Dear Mr Cameron,
I am writing to you as a social worker with 30 years’ experience of child protection work.
During that time, I have always done my best to keep the children I have worked with safe. Most of the time, I have succeeded. I am particularly proud of my involvement in a complex piece of work that uncovered a group of multiple perpetrators sexually abusing acutely vulnerable children across county borders.
Despite graphic disclosures from the children, none of the adults involved in the abuse were ever prosecuted. But care proceedings kept the children safe. When I meet up with two of the children concerned (who are now adults) they still ask me why the man that hurt them so badly never went to prison.
‘Risk is not always preventable’
But I also know that I have made mistakes, as we all do. Risk is not always predictable or preventable. I have been involved with children who have been seriously hurt – this is tragic but almost inevitable in a long social work career. Even when we do everything right, we don’t always know how to stop children getting hurt.
Because we are human, we don’t always do everything right. The consequences are serious. As a human being, I am motivated by my wish to improve the lives of the children and families I work with. Nothing else is needed to ensure that I do my very best.
More money would not make me try harder and nor would the threat of prison. I already live with the risk of being vilified in the media if I make a mistake – or even if I don’t, but something goes wrong anyway.
What might help is: smaller caseloads, more time to think, better supervision, less paperwork and more training. We know from international research that the best way to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children is to invest in the lives of all children.
‘Would you encourage your child to join the profession?’
We also know that it is possible to create a care system far better than ours and build a social work profession that is regarded with respect.
More procedures, more inspections, more punitive responses will not achieve this and nor will threats of imprisonment. We already struggle to recruit and retain high calibre applicants to this profession. We need people willing to commit to work that is immensely demanding – intellectually and emotionally – and requires a high level of integrity along with excellent communication skills.
Would you encourage your child to enter a profession in the knowledge that they risk imprisonment if they make a mistake? Should we not be focusing instead on ensuring that those who perpetrate abuse are imprisoned? Despite numerous inquiries into child sexual exploitation, most of those responsible have not been charged with any offence.
Investigations and support
We are just about to spend a vast amount of money on an inquiry into child sexual abuse. There is a wealth of academic literature about why people do not recognise and report such abuse. While I respect the needs of survivors to have their stories heard, I struggle to understand how this process is going to reduce the numbers of future victims.
One thing we have learnt from serious case reviews is that we learn very little from serious case reviews. It is more useful to focus on what works.
We should be spending our time and money on improving services to investigate such abuse, support survivors and attempt to rehabilitate offenders.
Please do not criminalise the social work profession.
Sign Community Care’s open letter to show your opposition to David Cameron’s jail threats for social workers