More Collateral Damage – the results of knowingly under-investing in child protection.

With news this week of the horrific abuse and death of 2 year old Liam, a child known to children’s services in Fife Scotland, we yet again quickly hear a request for calm until after a serious case review, already ordered by the local safeguarding board. However we already know that there appear to have been catastrophic failings of protection that led to his death.  According to the local authority Liam “fell off the radar” after his social worker went off sick and further chances seem to have missed when a child minder and neighbour reported concerns.

Liam’s name has been added to list of children who protective services were unable to save.  Like Baby P, Daniel Pelka and even more recently Alexa-Marie Quinn, there appears to have been every opportunity to save Liam’s life but systemic failings, and perhaps individual mistakes, prevented that.  Already we have a case review and no doubt more of a review of procedure. Although there is some use in these reviews there is almost entirely nothing new that will be learnt that has already be pointed out in either previous individual case reviews of more holistic reviews of child protection systems.

Right now if we were to ask social workers to name 5 things that make their job difficult, cause anxiety about their work and ultimately put children’s lives at risk, we would likely to see the same issues appear that appear 5,10 maybe 15 years ago but perhaps even worse. Lack of staff, high case loads, lack of prevention work for families and children, the excessive tick box paperwork and lastly the lack of any cross area cross service communication has remained right up there for the causes of the lack of prevention of abuse to children.  Yet, at best, little is done.  Perhaps some minor peripheral changes but certainly not real change with real money attached.  So why on earth would we expect any real change.  The answer is we shouldn’t and therefore come to expect more Liams, Daniels, Alexa-Maries to be added to the list of children let down not just by social services but by the whole of society.

Nobody comes into child protection to do a bad job and the vast majority do a good job under the most taxing of circumstances. The protection of our children is neither easy or cheap.  It is a complex and expensive business where policy and management are so often looking for the quick and cheap fix. This is why mistakes are made. Child Protection is undertaken in a fragmented, under funded and anxious environment where the average career length of a child protection social worker is 8 years.  That is just enough time to start feeling confident in your work not giving up your career.  So we then add to failings the lack of suitably experienced staff where “Senior Social Workers” can be as little as 2 years qualified.  The leaching of experienced staff from the service leave huge holes in the knowledge base and the ability of staff to protect children in a thoughtful way.

Until our politicians, policy makers and us as the wider society say that our children mean everything, that they are more important to our future than we could possibly know, that they are worth investing in, then Liam and those like him must be seen as collateral damage for the knowing under investment in child protection both in terms of money and real policy/systemic changes. Perhaps its finally time for those serious about the protection of children to say enough is enough and that the lives of Liam and the many other children who suffer unnecessarily to be seen with the utmost importance.

Child Abuse at the BBC: A Case Study in Plausible Deniability

The report into child abuse at the BBC was finally delivered yesterday.  Retired Court of Appeal Judge Dame Janet Smith presented a number of conclusions into her investigations, which started in 2012, that both answer some questions but, perhaps more importantly, leave considerable concerns as to the behaviour of the BBC both in the past and now.

Originally writing about this in 2012, I noted my concern about not only what staff, producers and management at the BBC knew of Savile’s actions but also how could they not know.  Savile in particular, and Hall to a lessor degree, were being marketed as a champion for children and “wholesome, family entertainment” whilst at the same time people at the BBC knowing at best that they were a unpleasant characters and at worst a predatory abusers.  The original article is here for those who may be interested:

So what does Dame Janet’s report tell us? Probably very little that we didn’t already know or believe was highly likely.  In short it concluded that abuse did happen and that some staff and producers likely knew about this.  Also that a “macho” and “intimidating” culture at the BBC did not assist in any reporting of abuse and that the talent was close to untouchable when it came to their behaviour.  However it also concluded that although staff knew of some instances and rumours, senior staff knew nothing and the corporation as a whole was unaware of any concerns.

This last conclusion is where the problems start.  Dame Janet, a respected and thoughtful Judge, indeed found no evidence of this and from a strictly legal and evidential perspective, which she would clearly adhere to, there is almost entirely the correct conclusion.  Nevertheless, it must be reasonable to suggest, in any understanding of the what had gone on over decades at the BBC, that it is also entirely correct to conclude that senior management at the BBC must have known but not “officially”.

The media, as I know from personal experience, is all about who you know, your connections, your network and your reputation.  And when I say reputation I do not mean your moral integrity or good character, I mean the ability to do a job, to get an audience, to sell a product and in the case of TV, to make things people will watch.  This is particularly so for the “talent” and Dame Janet’s report is clear that all other considerations were secondary to the talent ad that talents was, and probably still is, closely protected.

Although the difference in culture between media and law is enormous, like much of the higher end of British society informal networks are key to getting on.  Just because there is no email (or letter) trail does not mean people were unaware.  When it comes to sensitive or potentially litigious information the rule is rarely to put it on paper.  This is called plausible deniability.  This is the ability of a person, often senior management, to credibly say, because of lack of evidence,  that they had no knowledge of an action that may cause them or their organisation damage.

Dame Janet’s report appears to cry out “plausible deniability”.  Rumour about abuse at the BBC by certain talent appeared wide spread and although less so direct knowledge of abuse was not confined to a small group of people.  As one small example Dame Janet notes that Top of the Pops in the 1970s and and 1980s was  a place that young people were a moral risk.  If we look at that logically, over 20 years of a weekly TV programme there would have been thousands of people in direct contact with a situation that was overtly seen as morally risky.  Whether they be audience members, crew, musicians, producers, researchers and perhaps more directly other presenters, there must have been a considerable number of people “in the know”, either directly or indirectly.  Mustn’t there? Although we are aware of, at most, a handful of complaints, is it likely that almost no one saw anything and/or said nothing? And it must follow that informal networks never mentioned anything? The answer is that both these things are so highlight unlikely that Senior Management at the BBC must have known whether it be a quiet word in the ear, gossip or loose chat at a drinks party.

Newsnight, BBC’s flagship nightly news programme,  ran an item on the evening of the report’s publication at the top of the show ( Having watched it through a few times it comes across as a touch light in its usual rigourousness. An interview with a, now retired, senior manager asked whether he knew anything of Savile’s abuse which he said he did not.  He knew nothing.  However later in the piece it was clear that a view on Savile was well held.  For instance, at a meeting of Child in Need, Savile’s name was put forward and there was a visible shudder from all in the room.  He was to be stayed well clear of.  However the senior manager was never pushed on his denial.  There were no hard hitting questions.  How could you not have known? Were you that incompetent that you didn’t know that abuse was rife in your department?  It may not have been official but did you hear nothing? Did no one have a discrete conversation?  The kind of rigorous question routinely put to politicians on the programme. Instead he was allowed to just deny.  The program presented us with some facts about past and current BBC failings without any great analysis.  For example, was it just Hall and Savile?  If a cover up culture was rife and talent was untouchable, is it likely there were and are other abusers? Incredibly the piece finished with the programme noting that no one at the BBC was willing to appear on the programme.  Such behaviour does not engender confidence that things will change and that lessons have been learnt and considerably more robust questioning need to be put to figure past and present.

Tony Hall, the Director General at the BBC, in his press conference said that abusers had hidden in plain sight for decades. One may suggest this is an oxymoron that conceals an unpalatable truth that there was no hiding but instead an informal network of people not acting or worse still protecting the abusers and themselves.  There appeared to be evidence in plain sight whether they be newspaper articles, interviews with Savile and even a documentary by Louis Theroux aired on the BBC where the accusation of paedophilia was put directly to Savile. If it was such a well hidden secret how did Theroux even know that it was a question that needed answering? It is likely that little effort by an averagely competent manager would have been needed to uncover abuse by Savile if this was so desired. It is not too much of a leap of logic to suggest that the BBC had no such desire.

Liz Dux, a lawyer at Slater Gordon who represent many of Savile’s victims said that managers at the BBC only had to  “scratch at the very surface and a lot of Savile’s offending behaviour would have been revealed”.  She goes on to say that it was unfortunate that Dame Janet did not have the power to compel BBC management to give evidence.  Interestingly she concludes, “with 117 witnesses giving evidence of concern and rumours, it’s implausible to suggest that that this did not reach the upper echelons of the BBC”. It is therefore wholly understandable that she refers to the report as an “expensive whitewash” and that victims of Savile’s abuse are once again left without any plausible conclusions.

This was an opportunity for one of the most admired British institutions to set the tone for child protection, child welfare and a dignified approach to humanity.  Although all the noises coming out of the corporation since the story of the Savile abuse broke were and are positive, to borrow from Liz Dux, even the briefest of scratches at the surface show the all too familiar narrative of large organisations seeking to protect themselves. With Dame Janet stating that there were certainly opportunities to act on Savile and Hall and that a culture of fear and process within the BBC prevented any further action, there are evidently specific issues to learn from.  However Dame Janet, hamstrung by the range of the inquiry, and the BBC as an organisation have missed an opportunity to look more creatively and broadly at the welfare of children and vulnerable people.  Like so many inquiries it has been bogged down in process, procedure and legal frameworks.  To Dame Janet’s credit she looked at the organisational culture and was critical of it both now and in the past.  However the report, like so many before it that rely on a legal underpinning, lacked an appreciation of the informal networks that drive so many British institutions and the ongoing culture of plausible deniability, reputational protection and organisational back covering.

It is important to note that no investigation should rely on gossip and rumour but, like good inquiries, should see patterns and build pictures.  In doing so it should not be afraid to coax people from shadows or if necessary force them out whilst demand answers to the difficult questions.  Unfortunately that takes courage and courage that has only been shown by survivors so far.

Is must be time that we, as a society, take a stand to protect our most vulnerable and not leave our survivors feeling let down.  This takes a mind shift away from the audible shuffle of back covering to a truly open and honest inquiry where the top priorities are: an unswerving and rigorous quest for the whole truth with no consideration for reputational damage whether individual or organisational;  a fuller consideration of the wishes and feelings of survivors over those of the organisation; the thorough protection of the vulnerable in the future and the power to compel to give evidence.  The BBC had a unique opportunity given its stature to shine a light on the abuse of the young and vulnerable, learn lessons and move towards a gold standard of protection but has failed on all counts.

Early Intervention – the unicorn of child protection.

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.

Rotherham – a Perfect Storm

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 ……



Pelka, Williams and Khan – a time for a soul searching rethink

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.

The Child Protection Ship is Sinking: But everyone is too busy putting fires out to notice

With the recent imprisonment of the mother and step-father of Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old horribly mistreated and ultimately starved to death, child protection is yet again in the spot light.  However horrible these acts were, and they were, it is perhaps unsurprising to many social workers that again we see difficulties in the system of children protection.

Everyone knows the names by now: Victoria Climbie, Baby Peter and now Daniel Pelka.  They resonate both within social work and in the wider public domain as cases where the children could have been saved from maltreatment and then death.  Although in the inquiries of the former two “lessons had been learnt” and “things would change”, workers on the ground know that little has really changed and certainly over recent years deteriorated.

The ship that is child protection is both on fire and letting in water fast.  The passengers, made up of children, need help but the crew are badly managed, under represented and exhausted.  Is it not time to build something new and fit for purpose?

A child protection system?

There is much talk about a “child protection system” but unfortunately the system is less of a concrete pathway of joined up thinking and working and more crazy paving of competing budgets, targets and priorities.  Although there is always a willingness to do the right thing for children, the current systems (because there are so many different ones)  often do not allow or even condone collaborative working between disciplines.  This significantly increases the likelihood of children slipping though the gaps, and the gaps are getting bigger.

The idea of unified children’s departments has been floated for more years than I can remember, but still, apart from a few pilots, there is no progress on what appears on the face of it a no brainer of a concept.  With health, social work, police and teaching staff all in the same building and sharing the same budget there would be a unified purpose and an interdisciplinary respect.  Workers can really get to know children in the broader context rather than within their own discipline only. That can never be a bad thing,

Why hasn’t this been done as yet?   Big organisations are very protective of their budgets and the idea of sharing is not one that sits very comfortably with them. They also have a need to control what they are paying for.  So if staff work in a separate location with different disciplines it makes administrators and managers nervous. Lastly, there doesn’t seem to be any real government will to change things, preferring instead to tinker at the edges.  All this means the likelihood of unified services happening in any effective, national way is already bound to fail before it even gets off the ground.  The no brainer of an idea becomes the idea with no brain.  The piecemeal, gappy service continues with the certain outcome of more children slipping through the cracks.

Big organisations have big problems

We can see from recent, public “scandals” that large (and even some small) organisations have great difficulty in acting in a  socially thoughtful and altruistic way.  Whether it be the banks, Police, NHS, BBC, MPs, tax “avoiding” companies, religious institutions or media groups, there is ample evidence to know that organisations are innately selfish and  insular. This does not mean that the individuals within it are either of these things and the opposite is often true.  I note that both public and private bodies are equally prone to this.  This is particularly when they are under threat in some way or where theres money involved.  For public organisations this so  means budgets and the need to justify there own existence.  With targets so often linked to cash, the need to over manage everything has become prevalent.  Paperwork and systems have become everything and the user/client a statistic.

This is very unlikely to change and appears to be the way of things.  Even if the paperwork and targets are reduced there will continue to be the problem of the “selfish organisations” protecting its own interests.  Inspections seem to have been the answer in the past, but as we have seen with difficulties with inspectors (NHS and banks to name two), there are clearly flaws in this too.  Often understaffed but large institutions themselves, they have perpetuated the target driven culture; large organisations inspecting other large organisations.

In child protection this has come in to sharp focus.  The disappearance of almost all independent thought has left the scales heavily weighted in favour of large state organisations with little chance of independent action to stop poor organisational practice.

Independent Reviewing Officers are, as we all know, not at all independent, working for the very organisation that they are tasked with monitoring.  Judges are having their wings clipped by targets and mandates that reduce their ability to monitor and act on poor and sometimes unfair decision making.  The reduction of legal aid, for instance in Judicial Reviews, has further undermined the checks and balances in the family judiciary.  Heavy cuts in fees for lawyers has pushed them into squeezing time on each case and subsequently the attention they can give to it.  The sidelining of expert witness, and in particular the independent social worker, has meant the courts have to wholly rely on local authorities to not only pickup the slack but also have very little scrutiny of their actions.  The once independent Children’s Guardians are now part of another large institution with their remit reduced significantly.  The judicial part of child protection has always relied on good information and a variety of opinions to come to an informed decision.  It now has neither of these, which will in due course create further injustices and mistakes which cannot be undone.

Without some independent thought and ability to act within an overly bureacratic system , the likelihood of institutionally selfish misbehaviour becomes significantly increased.  Recent cover-up scandals have further evidenced the need for broader, individual monitoring rather than the monoliths that perpetuate a policy/target/budget driven idea of public service.  However the need for control by central and local government allows little hope for individuals or small groups to make a different without a complete re-think on who these organisations are there to serve. Although the answer to this is often, rightly “children and their families”, the reality is far from the this.

Ever reducing services, ever increasing referrals 

The reality of social work with children and families has change considerably over the years.  It has become increasingly a fire fighting service where the threshold for “child protection” has increased year on year.  Access to service and interventions have moved vastly up the scale so that now only cases where significant issues are identified can be allow through the gateway.

This has caused a number of problems. Social workers often have little of the “positive” work left anymore. That is getting alongside families and making a very real different.  Instead it is more often than not a never ending line of complex cases with considerable difficulties where outcomes are unlikely to be happy ones; thus reinforcing the preconception of social workers as child stealers.  This raising of the bar of access to services has coincided with a radical reduction in access to preventative services.

In the last 2 significant inquiries conducted by Lord Laming and more recently Professor Munrow, the need for considerable preventative services was a key plank of both their recommendations.  Not only were these recommendations ignored but the opposite has happened.  Children’s Centres are being closed or going part time. Social work assistants, who could take a softly softly, hands-on approach have all but disappeared and other services, such as psychological and treatment centres, have been signifcantly reduced.  This has not only reduced the social workers tool box but has almost obliterated early intervention for families in difficulty.  Even when social workers know there will be problems around the corner there is more often than not nothing that can be done until the difficulties increase to crisis point.

The reduction in services has also coincided with a significant increase in referrals over recent years following the Baby Peter coverage and subsequently the revelations of the historic abuse of children by “celebrities”.  However there has been very little if no increase in real funding to cover this.  In addition, although the right noises have been made about the recruitment and retention of social workers, there remains a crisis in this area with most teams running vacancies that they cannot fill.

The increase in referrals as well as the lack of funding for services and social workers has meant scarce resources have been focused to significant child protection whilst ignoring the lack of provision for families in difficulty or in need of assistance, which will build in to a child protection tidal wave of the very near future.

Building a new, well funded, well designed ship.

Although it is unlikely that the current child protection ship will sink, it is evidently not doing what it is supposed to do – protecting children with the gold standard service. At present it is a large, bloated vessel, on fire and letting in water. This floating wreck was built a long time ago and has just been added to rather than modernised. There are several engines and even more rudders going in their own direction with a committee of Captains. With few resources the crew are desperately fighting the fires on the deck with cups of water. Although they know there is water coming in below deck and a tidal wave coming, there is little time or energy to do anything. In the meantime other holes are being made in the hull much more quickly than the old ones are patched.

Its passengers, made up of vulnerable children need a new ship to safely take them into adulthood. One which is resilient, thoughtful, balanced, modern and well funded. It must have the passengers welfare as its priority rather than the running of the ship. It will take cooperation, hard work and money, as well as vision, to sit down and design something from scratch that will do the job well, both now and in the future. This is a job to be done by all of society. A society that cares about their children and believes that its worth spending the time and money on them.

How to change perceptions of social work in the media

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.