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Can we ever learn to love social workers?

Updated Monday, 6th April 2009

Following Lord Laming's review of children's services in England, are social workers ever going to be valued or must they always take the blame?

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Lord Laming's review of children's services in England, announced on 12th March, concluded that child protection issues in England had not had ‘the priority they deserved’ and that many of the reforms brought in after Victoria Climbie's death in 2000 had not been properly implemented. Laming referred to Social Work as a ‘Cinderella service’.

I think this is an intriguing metaphor, and worth exploring further. In the Cinderella folk story the heroine has attributes that are unrecognised and lie hidden, and after a period of brutality from those who are supposed to be caring for her, she unexpectedly achieves success and emerges from obscurity. Why might elements of this plot be so meaningful in relation to contemporary feelings about social workers?

I don’t think it was explicit, nor consciously in the mind of Lord Laming, but anyone who knows Cinderella will remember that this girl was the daughter of a man who remarried the ‘wicked stepmother’ who already had her own two daughters – the ‘ugly sisters’ of pantomime fun.

In modern parlance, she was abused daily and deemed to be no better than the cinders she was forced to sit in.

So this story has resonance in relation to the recent child abuse cases that we have become so familiar with in the media. I wonder if Laming had in mind more than just the idea that Cinderella is a good metaphor for how social workers are treated (under resourced and under-recognised). Did his choice of metaphor also imply that every day social workers must confront difficult and quite often very dangerous people, people who, like Cinderella’s stepmother, abuse and threaten children but who are experts in covering this up?

Cinderella rises above her ghastly situation, to marry the prince and live happily ever after. But there is no fairytale intervention for social workers, who must routinely deal with people whose minds, actions and ways of relating to others seem incomprehensible. Likewise and more importantly, there is no easy, failsafe way of preventing the most extreme forms of child abuse. To understand why, we have to understand something about the complex nature of the work that social workers routinely do.

when deeds are ‘evil’ it relieves us from the burden of further explanation

The notion of ‘evil’, which trips off the tabloid tongue so easily – and which was applied so readily to the child killers of Jamie Bulger – brings us to a halt in our understanding of what social workers have to face. This is because when deeds are conceptualised as ‘evil’ it relieves us from the burden of further explanation, even to our mostly secular contemporary minds. Evil is a coded way of stating the incomprehensibility of something. Even if governments seek to understand the causes of crime, to use Tony Blair’s famous phrase, large parts of popular opinion do not want to.

Among Lord Lamings’ findings was that ‘there had been an ‘over-emphasis on process and targets’, resulting in a ‘loss of confidence’ among social workers, who were overstretched and undertrained’ and that ‘progress was being “hampered” by an ‘over-complicated... tick-box assessment and recording system’. Many social workers concur, arguing that the emphasis on data-entry and record keeping has meant that less and less time is actually spent building relationships with family members that in itself is the key to detecting child abuse:

In his earlier report into the death of Victoria Climbié, Laming noted that parents were hostile and workers were frightened to visit their homes; and that ‘apparent or disguised cooperation from parents often prevented or delayed understanding of the severity of harm to the child, and cases drifted’. The latter was also a factor in the Baby P case, where the mother was adept at simulating compliance with social workers. Because of a lack of critical supervision that would have forced hard questioning of evidence, the social worker was allowed to assume that the mother was committed to improving her son’s care even though injuries occurred whilst he was with her.

Research shows that most people who abuse children over long periods are dedicated to disguising what is happening. It’s also clear that social workers along with doctors and police find it exceedingly difficult to confidently identify child abuse and torture. Their work is fundamentally interpretative, under conditions of extreme pressure and anxiety. In confronting a suspected child abuser a fierce, aggressive denial is normally the response. Are they rightly or wrongly accused? Whose version of reality is correct? Upon what basis do you make a judgement, which has serious consequences, especially when breaking up a family is now considered to be the last resort?

We are very familiar with popular narratives in film and television where we as the audience are held in suspense, not knowing for some time if the hero is actually a villain. As his actions slowly become more risky or mores suspicious to others we start to see, through their eyes, that s/he is not as first appeared. But we expect social workers to straightforwardly ‘know’ when child abuse is happening and being covered up and when it isn’t.

At the same time, social workers who act to remove a child from its parents because of suspected or known abuse are all too frequently accused of representing the overbearing power of the state, interfering in the private sphere of sacred family life. Social workers are vilified when children are removed from their parents because it is unthinkable that parents could intentionally harm their children and when this happens, social workers represent the flaunting of the unthinkable under our noses.

It seems therefore that social workers can’t ever win. Unlike others of their colleagues who care for children colleagues in the public sector such as doctors, nurses, police and teachers, who may at times achieve heroic status, social workers are the object of perpetual social anxiety and aggression. So perhaps there are obvious reasons why they will never be loved by the public. If we barely understand the nature of their work and would rather not understand it (we certainly seem unable to realise that they do succeed in keeping most children safe, day after day) that is because on behalf of us all they must not only directly encounter extremely distressing and terrorising human behaviour but also make life and death decisions in these circumstances.

If we who are not social workers find it hard to ‘think the unthinkable’, that mothers and fathers can intentionally harm their children, then we should remember that social workers in the field of child protection are confronted with having to think this every day. Inevitably, if they are under extreme pressure due to unfilled posts, lack of supervision and overloaded cases, their capacity to do this thinking is undermined. If they are not enabled to do the work of social work properly and with an emphasis on quality – with good, critical and experienced supervisors, time to develop relationships with children and families seen separately as well as together – social workers and the children they protect will never emerge from a Cinderella status.

Further reading

An interesting article by Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics argues that the reforms made in the wake of Laming’s report on Victoria Climbié’s death have weakened the quality of social work.


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