There has been continued talk about Baby P and how the social work system has let itself and everyone else down, and how social workers are useless inept creatures that must be banned from the universe of civilised discourse. In the midst of this whirlwind of confusion where everyone is on their high horse of morality, bashing the immoral social workers, let us shed a tear of reflection on the course of events and the status quo.
A New Approach
The Children Act 1989 ushered in a new era in social policy, aimed at transforming the culture of Children’s Services from a reactive and exclusive culture of crisis intervention dedicated to a small group of children with child protection concerns, to a proactive and inclusive culture of prevention and enhancement of children’s life chances for all children in need. This shift in social policy has challenged local authorities with an ambitious agenda for identification of needs and provision of resources and services.
However, the lofty ideals of the current policy have not been matched by an equally enhanced professional image and identity for social workers and an appropriately increased budgetary support for local authorities. Therefore, the recent Government pronouncements aimed at raising the status of social workers and attracting ‘the best and the brightest’ to this profession are an indispensable step in the right direction.
A Dual Mandate
Nonetheless, the role of social workers remains an inherently challenging one, as on the one hand social workers support and work in partnership with families to meet children’s needs, while on the other they carry the statutory mandate of ‘social policing’ and safeguarding/protecting children. This dual mandate can prove particularly difficult, and even conflicting, when there are child protection concerns.
Social work is neither financially rewarding nor does it offer enormous career progression. Those who choose this profession do so based on their commitment to higher ideals of social justice and greater social equity. They perform an extremely arduous task in an exceedingly difficult environment and, in spite of the media claims and clamour, they routinely save children’s lives and assist and enable families to get through their everyday challenges.
Are their actions enough or have we reached utopia? Definitely not. Can they do better? Certainly yes. We can and must aspire to higher standards for a better service and an improved system. However, there is much that goes unspoken and out of the limelight of television cameras.
Where were the cameras when social workers accommodated five children who were abandoned in a tiny and filthy room by their mother, with the smaller children left alone to look after their few-months-old sibling, and when their only meal of the day was a few spoonfuls of rice? It was the social workers’ intervention that placed these children in foster care, the same social workers who, as the children’s corporate parents, continue to provide them with support and supervision; the same social workers who went to their school to resolve their bullying problems; the same social workers who made arrangements with foster carers to prepare the children’s favourite meals for their first night of foster placement and who brought them Easter eggs, remembering to give the eight-year-old his favourite ‘Ben 10′ Easter Egg.
Where were the cameras that Friday evening when, after closure of the finance office, social workers took their own money to help a young mother, who had not received her benefits, to buy milk and diapers for her baby?
Where were the cameras when in order to break past the communication barrier with a desolate and hesitant child, muted in his fear of punishment lest he spoke the truth, the social worker reached for her ‘creative tool box’ and gave the frail and fearful boy paper and crayon while gently asking him to draw a picture of his dinner table and only then did the boy unknowingly draw the cans of bear and bottles of wine that every evening intoxicated his father?
These and many more are the stories of daily lives of every social worker as they answer the calls which the rest of the society does not wish to answer and deal with, problems and realities that the rest of society would rather not think about. Theirs is a silent journey of dedication to improving other people’s lives.
The Need to Understand Social Workers’ Motivation
In a frenzied world of hyper-reality where everyone dreams of some five minutes of ‘make-believe celebrity’ to serve as their life’s defining moment, it may be hard to understand the motivation of social workers for going into a profession so berated and beset by indiscriminate harassment. There is nothing glamorous about working with physical harm, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and intentional harm.
Yes, social workers’ motivation may not be glamorous, but it is that which allows them to understand the perspective of their clients, the children and their families. For in spite of the crushing summary judgements and hasty generalisations mediated through an invasive culture of tabloid populism, social workers perform an essential and enormously important social mission.
The Public Reaction to Baby P
The death of baby P was a traumatic and tragic event and there is no doubt that we must do everything in our power to address and eradicate the root causes of deplorable errors that led to the crushing of a budding flower. However, we must remember that Baby P was, first and foremost, the victim of the acts of a perverse and psychologically disturbed mind determined in its criminal intent to harm children. We must remind ourselves that in spite of all the shortcomings and the continued challenges, we do enjoy the benefits of one of the most generous and advanced social services systems in the world.
Vicious crimes, such as those inflicted on Baby P, carve a profound scar in our individual and social morality and collective psyche. We remain wounded by the naked cruelty of a heinous crime that robs us of our humanity and leaves us all a bit more vulnerable, a bit more in pain and enormously more frustrated and angry.
However, the public bashing of an entire rank of professionals and the continued and unfair criticisms by the media do not contribute towards resolving the problems. They weaken the foundations of our social morality and fan the fires of indiscriminate vindication that burn thousands of dedicated and innocent professional identities at the stake of a prejudiced social stereotype and rash summary judgements.
We do need to improve the ‘system’ no doubt. However, we must remember that the ‘system’ is not some esoteric entity isolated from society and all in the hands of government and social workers. We are all a part of the ‘system’ and we all hold a collective responsibility in maintaining and improving it, and through our acts of commission and omission participate in shaping its outcomes. In a civilised and progressive society, safeguarding of children and advocating for the disenfranchised is everyone’s responsibility.
The mass condemnation of social workers casts the shadow of a public witch hunt that does nothing but further damage the ‘system’ and weaken the foundation of our collective home of civility, and achieves nothing but to stab the hearts and psyche of thousands and thousands of hard working and dedicated professionals whose hearts are already overburdened with society’s pains.
There is no public service or private entity that has suffered the degree of scrutiny and harsh social retaliation that social workers have suffered from. The incessant and indiscriminate demonisation of social workers will result in even greater harm as ‘the best and the brightest’, crushed under the weight of a perverse media morality, abandon this besieged profession.
The truth is that every profession, every service and every professional involved in this case failed miserably. But it seems somehow easier to blame the social workers. More importantly, by laying all responsibility at the door of social workers, we can shift the blame and not think about our inert sense of social responsibility and the real causes of social isolation, the widening gap between haves and have-nots, and the alarming and widespread disregard for humane values and morality.
The Importance of Appreciating the Contribution of Social Workers
In my ten years of experience with voluntary organisations, I did not fully appreciate the enormity of the challenges facing social workers and at times blamed my frustrations on the cold-hearted and uncaring ‘social worker’. However, today, working on the frontline of children’s services of a local authority in London, I realise that there was nothing farther from truth than my depiction of social workers as indifferent, cold-hearted or uncaring.
I see my colleagues in my local authority and across many other local authorities and can’t help but think of the great heroism in their silent and dedicated actions. Committed to an important social mission and lofty ideals of social justice and greater opportunity and equality for all, they perform a challenging task under incredibly difficult conditions.
One might say that it was not the media that did not see the bruises on an innocent face covered in chocolate; I surely agree. However, it is the media that distort the realities to the tune of the moment. When social workers are only trying to protect a child from continued torment and pain inflicted by his/her abusive parents, the media brand social workers as baby snatchers. When everything is being done to support and maintain family unity while meeting the child’s needs, social workers’ efforts are labelled as ineptitude and inaction. It is the media that exacerbate the paradoxical schizophrenia inherent in our fragmented culture of post-modernity to stir a polemical and negative view of every action.
The over-simplistic depiction of life’s drama in reality shows is an unfortunate reductionism of our lived experiences, boxed in a ‘constructed reality’ and mass mediated for public consumption. However, it takes more than the sixty minutes of a reality show to fix a broken life or help a child in need. But, clearly all is fair in the race for increasing viewers.
There are thousands and thousands of hard-working and dedicated social workers everyday making a child’s life a bit less cruel, a family’s life a bit less difficult, an elderly life a bit less isolated, growing up a bit less painful, parenting a bit less intimidating, our society a bit more just and humane and our world a bit less lonely and cruel. They medicate, soothe and heal our individual and social wounds and fight against the spread of endemic isolation and marginalisation.
If, in spite of all this, we still can’t offer a word of appreciation, let us at least spare them our indiscriminate recrimination.
Claudia Megele is a sociologist, a researcher and a frontline practitioner. She has over 10 years experience in the voluntary sector. She has conducted various training and specialist seminars in relation to domestic violence. During her voluntary experience she has advocated for and worked with women suffering from domestic violence and sexually/physically abused children. Claudia has also worked as play therapist with terminally ill children and has conducted a number of support groups for women. Claudia’s latest support group is called ‘A Sense of Self-Worth’, which focuses on improving women’s self-esteem and confidence. Her current research is entitled “In Search of Meaning… Value attribution and social worker’s decision-making process”.
You can contact Claudia at [email protected]