Learning from History : Conclusions

In the August 2007 edition of the Webmag, we explained that a study of social work files covering the last three or four decades had suggested that there were lessons for today’s practitioners. For the purpose of this series, six topics were chosen, and in the following months, David Lane described what he had found out from the files, and Chris Durkin commented from the viewpoint of current practice and teaching about social work. The Lessons covered the need for good standard practice, the value of comprehensive assessments, forms of abuse, treating abuse, realistic expectations, and the dangers of change. It should be emphasised that the Lessons all focused on general issues, and did not disclose any confidential information

David Lane :


One of the encouraging messages from the reams of files which I have read is the high quality of much of the work. This is not only the technical matter of ensuring that all the reviews, case conferences, case records and correspondence are done properly, though they are vital to good practice. It is a question of concern and commitment, of people putting themselves out to be of help, of social workers tolerating some awful abuse at times from irate parents, and of persevering.

On occasions it is even a question of courage, as with the social worker who insisted on seeing a child despite the parents’ refusal (and the father had been in prison for grievous bodily harm), found the child to be abused, and insisted on removing her to safety. That story is buried in a file, unlike that of Victoria Climbie, but the social worker deserved a medal.

There is also the good news of the people who were once children in care but who now as adults have succeeded against the odds, getting academic qualifications and good jobs, forming relationships and having families. They often have a price to pay, but the fact that some can succeed continues to offer hope that the work is worthwhile.


Offset against the successes there are those who not only suffered miserable childhoods but have also had difficult times as adults. It is no surprise that people who were abused as children have poor self-images as adults and find difficulty relating to other people. Some have histories of mental ill-health, some broken marriages and partnerships, some physical ill-health (perhaps the result of abuse), some unemployment, and some periods in prison. For a few, there was suicide.

Perhaps the saddest feature is that, with few exceptions, the people who were in care as girls have had babies themselves while still in teenage, and in some instances the records indicate that they are replicating as parents what they suffered from their mothers and fathers.

Why make claims?

It is sometimes alleged that claimants are on the make, wanting to get money out of local authorities and other providers of social services. My experience is that this is – with one or two possible exceptions – untrue. The claimants’ evidence is often rather rocky, affected by selective memory and their understanding of what happened to them as children, but inaccuracy in remembering dates does not detract from their recollections of fear, distrust, uncertainty, victimisation and failure.

My impression is that it is the need to drive away these childhood ghosts that is the motivator, rather than cash. They may feel that someone ought to pay for the pain they went through, that someone should have been aware of the abuse they were suffering and that someone should be held responsible for it. If I am right, they are looking for justice, and the cash is a symbol.

The claim game

The problem is that, the way that the game has to be played, the people who suffered as children have to sue local authorities and other bodies for negligent practice, with the recompense being offered as cash. The defendants are the large insurance companies who clearly do not wish to lose money, and the court cases that result are adversarial. (Most cases are settled out of court, but the system essentially is resolved through the conflict of competing arguments.)

The people who were involved in the claimants’ childhoods – the social workers, foster carers, residential staff and families – have usually moved on. If the events were some years ago (and I had one case that went back nearly fifty years), many of the participants have died or are beyond giving evidence. Certainly the process does not call abusers or professionals who failed children to account.

In short, it seems to me to be the wrong game with the wrong rules. It is not just for people who had miserable childhoods to have to relive their abuse and suffer courtroom scrutiny in order to obtain relatively small amounts of damages. If I am right about the sort of justice they want, the process is unlikely to deliver it.

Nor is the game fair for local authorities and other agencies, which may be criticised when they may have provided excellent services for decades, only to be penalised for a lapse.

I am not sure what sort of system could provide justice. Some claimants might need compensation, if only to pay for therapy. But for many of them, I suspect that the main need is to come to terms with their experiences, perhaps to learn the facts as recorded in their files, to make sense of what happened to them, to understand the failings of human nature – including professionals, and to try to build a more positive approach to the future. Without the funding available through the Legal Services Commission and the insurance companies, though, how could such a system be resourced?

The importance of social work

In looking back on the six articles and the reams of files, the overall lesson for social workers is that social work really is very important in its impact on individual lives. Timely intervention can be critical in helping a child avoid life-long injuries. Keeping promises to visit or undertake little tasks affect the bigger questions of children trusting social workers and having sufficient confidence in them to disclose. Simply staying in the job and reduction in staff turnover may affect the importance of the social work role to children. These things – some of which may seem trivial at the time – can have a lasting impact, stick in the child’s mind, and affect the person’s whole life. It’s a job that has to be done, and is worth doing.

Chris Durkin:

One of the main messages from David’s writings in the last few months is the importance of getting ‘back to basics’. This is not some form of moral crusade but an acknowledgement that to be an effective practitioner a worker needs to:

  • undertake holistic assessments that take account and focus on the individual needs of the child;
  • record effectively and
  • perhaps most importantly in this context communicate with each other. All the child abuse enquiries have at their central core a breakdown in communication and in the Laming report there was also recognition of the importance of good supervision and the need for practitioners to know their roles and responsibilities.

In addition to the basic issues outlined above there is another skill that needs to be included in the practitioner portfolio and that is the importance of reflection, which at its simplest can be seen as a cycle in which a practitioner has contact with somebody, writes up what they see or hear, which in turn provides them with knowledge that they can then use to make possible changes for future interventions. As Donald Schön stated, the information gained provides the practitioner with “… both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation”. (Schön 1983: 68)

David is right to point out that so often social work is identified with failure rather than success; this is perhaps understandable given the fact that the majority of children that residential workers are working with are the most vulnerable in our society, are likely to have experienced some form of abuse and have been brought up in poverty.

In conclusion it is important that we put these issues into perspective and recognise that most of the work undertaken with children is good, and that our children are better protected than ever before. However, the fact that it will always be the poor practice of the few that will be highlighted does not mean that we should not strive for perfection, because as the late great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The time is always ripe to do right.”


Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith. http://www.infed.org/foundations/understanding.htm (accessed 24/2/2008)


http://www.wilderness.org/Library/Documents/SocialConscience_Quotes.cfm (accessed 24/2/2008)

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