‘Not all journalists or TV programme makers are on a mission to criticise social workers’

Social worker Shelagh Beckett describes her role as an expert consultant on the Channel 4 series 15,000 Kids and Counting

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Photo: Jeff Holmes/Rex Features

Some of you may have watched the first two episodes of the Channel 4 series 15,000 Kids and Counting, which concludes on 17 April.

The series focuses on adoption and begins with the decision-making process about whether a child can safely live with his or her parents.

The executive producer Brian Woods and I met in the Spring of 2012 after being introduced by Sacha Mirzoeff, a BBC director with whom I’d enjoyed a great working partnership when we collaborated on the BBC2 series Protecting our Children.

Brian is a director at True Vision TV, an independent television production company with a sound reputation for making documentary films. True Vision staff had already met with senior managers at Stockport, Warrington and Wigan councils, all of which feature in the series.

These documentaries are simply not possible or ethical without a huge amount of preparatory work and the commitment of many people.

This article provides a little background to my role and the behind-the-scenes work that takes place well before transmission.

Why did I get involved?

My background in children’s services, initially as a practitioner and then in three management posts, had given me some understanding of the different ways that social work is perceived, and also an acute awareness of the shortage of foster and adoptive families.

As the chair of a local authority adoption panel, all too often I saw the impact of delay in progressing plans for young children and the dilemmas staff faced when trying to place sibling groups.

I was asked to work for six months full-time on the first four nations family finding television series Find a Family for ITV. By then I had built up experience in successful recruitment campaigns and was acutely aware of the limited understanding and negative stereotypes that permeated social work in the media.

ITV produced three Find a Family series and between working on each of them I was asked to help develop various projects with local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies. So, really before I knew it I had established an independent consultancy.

Find a Family undoubtedly resulted in many, many children being placed for adoption, sibling groups being placed together and better matches being found. By the end of the third series I had embarked on a second degree, was being used as an expert witness in complex cases and was keen to develop my skills in attachment and related aspects.

The BBC then approached me to be their consultant when they developed family-finding campaigns, and to advise on the award-winning documentary series Love is Not Enough: the journey to adoption. Other requests to work in this area of consultancy have continued. Even so, apart from in recent months, this has been a small but important part of the work that I do.

How TV consultancy works

For me, the starting point is to ask questions and make my own enquiries about television companies and producers before making any decision as to whether we might work together. Children’s services staff may be guarded or actively hostile towards the media, and while I understand the genesis of this, my own view is that we should be selective and enquiring.

Not all journalists or television programme makers are on a mission to criticise social workers! For me, providing consultancy to programme-makers has been, and remains, nerve-wracking and daunting – not least as each new initiative presents some unique challenges.

However, I’ve also been hugely privileged to work with some incredibly dedicated producers whose unwavering commitment is impressive. The obstacles and level of care demanded when making documentaries about vulnerable children is something that very few people will experience. There has to be a willingness to work in partnership, to consider what may and may not be featured.

The TV team and I have to be prepared to respect the different elements we bring to bear, to learn about each other’s professional responsibilities, and the ethical and editorial frameworks that we work within. I always see a film at the rough cut stage when child welfare issues and other points can be discussed and addressed.

Lengthy and detailed discussions

The programme-makers I have worked with typically start with some understanding of the issues – such as recognising that limits and safeguards will have to be put in place.

However, the complex nature of the work means that timescales are often much longer than anticipated, procedures and protocols are always subject to drafts and re-drafts in order to achieve a shared commitment to access – nowhere is this more true than when thinking about and achieving appropriate levels of consent.

There’s always lengthy and detailed discussion with senior managers – often followed by engagement with courts, lawyers and others – well before approaching a camera comes out. Much of what is filmed will never be broadcast.

I’ve learned the importance of carefully managing expectations of adults and children, for example, thinking about why a parent wants to take part and the impact this may have.

Safeguards, such as not filming a child in school uniform, avoiding close up shots of identifying material and locations, are fairly obvious whilst other aspects are more subtle. I usually attend some pre transmission viewings with contributors to listen to their feedback.

Behind each individual shown on screen are relatives, a neighbourhood, and people who are important to consider. Education staff, social workers and parents may need additional support. There must be a clear focus on children’s needs and welfare.

But I have seen children and families value the special DVDs and written accounts that we prepare for them about how and why they were involved in filming. This involvement may evoke strong reactions for some, but for others responsible filming may prove to be an important part of their life story.

I have seen that reasoned debate, wider understanding and lots more interest in social work, fostering and adoption can be generated.

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One Response to ‘Not all journalists or TV programme makers are on a mission to criticise social workers’

  1. rosemary brierley April 15, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    Excellent article, thank you.
    Similarly, my lengthy 28 year social work career includes several management posts and 4 years ago I returned to practice in a generic emergency duty service with the full range of statutory responsibilities. Even though the demands of the profession can be demanding and challenging I still feel it is very satisfying and never ever boring – constantly evolving in line with research, service development and public expectations.