Will the high profile BBC series Protecting Our Children have any lasting impact on social work? Community Care asked the profession.
With audience figures peaking at almost 2m and coverage in almost every national newspaper, Protecting Our Children has undoubtedly been the most high profile television series about social work to date.
The producers hoped the films would demystify and illuminate the realities of frontline social work – but to what extent has this been achieved?
For Annie Hudson, Bristol council’s director of children’s services, the public response has exceeded all expectations.
Many of the emails and Twitter messages she and her team have received convey a “palpable shock about the realities of some families’ lives”.
“Hopefully with this comes a greater recognition of the importance of appropriate support,” she says.
Staff morale among the Bristol team is high following the films, according to Ben Crang, one of the social workers who featured in episode three.
He has been impressed by the “positive comment from my colleagues, family and friends”.
Good feedback from social workers has been particularly pleasing for area service manager Anne Farmer, who last week spoke at a national network meeting for senior social workers.
“The reaction from our peers was that Bristol social workers were brave to agree to take part and the final films are impressive and achieve our aim of improving understanding of the decisions and dilemmas child protection workers face.”
The series has also helped to improve relationships with other professionals working with challenging families, Farmer says.
And what about the media response? There has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards the profession among the mainstream media, according to The College of Social Work and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
“Take this week, for example, and the way the media reported the latest figures showing a rise in child protection cases,” says Claire Burcham, professional practice development adviser at the College. “I noticed something very different in that social workers were being interviewed more frequently and were able to put across more analysis about the rise in cases.”
BASW has seen an increase in requests for social work comment from media outlets, including ITV’s popular daytime show This Morning.
Sue Kent, BASW’s lead professional officer, says she has also noticed a growth in social media interest in social work. “There have been lots of social workers and members of the public alike getting involved in issues raised in the programme, particularly through Twitter. Ordinarily social work cases wouldn’t be discussed so widely in that way.”
She urges councils to ensure the momentum generated by the films “does not drift away” and advises more social work teams to follow Bristol’s example and engage with the media.
But this may be a step too far, according to Maggie Siviter, the chair of Bristol’s child protection conference, who appeared in the first episode.
Forging relationships with the media would signal a marked cultural shift for many social workers, she says.
“Our instinct is to protect the identity and details of the clients but the producers met us and explained what they were trying to achieve and that persuaded us to get involved,” she says.
Not every professional could be persuaded, however, which may explain why some viewers were left confused by aspects of the programme, Siviter says.
“I followed the reaction on blogs and people were questioning why family support services were not involved,” she says. “Well, they were, they just didn’t want to be filmed.”
Inevitably, not every reaction was positive. Some children’s professionals felt the limitations of an hour-long programme made it difficult for viewers to empathise with the families.
“Already I’ve seen a number of extremely unsympathetic comments about the families involved, which is unfair on them,” says Jeni Cooper, a child psychologist.
Winston Moore, a child protection worker in London, says the judgemental comments show there is “still a long way to go for the public to understand what life is like for such families”.
Hudson admits the format was not perfect and concedes that “some colleagues regret more was not shown about early help and family support, and the multi-agency context”, but she says it was “simply not possible to show the full range of work undertaken”.
Writing for Community Care, Yvalia Febrer, a children and families social worker at Richmond council, says the programme should boost social workers’ confidence.
“I don’t think we’ve shaken our negative image yet, but we’re certainly starting to promote ourselves better, and this series felt like the spearhead of that movement. If nothing else, we as social workers should feel more empowered to stand up for ourselves and our profession,” Febrer says.
Yummy via CareSpace: “Overall a pretty good and realistic view of CP. Thought the NQSW was a bit of a social work cliche on her bike though! But great viewing nonetheless.”
Dgorky via CareSpace: “A powerful documentary. It will be the basis for training in child protection. The programme is a reminder of the ethical dilemmas of social work: protecting the vulnerable people.”
Romeo2001 via CareSpace: “Didn’t see the majority of what happened I’m sure, and what we did see was cherry picked so it’s hard to judge really – still it made good TV.”
Natasha Allen via Twitter: “#ProtectingOurChildren – familiar story, doing so well then having a blip, breaking the agreement. God bless the hard working social workers.”
Cherise Bell via Twitter: “Being a social worker must be the most daring of job choices!”
Robert English via Twitter: “Watched ep1 of #protectingourchildren, unfortunately all too familiar. Glad to see workers not vilified, hoping that the rest are as balanced.”
Everything you need to know about Protecting Our Children