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Author: Ben Crang

Social work and public perception

Updated Wednesday, 25th January 2012
The media reaction when a social worker makes a mistake can be hugely demoralising for the whole profession - and a one-sided view and scary myths help nobody, says Ben Crang. It's one of the reasons he got involved with Protecting Our Children.

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Anyone working in social work will recognise the gulf between what we actually do day in and day out and what the public perception of what we do often is. Because of the adverse media reactions to  tragedies such as baby Peter and Victoria Climbe, this is even more true for social workers who have child protection responsibilities. This situation is exacerbated by a tendency for some sections of the media to react in a manner which vilifies social workers when tragedies occur.

There is nothing unique about social work. Mistakes are made in all professions and, if we are honest, always will be. What is unique, however, is the public and media reaction when the mistakes are made in social work as opposed to other professions.

In addition, the reality of everyday social work is rarely portrayed in a balanced way by the media. For instance campaigns and stories are often run about paedophiles and the threat they pose but what is rarely acknowledged is that it is child protection social workers and our colleagues in the police child abuse investigation teams who continue to get in between paedophiles and children to protect them long after the papers have moved onto other stories. If newspapers could report in a more considered way then this would enable the public to have a better understanding of what we do. Instead the focus is most frequently on perceived errors.

As social workers we know that the reality is that week in and week out in towns and cities across the UK, thousands of good decisions are made to protect the most vulnerable children in our society. However, all this is generally invisible to the public.

Because the social work profession has no strong public voice there is no robust counter to the reactionary voices of the tabloid newspapers and news broadcasts that burst into the public arena when things go wrong. Therefore all that seeps into the public consciousness are the negatives and there is nothing to balance this out.

In my view, what is needed is a concerted effort to shine a light on the profession. I strongly believe that if the public knew what we actually do then the prevailing orthodoxy about social work could be reversed. The BBC programme Protecting Our Children is a sincere attempt to do this and I hope it prompts a general discussion about social work as it is in reality. There needs to be more and ongoing initiatives to bring social work in from the cold and promote it in a positive light.

For very good reasons this is not easy. We deal with very vulnerable families and highly sensitive issues affecting children. This is not something that can be easily reported. There are issues of confidentiality that have to be adhered to. Nonetheless we have to be creative in how we overcome this. The BBC documentary mentioned above has managed it and has portrayed social work in a very honest way. It represents very well what we actually do. It is my belief that relations with national and local media could be developed so that ways of reporting matters without breaking confidentiality can be overcome as with the documentary.

In addition, based on my own working experience, the family courts could be more open about the process of decision making. If we could begin to explode some of the myths about social workers this could be very positive. I constantly come across the view that social workers can 'take away' children. There is no general understanding that social workers have no powers to take away children.

It is just not understood that in fact the courts make the decision whether or not a child needs to be taken into local authority care. And only then after an exhaustive process whereby all parties are legally represented and have every opportunity to be heard including, most importantly, the child via an independent Guardian and a dedicated solicitor. If we could just begin to break down some of these mis-perceptions then we would start to change how the profession is viewed.

There are also small ways that we as social work teams can help to open up the profession. In our duty team, for example, we encourage associated professionals, students, local politicians and senior managers to come and spend some time with us observing our duty desk. Our social workers are now used to people coming up on a regular basis to 'shadow'. This allows us to explain the process of referrals, thresholds, how we prioritise work, different aspects of the social work process such as child protection, looked after children etc and allows people to ask questions. 

I hope the BBC documentary starts a chain reaction of discussion and debate about social work. That is why I agreed to take part, because it is an opportunity to be a part of this.

Because of all the above it is no wonder that as a profession social workers can feel exposed and insecure. Let's hope that we can begin to reverse this and allow people to see us for what we actually are. Hard working, conscientious, compassionate professionals who carry huge responsibilities and manage and hold a significant amount of risk to protect societies most vulnerable children with almost no recognition and minimal rewards.

Protecting Our Children: Professional Voices


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