Colleagues in other authorities have sometimes been surprised that Bristol Social Services and Health Department opened their doors to the BBC to make a major documentary series about child care social work. Many saw us as, at best, rather brave or, at worst, rather foolhardy. These were unsurprising reactions given social work’s consistently bad press.
Why, then, did we get involved? A number of factors shaped the decision. First, the time seemed right to give the public a more informed picture of the difficult and intensely private work of local authority social workers. Social services departments have sometimes been (albeit often for good reasons) perceived as over protective about their work. Bristol, however, took the view that active engagement with the media was necessary to help the public appreciate the challenges and complexities of child care social work, and the great skills and commitment that staff bring to their work. This was even more important in the wake of the Victoria Climbié Inquiry.
Secondly, it was important that the series producer, Sarah Johnson, could demonstrate a strong track record in making films about social work. We were much reassured by Sarah Johnson's compelling Love is Not Enough series about adoption. The ambitious scale and scope of the proposed series further strengthened our confidence. Filming for Someone to Watch Over Me would take place over many months (in the event, more than fifteen) and involve many staff and teams. This was clearly not a ‘film and run’ programme, but rather a carefully crafted series allowing trust to develop, and where the concerns that would inevitably surface could be very carefully tackled - for example, about filming in a children’s home, or in particularly sensitive family situations.
Whilst the BBC had full editorial control, difficult issues had to be carefully negotiated, such as the filming of situations where legal proceedings were taking place. The City Council had two absolute rules that were never compromised. One was that filming should not proceed if there was any question that it would jeopardise a child’s welfare. The other was that service users and staff would have to give their individual and full consent to being filmed.
The series title accurately reflects how ‘doing’ social work often involves the twin tasks of supporting families in need with that of supervising and working to change the behaviour of parents and young people. The programmes show, in an unsanitised way, how social workers are often ‘between a rock and a hard place’ in making potentially life-changing decisions. When, for example, should a young person be placed in a secure, locked, environment? Or when should steps be taken to remove children from their parents? Such decisions are rarely simple or clear cut, and the series sensitively highlights the fine and delicately balanced judgements made by social workers and their managers on a daily basis.
We hope that Someone to Watch Over Me will go some way to helping people better understand and value the job of being a social worker. Hopefully it may also encourage those who are considering a career in social work. We believe that the series offers a good insight into the reality of child care social work, so although some might think we were brave to take part, we are very pleased that we did.