Reading some of the media coverage of our child protection system, it would be easy to believe social workers enter the profession to cause harm.
Reading some of the media coverage of our child protection system, it would be easy to believe social workers enter the profession to cause harm
The approach taken by the right-leaning Evening Standard in its reporting of findings by right-wing think tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) this week will have done nothing to boost the morale of social workers in England.
While there is no doubt that sensationalism sells, attention-grabbing headlines like Monday’s Failures of UK’s ‘unscrupulous and abhorrent’ child protection services laid bare in report do little to advance the debate about the future of children’s services.
Given that the CSJ was originally Ian Duncan Smith’s brainchild, some may be surprised that The British Association of Social Workers put its name to the press release accompanying the launch of the CSJ report’s resulting campaign from Kids Company, See the Child, Change the System.
Social workers may well wonder why their professional body would lend support to scrutiny of social work systems, yet it is no secret that the current child protection system faces many challenges.
We did not need this report to know that. A report from Ofsted in October 2013 estimated that one in seven local authorities are currently rated ‘inadequate’ for their children’s services.
This is not because social workers themselves are inadequate, despite the many repeated political and media attacks on the profession in recent years that tell the public otherwise.
Last month, Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones told delegates at our UK conference that negative stories about social workers can put vulnerable people at risk, saying:
“Even as you face ever-worsening injustice you are right to be aggrieved that the immensely positive contributions you make go unheard and ignored by the media, whereas every time something goes wrong, that is the only time social work appears in our newspapers.
“Frankly, shame on the British media, for not only is it unfair to do you wrong, it is completely counterproductive to run down people’s morale, to run down a service and drive away people from this essential service.
“That is why it has to be resisted because it puts people’s security at risk. That is why journalists have a responsibility to show the reality of what you are doing to give hope and inspiration to others, and show how very difficult complex problems can be addressed with skill and courage.”
The reality facing social workers is grim. Few commentators who are so quick to criticise social workers for their alleged ‘failings’ would seek to trade places with them, to step over people’s doorsteps and ask unwelcome questions about a child’s welfare, to face the ever-present threat of violence or the emotional distress removing a child from their home causes.
If you were an alien visiting this planet and read some of the media coverage of our child protection system, it would be quite easy to believe that social workers enter the profession to cause harm.
No one can guarantee that in such a complex and delicate area of work, where decisions are made that will affect children and parents for decades if not generations, that wrong decisions will not sometimes be made; but social workers enter the profession to help children.
It is the systems social workers are working within that are letting them down. Mountains of paperwork and unwieldy IT systems that must take priority over visiting children, is but one example.
It is central government’s systematic destruction of services run by local government in England, where most social workers are still employed. We only need to look at the other countries within the UK to see how this can be different and better both for children and for social workers.
That acknowledgement is why The British Association of Social Workers has become involved with the Kids Company campaign and why we will be a part of the independent Children’s Task Force chaired by Sir Keir Starmer QC, to discuss new ways of delivering services to vulnerable children.
Whatever future lies in store for children’s services in England, social workers remain integral to it. Our priority is to help shape services that put the needs of the child, rather than the needs of the system, first.
Bridget Robb is the chief executive of The British Association of Social Workers (BASW)Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.