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OU on the BBC: Someone To Watch Over Me - About The Series

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006

Details about the BBC/OU TV series looking at the work of Bristol's 190 child care social workers.

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Blame Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Damned if they do intervene, damned if they don't. Child care social work is one of the most vilified professions in Britain. Fed up with constant criticism, Bristol Social Services allowed an award-winning BBC Bristol documentary team to spend a year with its child care teams. This thought-provoking series observes the lives of six social workers working at the frontline of childcare and focuses on the daily issues they face.

Series Producer Sarah Johnson had previously produced the award-winning BBC ONE documentary about adoption, Love Is Not Enough. She explains the background to the making of Someone To Watch Over Me: "The neglect and emotional, physical and sexual abuse of British children, usually at the hands of their parents, is intensely uncomfortable and difficult to deal with. In Bristol, 190 child care social workers are responsible for the safety of the city's 73,000 children. Except for when something goes wrong, it's an all but invisible emergency service."

Social workers have been the focus of renewed media attention since the death of Victoria Climbié. Victoria was neglected and systematically abused by the boyfriend of her great-aunt, and the aunt herself. By the time she died, social workers and other professionals had missed a dozen opportunities to save her.

Nigel Richardson, a member of the inquiry team which produced a damning report into the circumstances of Victoria's death, came to Bristol to pass on the lessons learnt from the case. "When we're dealing with concerns about children, you must never do nothing," Nigel pleads. "Never do nothing."

Each day, Bristol social workers deal with a huge range of referrals - from a baby with five suspicious rib fractures, to a four-year-old boy found living in appalling conditions, and a mother who worries that her 14-year-old daughter is dealing drugs and having inappropriate relationships with older men.

Contrary to popular belief, social services cannot actually remove children – only the courts and the police are empowered to do that. The popular perception may be that social workers like to whip children away from their parents if they are at all concerned, but the reality is that they do not take such decisions lightly. Indeed, social workers spend most of their time trying to keep families together. Sometimes though, the abuse is so severe that children are permanently removed from their parents.

Social worker Frances says "I've worked on cases where you've seen a mother's distress on losing her child and you want to say 'no, no I didn't mean it', just because you can't bear to see someone in that much pain. But you have to remember the child, the child, the child."

Sarah Johnson hopes the programmes demonstrate the difficult position social workers are in: "The series explores the complex relationship between the British public and social services – on the one hand social workers are condemned for repeatedly getting it wrong and not doing enough, whilst on the other, people like to deride 'busy body' social workers for interfering in family life."

One new mum, Kim, who has been a drug addict, says of her social worker, Di, "She could take my baby away from me … she's like God isn't she? So far as I'm concerned, that woman's God."

Bristol's child care duty teams, like all such teams over the country, are incredibly stretched. During filming nearly 40% of the posts in one of Bristol's emergency duty teams were vacant, due to long-term sickness and inability to fill the vacancies. Of those who were off sick, 25% were off with stress-related long-term sickness. The vacancies put even more pressure on the staff that remain. "Often, these staffing problems are why duty teams, the front-line of child protection, end up being staffed by inexperienced newly qualified staff," explains Sarah.

Frances comments "You can start to view the world as a horrible place where people don't treat their children how they should. At the weekend I was with a friend and I noticed some marks on their child's back, and then I thought, what am I doing. I don't like that aspect of it, I can't switch off."

Sarah concludes: "For the first time, the family courts have allowed filming to continue when cases become subject to court proceedings. This unprecedented access could be an indication that, while children's welfare always remains the priority, social services and the courts realise that their work needs to become more transparent and that only by doing this will public perception of their crucially important work improve."





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