Applying social work skills in practice
Applying social work skills in practice

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Applying social work skills in practice

1.1 Complex issues: social work, risk and the media

It can be argued that, on many occasions, social workers engage with some of society’s most complex issues, often being called on to intervene alongside other professionals or when a series of interventions have not been effective enough to keep a service user supported or safe. For example, many young people coming to the attention of social workers may already be known to teachers, school counsellors, health professionals or others, before their situation arrives at the point of needing social work action.

At this point, social workers do not make decisions about how to respond to perceived risks alone. Their judgements are made in conjunction with service users, their kin and networks, and in discussion with other significant professional people – for example, doctors, teachers, other health workers, lawyers and the police. These professionals will have important information that needs to be considered. Also, social workers can only act where the law permits. They do, however, have significant power given to them by law, and this has to be exercised ethically.

It can be argued that politicians and especially the media – in the shape of newspapers, radio and television – demonstrate little understanding of the complexity of the social work task. There often seems to be an unrealistic expectation of omniscience, when in fact social workers can only work with the information and resources available to them.

When social workers are blamed for ‘failures’ in particular circumstances, there may be some errors of social work practice to learn from, but it is also important to consider the complexity of the wider picture and the way in which a ‘blame culture’ is not helpful to the profession. You now focus on child protection and a five-minute extract from a BBC documentary – Baby P, The Untold Story (broadcast in October 2014). This footage shows some aspects of events surrounding the death of Peter Connelly in August 2007.

Activity 2 Can all risk be managed?

Allow about 30 minutes

Watch the clip from Baby P, The Untold Story.

There was a great deal of publicity surrounding the death of Peter Connelly. However you might find it helpful to refer to this timeline [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] before you watch the clip.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1 Baby P, The Untold Story

Transcript: Video 1 Baby P, The Untold Story

In Britain, a child dies at the hands of a parent once every 10 days. But in 2007, one child’s death sparked a media frenzy and a huge public outcry.
What do we want?! Justice! When do we want it?! Now!
His death was blamed on the social workers, and shattered our confidence in the profession’s ability to protect children.
I can’t believe they didn’t spot it. They must go. All those who are responsible have to go.
I’d sack them all, mate. And put them all in a big field and burn them.
Now, seven years on, the people at the centre of the scandal are prepared to reveal a much more complex picture. It’s a story about clues that nobody picked up on, how all the agencies failed to protect Baby P.
The child was so vulnerable. And the police, the social workers, the health people, we missed it. We missed it and we missed it.
It’s about the consequences for those who were named and shamed.
The papers said ‘Maria Ward, the most hated woman in Britain.’ I don’t even have the words, really, to describe how awful things became.
And it’s about how one child’s death became a high-stakes political blame game.
This is about a Social Services Department that gets 100 million pounds a year and can’t look after children. That’s what this is about.
I knew what was going to happen immediately, was there was going to be pressure for action. Something must be done.
This is the untold story of Baby P, and why we never heard it.
In December, 2006, nine-month-old Peter was taken to hospital with unexplained bruising, and put on the Child Protection Register. He was removed from the family home. And his grandmother and 25-year-old mother, Tracy, were arrested on suspicion of assault. After initial police inquiries failed to find proof of abuse or identify a perpetrator, Peter was returned home.
In February, social workers handed the case over to a second Child Protection team. They described Tracy as a loving mother, struggling to supervise her children properly. In one of the most deprived boroughs in London, the case didn’t appear to pose an unusually high risk.
Sometimes it’s so obvious. Sometimes there’s such poor care, parents completely wasted on drugs and drink, horrendous injuries, disclosures of sexual abuse, terrible, terrible living conditions, pure neglect. Those are the easy ones.
Tracy appeared to be a loving, caring mum. The home was relatively OK. The children got to school. Things were being tackled and done. But she was, herself, saying, she needed some help. She accepted that, and was wanting to work with Maria and others.
Maria Ward, one of Harringay’s most respected social workers, was assigned to the Connelly family. She began meeting with Tracy, recently separated and struggling as a single mother to Peter and his siblings.
I would go and do visits. She would explain what had gone on since I’d last visited. I’d speak to the children. I’d speak to the children alone. Peter was a very active child. You knew he was in the room. He would run around, touching things he shouldn’t. I observed her cuddle Peter. I’d observed Peter go to her, to be comforted by her. Caring for him, changing his nappy, giving him food, the normal--.
Social workers, police, and health professionals saw Peter and his family more than 60 times in the eight months between Peter’s first hospital visit and his death. None realised the significance of a man who had entered Tracy’s life. His name was Steven Barker.
End transcript: Video 1 Baby P, The Untold Story
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Video 1 Baby P, The Untold Story
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As you watch the clip, respond to the following questions:

  • What is your own reaction to the material you are watching?
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  • What issues relating to social work does the clip suggest to you?
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If you followed the coverage in the news media and the professional literature, you will already be aware of the issue of a ‘blame culture’ that Peter Connelly’s death raised (and is still raising). In particular, public outrage against social workers and their ‘failures’ was very strong at that time and was fueled by the extensive coverage in the media. There was a sustained campaign for the resignation of Sharon Shoesmith (Director of Children’s Services for Haringey), who refused to resign but was finally sacked by Ed Balls (then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) as the situation became something of a political football. This aside, the professional reality was that health workers, the police and social workers were unable, together, to protect Peter. Mistakes were made in a complex situation in which social care agencies failed to work effectively together.

The BBC documentary, of which you only saw the introduction, attempted to present a more nuanced account. It may have its own inaccuracies, but it did give space for the social workers and the Chair of the Serious Case Review to speak directly on camera, and it captured some of the complexity that surrounded the situation, including the staffing issues in the paediatric service and some problems within the case review and the inspection services. It also identified the way that party politics can produce rhetoric of it being possible to ‘fix’ the system. This oversimplifies what is needed to improve services. Most social workers would argue that increased funding would be a good first step.


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