We are now motoring into a new year, but already it feels the same. Call it a rock or a hard place, those who have never been at the sharp-end of working to protect children are full flow in sharing their wisdom about how social workers ought to up their game.
First there is John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of Justice for Families. His pitch over the years has been that social workers, in alliance with family courts, are taking too many children from families.
But his recent statements advising that parents should flee the country with their children if subject to child protection assessments and proceedings really has upped the stakes.
Just imagine if an MP had canvassed that suspected criminals when they are being investigated ought to go abroad to escape the police and courts. Would this generate a sympathetic and supportive heart-rending Face the Facts or Panorama programme? Or would it be seen as a scandalous and reckless position to be taken by one of our legislators?
And there, on the other hand, is Sir Michael Wilshaw, a former teacher and head teacher and now chief inspector of Ofsted, who wants to blame and shame bad parents and to stop all this pussy-footing around by social workers.
Social workers should not get too sensitive here. Sir Michael has an even longer track record of ‘telling it like it is’ to teachers who ‘should get tougher with kids’ and, now, with parents.
All of this must seem like harvest-time for the Daily Mail! Here’s an opportunity to bash social workers for being too active and assertive (what might be called ‘doing a Hemming’) or for being too acquiescent and accepting (‘doing a Wilshaw’).
But a recent report in the Daily Mail on 22 January shows life is not quite as simple as the swinging pendulum of the protagonists of don’t do-do do would suggest. The report was about the awful deaths of three young children and their mother in Suffolk.
Following the publication of the serious case review, the Mail headline was “Children who were kept in horrific conditions and drowned by their pregnant mother had been visited by social workers more than 50 times – but council failed to act”. Others, including the children’s father and the police who could also have acted, are without critical comment.
There are two sentences, however, in the Mail report which might lead to a reflection that the polar positions of Mr Hemming and Sir Michael fail to appreciate or understand the realities and complexities of working to assist families and to protect children.
The Mail reported that: “Concerns about the family stretched back to 2009 when worried social workers tried and failed to force the mother to give up her first child over fears for her mental health. The report acknowledged this action resulted in the relationship between the family and children’s social care becoming strained”.
If the mother had taken the advice of Mr Hemming she might have fled the country with her children. If the social workers had taken Sir Michael’s advice they would have been even more assertive, with the likelihood of doors slammed in the face and no access to the family.
This is why child protection has to be more nuanced than the headline grabbing statements of simplicity. It is why everyday social workers and others are dealing with uncertainty and complexity, which others do not realise or recognise.
It is also why, while listening to and not ignoring the comments and advice of others, we should be reflective, measured and circumspect of swallowing their advice undigested.
- Ray Jones is a registered social worker, former director of social services and professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. His book ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the record straight’ is published by Policy Press in April.