Why did Bristol City Council Children's and Young People's Services co-operate with the making of Protecting Our Children?
Social workers and their managers have possibly become accustomed to the perpetually negative tone of media coverage about their work. Child care social work in particular is frequently at the receiving end of a harsh and negative press that conveys messages about ineffectiveness, unreliability and moral culpability when things go wrong for children.
The highly private and generally invisible nature of the work, combined with a degree of distrust that the media is only after stories of failure has made people wary of engaging with the media. Social workers are often associated with either splitting families up or not acting swiftly enough to protect children.
A belief that there needs to be more accurate reporting of the challenges social workers face and what they do in practice has led Bristol children’s services to open its doors to the BBC in 2004 for a very successful series about social work: Someone to Watch Over Me. Seven years on there is a no less a need to convey accurate pictures to the public of the often grim situations in which social workers operate and the finely tuned decisions they make about families on the 'edge' of coping.
Other factors have now come into play. The 'Baby P effect' has entered the lexicon of public discussion (as explained by Professor Harry Fergusson in The Guardian), sharpening social work’s vulnerability in the public consciousness. Professor Eileen Munro’s insightful review pointed to the way that negative public and media attention has undermined professional morale and made some professionals more risk adverse and less confident. Such negative media coverage may also deepen families’ anxieties and suspicions when social workers enter their lives. This, in turn, may make it harder to keep children safe.
Several factors shaped our decision to agree to the BBC filming in Bristol. First and foremost we had to establish the overriding imperative of safeguarding the welfare of children, and the rights of families and staff to decline to be filmed.
Second we were reassured by the fact that filming would take place over a lengthy period of time, thereby increasing the likelihood that the films would convey authentically the highly sensitive and emotionally charged nature of child care practice and the life changing implications decisions can have for children and parents.
Third, at a time when resources were coming under increased pressure, we needed to know that having film crews in offices and on visits would not be unduly distracting or burdensome on families or staff.
Finally, building a relationship of trust between the BBC and the council was pivotal to our confidence that the resulting programmes would present an authentic perspective on child protection work. We had to be sure that we would not be "shafted" and that the important work of social workers would not be obscured or distorted in the search for a "good story".
Preparatory work by Bristol City Council staff and the BBC team helped create sound working relationships that allowed the filming crew to blend in, securing buy-in from staff and key partners such as he poltice, health and the judiciary was time consuming but essential.
Time will tell whether we made the right judgement to allow the BBC to film the work of our child care teams. We hope the series stimulates more considered and informed public debate and that, as social worker Ben Crang comments, the series helps to ‘shine a light’ on the profession and to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. Taking part has had attendant risks for the authority but also for individual staff who have been bravely agreed to reveal their practice to national TV audiences. They demonstrate the great range of skills and qualities that make for effective social work practice.
Involvement in the series has intensified our determination to reflect openly on what we do and its impact on the lives of children and families. Indeed one social worker has said that taking part has stimulated even further self questioning of what she is doing and why. Social work must be accountable and open to public scrutiny but debate has often been skewed by over simplistic accounts.
This series will have achieved a great deal if it helps the public have a more grounded picture of the lives of children and families with whom we work, and of the complex decisions made everyday by competent and committed social workers. The programmes illustrate, with great humanity, different facets of child care practice, showing the necessary authority based nature o the work and that good practice involves compassion and an unrelenting focus on the experiences and needs of children.
Annie Hudson is Strategic Director, Children, Young People and Skills, Bristol City Council. Annie trained and practised as a social worker in Brighton and Newcastle upon Tyne. She was then a lecturer in social work at Manchester University where she researched and published on child protection, and young women’s experiences of care.
In 1989 Annie returned to local authority work, firstly as a child care team manager in central Bristol. She subsequently held a number of senior management posts in Wiltshire and Bristol.