites the perception of the social worker as less as an expert and more as a “judgmental busybody”.
It may be near impossible to change the perception of the social worker because of the nature and area of their work. What they can do however is continue to do what they do well. This involves working alongside people to try and instigate positive change as well as setting clear and helpful boundaries for the families we work with.
This type of work gets increasingly more difficult as social workers get bogged down in paperwork and procedure as well as the sometimes hostile and unwelcoming environments they find themselves in. However that should not hinder the desire to help that brought them to social work in the first place.
Social workers should maintain a keen interest in social justice both at an individual level and in society as a whole. They need to remain critical and radical in their thinking and not, as so easily done, get pulled into a managerial approach.
Social workers are human and should not be afraid to show this. I remember the first time I removed a child from his parents. I shall never let go of the way it made me feel, the reactions of the child and his mother. Social work is first and foremost working with people.
For those so readily willing to criticise and castigate the child protection social worker, it may seem I would like to leave you with the lines of one Depeche Mode song: “Before you come to any conclusion try walking in my shoes. You’ll stumble in my footsteps. Keep the same appointments I’ve kept. Try walking in my shoes.”