What would you think if you heard a woman shout “I’ll cut the legs off you!” at her children? That she was exasperated by their behaviour and at the end of her tether? Or that she was intent on injuring them?
Twenty years ago, a top psychologist at a London hospital overheard an Irish mother shout just that at her kids, decided they were at risk and convened an emergency child protection meeting. Social workers and other professionals summoned at short notice were shocked that he was apparently unable to differentiate between the colloquial language used by a woman from a different culture and a serious threat of harm.
Or what about this scenario: two social workers visit a house where a boy is displaying signs of mania. He rampages through the house, destroying everything in his path. He is out of control. One of the social workers sees he is clearly in mental distress, while the other gently explains that there is no problem, he’s “just working class”.
Assumptions in any given context can be risky, but in social work they can have dangerous repercussions.
Social work attitudes looked at retrospectively can seem naive. Practice may have come a long way, but there will always be issues that challenge social workers. One recent case, involving a gay foster couple approved by Wakefield Council who were later convicted of abusing boys in their care, has provided the latest evidence of that.
Social workers at the Yorkshire council missed signs that Ian Wathey and Craig Faunch were abusing boys placed in their care between 2003 and 2005. An inquiry report into the case, published in August, quotes one member of staff as saying: “The fear of being seen as prejudiced, the risk of talking about the words gay and paedophile together, was too great. There was a pervasive anxiety that, if this view was put forward in writing or verbally, the person putting it forward would be accused of being prejudiced and homophobic.”
Another staff member said: “You don’t want to reflect negatively on gay couples, especially in social services. I’d be thinking ‘am I being prejudiced, is it my own prejudice making me doubt the skills of these carers, these two gay men, is it because I’m homophobic?’, rather than just asking the simple question ‘are they abusing kids?’.”
The report concludes: “It is clear that there were forces at work in this case about sexuality which clouded workers’ ability to observe, interpret, think and make judgments in a way which should have been expected of professionally qualified social work practitioners and managers.”
This fear, the report argues, led to the “usual rules of social work practice not being followed”. In one of a number of “pivotal moments” in the case, one professional accepted an explanation from the carers that they had taken a picture of one of the boys urinating to teach him to close the door when he used the toilet. The worker believed there was “no malice or sinister intent and was the result of their naivety and lack of parenting experience”.
Report author Brian Parrott says social workers felt uncomfortable professionally and personally about same-sex relationships. “There is sometimes an anxiety in people about issues related to their own sexuality, as well other people’s. That is a deeply uncomfortable subject for many people and social workers are no different.”
He adds that such an anxiety can be compounded when someone lacks knowledge about an issue. In this case, professionals dealing with an unfamiliar issue became tentative in their handling of it despite the fact their professional knowledge base, training and supervision should have equipped them to be able to deal with challenging circumstances.
As the council’s first same-sex foster carers, Wathey and Faunch were described by one social worker as “trophy carers”. The inexperience of staff at this local authority may go some way to explaining their practice. But Parrott says it is important not to make the mistake of seeing Wakefield as unusual. “I don’t think that any one local authority can be utterly different from everywhere else,” he warns.
Helen Cosis Brown, principal lecturer in social work at Middlesex University, explains that social work is “historically extremely prejudiced” and is still evolving in some places.
“In the 1970s, for example, is was thought children of separated parents should not be left with lesbian mothers,” she says. “Now a court would not countenance that. Social work was highly collusive in highly prejudiced views.”
While Cosis Brown believes this may have contributed to the actions of Wakefield social workers, she warns against this being used as a blanket excuse. “Poor practice is poor practice, and it could be that sometimes issues like homophobia can be a smokescreen. It is a nice excuse to say ‘I was afraid of being prejudiced’ rather than ‘I am just incompetent’.”
Practice falling short
Certainly in areas such as race and culture, which social workers have been used to dealing with for many years, the practice of some social workers continues to fall short as a clutch of inquiries – including the one into the case of Victoria Climbié – have demonstrated.
In the hearts and minds of many social workers there seems to be a mixture of confusion and fear around issues such as culture. This has manifested itself in an often misplaced emphasis on cultural sensitivity and a desire to be seen as liberal which, in turn, has created a situation whereby children from ethnic minorities have not always received the same level of protection as other children.
Child death inquiries have highlighted issues of racism time and again. And on each occasion, just as with the Wakefield case, commentators have repeated the same message: social workers should follow the same practice regardless.
However, it would appear this is easier said than done. Despite routinely working with service users who are different from themselves in almost every respect, social workers continue to be tripped up by issues such as sexuality and race.
Barbara Hutchinson, executive director of adoption and fostering agency Baaf, says that the assessment process for same-sex carers should be exactly the same as for any other prospective foster carers. She acknowledges that social workers going into any home will have their share of things that are very different – age, gender, race and so on – and that they must be aware of their own values and the potential impact of those on their work.
Ratna Dutt, director of the Race Equality Foundation and a former social worker, says that workers can “freeze” when they come across an issue or culture that is alien to them, adding that they need the time and space to ask questions of the people they are working with.
The foundation has been working with 120 staff – a mix of frontline staff and managers – in six councils across the country on a three-year project, funded by what was then the Department for Education and Skills. Early findings are that white workers sometimes fear asking questions, which adversely affect their judgements, and that councils need to encourage discussion of race and culture to ensure that decision-making about practice with ethnic minority families is open to debate.
“The trick must be in the way you ask these questions about social history and social functioning,” says Dutt. “It’s about talking to people. But sometimes now it’s a lot about box ticking, and talking to someone is very much a secondary activity to engage families.”
Similarly, while the need for good quality supervision for social workers has not diminished, the time allocated to it has. So important is this issue to the quality of social work that the Wakefield report recommends that the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Ofsted consider whether there is a need for more detailed guidance about the role of line mangers in the supervision of social work practice.
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for England at the British Association of Social Workers, explains: “It is about reassuring social workers that that they have the people skills to deal with human beings. But this needs to be balanced with a non-punitive approach which encourages practitioners to open up in supervision and training, and to acknowledge their fears that it can be scary working with aggressive families or overwhelming to meet someone from a completely different culture for the first time and not have any context for it.
“Social workers should not be afraid to say they don’t know about something and ask for help.”
But it is clear that some social workers remain afraid to voice their feelings and do not receive enough quality supervision. These issues, and the lack of time social workers are allocated to spend talking to families to elicit information, are conspiring to undermine good practice.
Cosis Brown believes that councils can also be very inward-looking and social workers too passive when it comes to independently developing their skills and knowledge.
“People need to be more proactive about seeking information from outside their organisation,” she says. “They need to read. Often they become very parochial, locally focused. But there is no excuse for that, especially with the increased access to technology. There is the internet and loads of high-quality information is available from a person’s desk.”
She adds that, with social work now a properly registered profession, people need to take individual responsibility for keeping up to speed with research, information and policy updates.
But is it really that straightforward? Mansuri argues that, on the whole, social workers do not work in positive learning environments where they are encouraged to go off for a few hours a week and do some research.
“Many departments are poor in resources such as books and journals and some social workers are not even trusted by their employers to have access to the internet, which of course limits their access to good information,” she says.
Clearly, this needs to change. With social workers now coming from places like Australia and Africa and dealing with people from countries all over the world, each with their own customs, traditions and attitudes, issues such as culture only look set to become more challenging in the future.
THE VICTORIA CLIMBIE INQUIRY
Chapter 16 of Lord Laming’s inquiry focused on working with diversity and highlighted the danger of making assumptions about culture. One of the issues it points to is social worker Lisa Arthurworrey’s interpretation of the fact Victoria had been “standing to attention” in her aunt’s presence. Arthurworrey saw it as a common feature of obedience and respect children have in many African-Caribbean families.
But Victoria’s parents said she had never been required to stand in such a formal way. The report says: “Cultural norms and models of behaviour can vary considerably between communities and even families,” adding, “The wisest course is to be humble when considering the extent of one’s knowledge about different ‘cultures’ and to take advice wherever it is available.”
It goes on to say that there can be “no excuse or justification” for failing to protect a vulnerable child and that “this is not an area where there is much scope of political correctness”.
How child abusers duped Wakefield social workers
Wakefield inquiry report
Victoria Climbie report
Essential information on Victoria Climbié case
This article appeared in the 18 October issue under the headline “Silenced by anxiety”