One of the most memorable moments in the second episode of BBC Two’s Protecting Our Children programme came less than two minutes in. As Annie Semphill, the Bristol social worker, arrived outside the home of Shaun and Marva, she met with the two security guards who would accompany her on the visit to discuss the couple’s ability to care for their then unborn child.
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The security guards kept resurfacing too. Semphill’s visits to Shaun, who has a history of unpredictable violence, always had a burly, cross-armed guard close by.
The use of security guards raised some eyebrows during Community Care’s live discussion as the documentary was aired with reactions ranging from shock at their use to wishes that their local authority would do the same (see box below). In a blog for Community Care a couple of days later, Semphill expressed surprise at people’s interest in the use of security, explaining that “it did make me feel safe to have two large uniformed men standing behind me as I approached their front door”.
But with security guards an unusual sight in a social work visit their appearance in the programme does raise questions. Under what circumstances are they used? Who employs them and what implications does this have for confidentiality? Does it not make the task of building trust with service users harder?
Semphill’s safety, says a Bristol City Council’s spokeswoman, prompted the decision to bring in the security guards. “It is important social workers feel safe, particularly when they need to have difficult conversations with families,” she explained. “At times, we use security for meetings in council offices or at service users’ homes. It is essential families know what is happening, so social workers need to be able to be honest without fearing a violent response.”
The decision about whether to bring in security is based on a risk assessment carried out prior to a visit. If that assessment highlights a serious risk to the safety of the social worker, based on past violence by the service user, then security would be asked to attend. Service users are informed in advance that security guards will be attending, says the council spokeswoman: “We let families know we intend to use security. This may be either through previous discussions or telephone calls. It is important families know we intend to have secure arrangements.”
In Bristol’s case the security guards come from the council’s security service, not an outside contractor. “All the security guards receive full training both through their professional body, the National Security Inspectorate, and through city council training,” says the spokeswoman. “They certainly receive training in confidentiality, equalities and codes of conduct.”
Hope Daley, Unison’s national officer for health and safety, believes Bristol’s approach is the right one: “No social worker should have to fear for their safety,” says Daley. “It is vital that local authorities take a wide view and complete thorough risk assessments to identify the best ways to avoid threats and abuse. This can include using a security guard.”
But there’s little sign many councils are using guards in this way. Bath & North East Somerset Council told Community Care that it didn’t believe it had ever used guards in this way while a Stockton Council spokeswoman said: “When there is a long history of violence or threats our social workers may be accompanied by members of the council’s enforcement team or the police but this only happens in exceptional circumstances when there is a significant risk of violence.”
Private security firms also find it hard to recall any such requests. A spokeswoman for Churchill Security, which provides security services to companies and local authorities around the UK, says it has received just one request for support on a social work visit in the past 18 months – to accompany a social worker on a visit to see a violent young person in the West Midlands. “It’s pretty rare and it’s more for moral support,” says the spokeswoman.
What’s more Churchill Security is uneasy at the idea of getting involved in such work: “It’s dodgy ground and we tend to shy away from it as in these cases it can be a thin line between having security and needing the police and we are not the police.”
That raises the ultimate question of what exactly security guards can do if violence breaks out. “Ensure the social worker was able to leave the premises safely while the police were contacted,” says Bristol City Council’s spokeswoman. “However, their primary role is to ensure violence does not occur, by de-escalating any potential conflict. Our experience is we have had very few incidents of violence and their first action is to ensure the social worker is safe.”
Episode 2 of Protecting Our Children is available on BBC iPlayer until Monday 20 February 2012