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?
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 thisbefore you watch the clip.
Transcript: Video 1 Baby P, The Untold Story
As you watch the clip, respond to the following questions:
- What is your own reaction to the material you are watching?
- What issues relating to social work does the clip suggest to you?
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.