We all have cases that make us question the whole point of being a social worker. One case in particular, involving parents with learning disabilities, stands out in my mind.
Anyone who reads the papers will have an impression of what happens when children are removed from parents. Often this is not in a ‘throw-down’ police-style raid like in the soaps.
‘The long goodbye’
Usually, it’s a long, drawn out process, something I call ‘the long goodbye’, when social services have decided they are going to remove the children, often before some of the ‘specialist’ reports are completed.
Please don’t get me wrong – there are many children who need to be out of the care of their parents for their own safety and wellbeing. But there are also families where you wonder if the children really needed to be removed; where was the actual ‘social work’?
The decision to remove is, ultimately, made by a judge, usually in the family court, sometimes the magistrates’ court. Decisions are taken after hearing evidence, or ‘bundles’ as they are often referred to, from various professionals.
The family’s fate
Often the bundles from social workers are not considered adequate and further reports are compiled at considerable cost.
In the case I mentioned earlier, it was a report from a chartered clinical psychologist that more or less sealed the family’s fate.
Both parents had learning disabilities and difficult upbringings peppered by physical, emotional and possible sexual abuse.
There were four children in the family and there had been sexual abuse from the oldest child towards his younger brother. The youngest children also had significant physical problems that required specialist support from health professionals.
The interfamilial sexual abuse resulted in the eldest being voluntarily placed in care, while the other three remained at home.
Child protection plan
The initial referral was made due to concerns regarding neglect in the family; the living conditions were poor, the house was dirty and very untidy. With the children on a child protection plan, I came in as an agency social worker.
There had already been an initial hearing in court with the family requested to improve the home conditions and engage with services, which they had been successful in doing to some extent.
Things seemed to be going well. The parents were making a real effort to care for the children and the home environment. While not up to ‘ideal home’ standards, it was acceptable in my view.
This is when things got difficult, as I prepared the second court report with a heavy heart. You may ask why I had this feeling if things appeared to be going so well.
I was dreading the report from the psychologist the department often used. It damned the parents’ ability to make any change and was negative to the point of agreeing with the authority’s plan of placing the children in long term care.
Having read the report, which was damning in virtually all areas and seemingly a copper bottomed endorsement of the local authority’s viewpoint, my already heavy heart sank like a stone.
I felt the report to be cynical and, even more concerning, pandering to the council’s known concerns and viewpoint with very little emphasis on positive actions by the parents and their will to change.
Interestingly, the report seemed to replicate the initial report submitted by the social worker.
Withdrawn and exhausted
Needless to say, I made my report as rounded as possible, but knew it was going to be difficult for me to argue against the recommendations of a well-known and respected psychologist that the parents had little scope for change.
After the second court date and the review of evidence the case was adjourned for further reports to be completed. At this point I chose to leave the department, utterly withdrawn and exhausted.
I felt very empty at some of the work I had done after building a good working relationship with the family. I felt almost forced by the existing convention to move to a position I was not entirely comfortable with.
What can social workers and Joe Public draw from this experience dear readers?
Social work integrity compromised
I, for one, would argue the integrity of the social worker has been compromised by ‘experts’ for some time now.
The team manager in my case even seemed to accept this report without challenging it, why is this so?
The real expert is the social worker who works with the families in question day in and day out. We have to be an integral part of the decision making process.
It’s about time social workers reclaimed the mantle of expert they were gently pushed to abandon. Social workers are the professionals best placed to make and influence these difficult proceedings.
We should not allow ourselves to be intimated by academic showboating and plastic dogma.
When I ask myself ‘what’s the point?’ I remember it’s to support children, reduce harm and try to keep families together.
- Social Work Outlaw is a member of the British Association of Social Workers