By Sue Kent, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers
Ratings rivals Broadchurch (ITV) and Silent Witness (BBC 1) are both facing flack for their inaccurate portrayals of professional and courtroom procedure. A TV writer, who I previously duelled with over an EastEnders social work storyline, argued this is not real life, this is fiction. But does that make such inaccuracies okay?
After a busy day immersed in social work, I settled down to watch this week’s two-parter of Silent Witness and within the first five minutes found myself tutting. The episodes, entitled ‘Protection’, focused on the murder of a paedophile in a London park and placed social worker, Louise Marsh, at the centre of the action.
Marsh, a seemingly confident and experienced social worker, is initially shown in court giving evidence to support her application for an interim court order. When the judge asks for evidence, Marsh refers only to a gut instinct that the child is in danger. The judge declines to grant the order, prompting Marsh to approach the bench and whisper a desperate plea that he change his mind.
‘Child snatcher’ myth
The myth of the social worker as avenging ‘child snatcher’ was a theme that ran throughout the drama, with one child saying to Marsh “you’re the lady who tried to steal me”. Marsh herself stalked the corridors of various institutions (no heavy caseload for her) muttering robotically to anyone who would listen: “I have to protect the child”.
The audience was confused as to whether this was a stressed social worker on the verge of a breakdown, or in fact the murderer of said paedophile.
The competing storylines were confusing, with a number of unrelated child protection cases covering almost every aspect a case could have. We saw child sexual abuse both within and outside of the family, historic abuse, non-accidental injury, conflicting paediatric diagnoses, care leavers, adoption, and care proceedings.
There were glaring errors, such as referring to a long-abolished child protection register and a child sexual abuse medical examination being conducted by a pathologist. The social worker was seen withholding evidence, using poor Achieving Best Evidence techniques, and out-dated practice such as using dolls to re-enact scenarios.
She even popped up at the mortuary to hob nob with the pathologist, which really stretched the bounds of credibility.
By the end of the first programme we are led to believe that Marsh is ‘super social worker’, working totally in isolation without a manager or any support. I hoped the second episode would show her turning a corner and she does in a way, by spiralling into depression and an unsuccessful suicide attempt, before being rescued by a care leaver.
Episode two also shows the social worker ignore medical advice regarding a baby with extensive bruising on his body and pressing ahead with an application for an interim care order, again believing her gut instinct of non-accidental injury.
This evidence would have been challenged and the conflicting information would have emerged. The case would not have been resolved by an anguished doctor turning up outside court and urging the social worker to redeem her tattered reputation by returning the baby to its innocent parents.
There was some appreciation in episode two of the toll the job can take. When asked who would want to do her job, Marsh replies: “Me. I wanted to do it. I always wanted to do it. I thought I could make a difference to people. At the beginning it’s just odd; it surprises you that people could be so cruel. When you begin to find that cruelty normal, it’s like a long winter and you forget that spring will ever come”.
But as a social worker, I am concerned about the lasting image of the social worker on viewers. Following the episode, Mumsnet was active with posts such as ‘I am slightly concerned that it could scare some people concerned about bruising on their child and discourage them from seeking medical help. I know it’s a drama but even so.’
As to Marsh’s meltdown, I wonder if viewers would identify this as a reflection of the pressures of a very difficult job done daily by social workers, or is it more likely to compound views that no child is safe from removal?