‘I was a respected social worker, but all that stood for nothing’

Sally Donovan tells the agonising story of a British social worker who adopted a child, only to experience the care system at its very worst

Young girl
Picture posed by model; Credit: Fotex/Rex Features

In 1990, Clare*, a married social worker with three sons, adopted a seven-month-old baby girl from an overseas orphanage. Almost immediately, she noticed differences between her daughter and three sons’ behaviour.

“It was as though Nicola* didn’t need anyone,” Clare says. “Even as a small baby she wouldn’t allow me to feed or comfort her. She was very controlled. There was no spontaneity, but she’d go off with strangers and show them affection.”

“As she got older she became all-consuming. Then, when she started school it became clear that she just couldn’t do relationships. She needed to be in control but at the same time was very vulnerable.”

To those familiar with attachment theory, these behaviours are consistent with early neglect and trauma, but in the early 1990s the mistaken belief that children would ‘get over it’ still dominated thinking on child care.

People parenting children with attachment difficulties frequently report that they feel blamed for their child’s problems. Clare was no different. “Nicola would steal, lie and be bossy and controlling. I felt constantly blamed, judged and patronised by people who had no idea.”

Shame and judgement

Despite feeling shame and judgment, Clare knew something significant was going on and set out to discover what it was.  She looked into various diagnoses, but it was only when she read a book by American parenting expert Dan Hughes that the pieces fell into place. “What Dan Hughes was describing was my child, it was scary, but it was also a huge relief.  I wasn’t imagining it, I wasn’t neurotic and I wasn’t a bad parent.”

The teenage years were very difficult. Nicola left home at 16 to move in with an equally vulnerable young man. That relationship broke down and she ended up in shared social housing where she fell pregnant. “Even though my fears had always been around drink, drugs and pregnancy it was a huge shock,” Clare says.

“My marriage had ended and the only support I got was from my sons. At the same time I was working in child protection, and then adoption, as a social worker. My career was going well and work kept me going.”

Clare helped Nicola move into a flat and furnished it for her. It was to be a fresh start and somewhere for Nicola to bring up her baby with Clare’s support.

A very strong bond

“It went well until Nicola’s boyfriend moved in. He was abusive towards her and the baby. Nicola couldn’t put her baby’s needs before her own. She could do the practical side of childcare, but the nurturing and bonding just weren’t there.”

Clare saw her grandchild regularly and when social services got involved, provided respite, having her grandchild for regular weekend stays. “She was a part of our family. We were the most consistent people in her life. She loved coming to stay and we loved having her here. We had a very strong bond.”

Eventually social services took Clare’s grandchild into care. Clare kept up regular contact and was still asked to provide respite care, which she did.  Then, when Nicola failed a parenting assessment, plans for adoption were mentioned. Clare was asked to consider taking her grandchild under a kinship care arrangement.

“I agonised over it. I was working full time for our local authority at this point. I had a mortgage and no other means of supporting myself. I thought my grandchild deserved to have a stable family and I naively believed what I was told – that if she was adopted, I and my sons could maintain contact with her.”

‘Difficult and distressing’

It was at this time that Clare’s position as a social worker within children’s services and a birth family member being dealt with by the same department became extremely difficult and distressing. Clare felt herself being marginalised.

“I wouldn’t be told about important meetings or they would be alluded to and I was meant to deduce what was going on, and I was lied to. I would be treated either as a professional or a grandparent as they saw fit. I saw judgmental and inaccurate things written about me.

“The worst was ‘Nicola is the way she is because of lack of care and emotional warmth in her childhood’. That has never left me. I was a respected social worker, I had successfully brought up three sons and I was good enough as a respite carer, but all that stood for nothing. Everything we know about trauma also stood for nothing. It was all about me being a bad mother and a punitive parent. It was as though they’d already made up their minds.”

This time is incredibly painful for Clare to recall. “The agreements around a farewell meeting, regular direct contact and letterbox contact fell away as soon as my grand daughter was placed. All we have now is inconsistent annual letterbox contact. I dread to think what my grandchild has been told about me. Will she grow up thinking no one cared?  Will she wonder what happened to us?  As far as she knows we just disappeared off the face of the earth.”

Simplistic blame culture

Clare has since left children’s social services, but not her chosen profession. I asked her what this experience has taught her. “I’ve learnt that children’s social work practice is too often uninformed by the evidence,” she admits. “My grandchild had significant positive attachments, which were brutally severed. I would go so far as to say that this action was more traumatising than my daughter’s inability to parent. We still operate a simplistic blame culture that pits good against bad.”

As we wrap up our interview, Clare recalls the last time she saw her grandchild. Neither of them knew it would be their final meeting. “She hugged me and said ‘bye Nana, see you next week.’ That was four years ago. We haven’t seen each other since.”

*Name has been changed

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12 Responses to ‘I was a respected social worker, but all that stood for nothing’

  1. Lynne Brosnan December 4, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    How heart breaking. However, this is going on all the time. Something needs to change. Clare why don’t you write a book about your experiences I’m pretty sure it would help many others that are going through and have been through this. Many heartbreaking stories are hitting the press nowadays and it seems to be getting worse with many assumptions being made about parents.

    • Maxine December 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

      I am just beginning my career in Social Work. As a mature mother of four I have a different perspective than most of my peers in how I view parenting approaches and what defines ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ attachments within families. Too much emphasis is based on materialistic nurturing and families having to conform and appear to mimic the western norms and values of the middle classes.
      Once families are in the spot light and open to judgement, fault will always be found and strengths left unidentified. Enforced court orders and social care requirements are often unrealistic and unreachable in the time constraints given without recognition of environmental pressures, struggles with addiction and family history. There are different norms, cultural perspectives and value bases within our society and they are not all negative or destructive. I expect my upbringing in the 70’s would be frowned upon today, but although we struggled and I often played in the rain with no shoes on, I had a freedom to develop as I wished and now I have tough feet!! grubby smiles and messy hair are not always a sign of an unloved child.
      I believe families are set up to fail by being given unrealistic

  2. Charlotte Peters Rock December 4, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    Social Work training has a lot to answer for.

    It teaches sexism, and a totally unwarranted superiority, rather than care and totally accurate and observant record-keeping. It doesn’t weed out the control freaks. It turns out people who are programmed to do a lot of damage to children and families.

    Thank goodness there are some social workers who manage to overcome this terrible, crippling start.

    We need so many more caring individuals, with the breadth of vision to see problems, report accurately on problems where they exist, and refuse to act as system apparatchiks.

    We need people to safeguard children into their own families, wherever that is possible. We need adequate support for those families. And we need a very public condemnation of social workers who behave badly, and a method of getting rid of such people from not only the social work system but away from children and families for good.

  3. Lucy December 4, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    That is a very sad story for both child and grand mother! I guess this is due to too many young people who have no real life experiences undertaking social work duties especially these sensitive ones. Yes Social workers can be very punitive without knowing or taking time to find out facts and reflecting on them. This could be due to too much work and every one is just working to finish a task.

  4. Philip December 4, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

    ‘Clare’ identifies much of what was wrong historically but, more importantly, that the social work profession has failed to learn those lessons and now adopts an even more brutal approach with parents able to lose their children to adoption within just 26 weeks.

    I am now retired from a profession which I could never have believed would go down the path that it has. Increased Regulation (GSCC and now HCPC) were supposed to bring about greater pride and accountability – but seem to have only achieved greater bureaucracy and hitting Performance Indicators (PI’s) over and above monitoring what ought to be measured, positive outcomes.

    Childrens’ Social Work is in utter turmoil and crisis – there is a serious lack of experienced and skilled social workers at the frontline – social workers are frightened to speak out about what is wrong and the College of Social Work and the Chief Social Worker seem to inhabit a totally alien ‘planet.’

    It has been left to the Judges to seek to hold social work to account in adoption matters especially – where are the experienced Guardians? Where are the experienced and skilled first-line Managers?

    The recent case of how a Councillor was vilified for seeking to ascertain the actual state of his Local Authority just demonstrates that even Elected Members are not taking their duties seriously.

    I look back on 40+ years in social work with no satisfaction and see little hope of improvement.

  5. Mrs T. December 5, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    I am also a Social worker in a LA adoption team who had adopted and was treated in exactly the same way as “Clare” . Reading Clare’s experience has made me feel quite sad that another social worker was treated in this way as I was. If possible I would like to get in contact with “Clare” as I know how isolated and guilty I have been made to feel by the system.

  6. Ruth Smith, editor of Community Care
    Ruth Smith, editor of Community Care December 5, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    Thanks for your comments. Mrs T, if you drop me an email I can arrange for it to be forwarded to Sally who interviewed “Clare” and we can take it from there.
    Best wishes,
    Ruth, editor of Community Care
    ruth.smith@rbi.co.uk

  7. Emma December 5, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    I can really relate to this, as a student social worker and member of a birth family of a child who has been adopted, I too experience the dilemma of being on “both sides of the fence”. I agree that sweeping statements are often made about families which can be very damaging- sometimes it feels that some social workers have a handful of stock phrases to write in reports and just pick the closest match, rather than carefully assessing each individual. I really feel for you! I hope the contact with your granddaughter is maintained.. surely if there was an agreement made pre-adoption it should be honoured post-adoption? You have my deepest respect and empathy Clare!

  8. Chris Sterry December 6, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    From events over many years social work as been through many changes, some based on practices relating to a certain period in time. Thses practices would be based on an idea emanating at those times, which was thought to be the best way and there was never any thought that other ways could be actioned. It was as though one way fits all, It was as though the practices were relating to objects and not individual persons, where many factors would be needed to be taken into account, but that did not fit into the practice in place at the times.

    How many times have we heard that over used phrase ‘lessons will be learnt’, for I believe they are never learnt, but a new practice may be invented.

    The system needs to be flexible to consider all facts whether they be considered relevant or not.

    It should be that the best interest of the child concerned is the prime factor and not the current practice.

    But is some of the problem that social worker case loads are too great and the management is too pressuring. Certainly in the current climate of cuts and more cuts is there any viable way forward?

    I do not blame social workers, but to some extent I do their management and the practices thrust upon them by their management.

  9. Jenny December 7, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    Forced separation happens with adults as well. I have known my friend for over30 years.I have stayed with her many times. She has now been forced into residential care with a complete disregard for the Mental Capacity Act’s Code of Practice. Social workers have procured her isolation from friends in a place she does not know with people she does not know . Friends cannot visit or send a(95th) birthday cardas they will not reveal her whereabouts. What terror and despairwill she be feeling at being so completely deprived of any control at all? Will they even let me know when she dies, as she probably will do shortly as a direct result of this cruel and inhuman treatment? I doubt it. Following this experience I cannot ever see myself referring any matter to social services unless they start listening, treating people with respect and looking to empower rather than imprison.

  10. Edna December 7, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

    I am deeply sad for this family and perhaps more so because it took this to happen to her for ‘Clare’ to realise how social worker’s behave. It is not just happening in child protection, it is happening in adult care and safeguarding to families. Lies about carers on social work records are widespread. Inability to understand relationships and how breaking them up affects people, even the vulnerable in imperfect situations.

    Do social worker’s and their system of ‘care’ offer better? No. The public are now becoming aware and waking up. It is not the press who are blaming social worker’s it is families like Clare’s trying to cope in the most difficult circumstances with not only no support or services but also being demonised and lied to and about. This is social work today.

    I do not believe in Bowbly type nonsense or attachment theory these are not proof of what you think you see happening. But then one needss a lot of higher intellect, and questioning powers of analysis to challenge theories one is taught in a classroom. No such mental powers are needed to ignore theories as ms Clare describes happens.

  11. Lillie December 8, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    I am a student social worker and I can tell by my two and half years of study that this happens because of a lack of vetting students that go into the profession.

    I am studying with adults that are extremely homophobic, where we have LGBT people and comments of ‘in my country, we’d put a tyre around you and set it alight’ have been used more than once, highly judgemental, use othering a lot, call children brats and other such names and are utterly and completely bullies. People with very little subtance and knowledge, they’re the social workers of tomorrow.

    Although training has become tougher throughout the years it still not enough, unskilled people are still qualifying everyday to do horrendous jobs and call it justice. It’s pathetic.

    Recently we had Spanish social workers shawdowing british social workers and their questions came to an overal doubt of ‘where is the social work?!’ ‘What exactly do you do for people?!’ The answer is not a lot. It’s easier to judge and make wrong assumptions, also lie and not be there for anyone but ourselves, apparently. It’s sad that we can no longer have faith in humanity including in the profession we work in.