An investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches into Birmingham’s children’s services has generated high-profile interest among social workers.
Programme makers sent a social worker, referred to as ‘Vicky’, into the services undercover. This week she spoke to Community Care columnist Social Work Tutor, a child protection social worker, to give an insight into why she took part in the programme…
Social Work Tutor (SWT): What motivated you to do this after being approached by producers?
‘Vicky’: They were talking about changing the discourse away from social workers being the problem towards looking at environment they work in. They had a whistleblower at a local authority who had been talking to them and they wanted someone to add some substance to what they were saying. I was possibly a little unprepared for the range in feelings about it.
SWT: Why do you think Birmingham was chosen?
‘Vicky’: Birmingham wasn’t chosen, not at first. It was a different LA (local authority).
SWT: Do you know why it was moved?
‘Vicky’: I screwed things up and was unable to get into that LA so we tried Birmingham. So they didn’t start with an agenda to show the worst LA, that was circumstance. They couldn’t go to a top performing LA because which top authority employs agency staff? So it was a little bit of taking what was available.
- How the social work sector reacted
SWT: Aside from what the producers wanted, what was your aim?
‘Vicky’: I am sick (as many social workers are) of people like Nicky Morgan, who has no knowledge of social work, no experience of social work, being appointed as secretary of state and then saying [effectively] “I’m going to fix social workers”, “I’m going to fix social work” and then pointing at social workers. We all know that is a false discourse. It is unhelpful, inaccurate and laden in party political bullshit.
SWT: How much do you think the issues you helped showcase are indicative of social work on a national level?
‘Vicky’: The doc makers said they want to present a real picture of the difficulties in social work that social workers are having to deal with. I think to a varying degree they are shared across the country. Some local authorities are better resourced with different demographics that enable them to manage better but the story of social work is being starved of resources.
SWT: What change do you hope will come from your work here?
‘Vicky’: I spoke with the film makers a lot about domestic abuse resources and the impact austerity has on women, how it traps them in abusive relationships then we, as a profession abuse them again with threats of removing their children because there are few resources for women and virtually none for abusive men.
I hope that the discourse changes. I hope there is a shift in talk of shit social workers and instead discussion of systems and cultures, within social work and wider society. I am not naive enough to expect to get that, but that’s my hope.
SWT: Do you have any further plans to continue campaigning to fight for issues like this?
‘Vicky’: I don’t have plans at the moment, but I think it’s important that as a profession we take bold steps towards addressing the real issues we face. Part of that does include engaging with the media which is difficult and risky, but we can’t shy away from it. I don’t think it needs to be me that carries that part on though. I won’t be going undercover again.
SWT: What are your views on the people you worked with in Birmingham?
‘Vicky’: They were committed, passionate workers doing a really difficult job in ridiculous circumstances to meet the needs of vulnerable children and their families.
I have the utmost respect for the work they are doing and hope that my part in this programme has not impacted their work or belief in what they are doing. They rock!
SWT: Anything you’d like to say to those who may accuse you of being against social workers by going undercover to expose these issues?
‘Vicky’: It’s an unfounded accusation. I have fought for social work and for social workers my entire social work career. Even whilst in Birmingham I was advocating for my colleagues, many of them recently qualified, who were at times quite badly treated by their then managers.
People might not agree with my reasons or justification for being part of this, but to say I am against social workers is ridiculous.
SWT: Is there anything else you want to add?
‘Vicky’: I would say that I am disappointed in the move to make Birmingham children’s services a trust. That was obviously something that had been on the cards for a long time and I agree with people who raise concerns that it is simply relocating the problem. There needs to be significant investment in social care across the country, not just frontline, but also secondary and tertiary services.
And social work needs to be valued. If we can’t value the people who care for our most vulnerable, how can we value the vulnerable themselves. 40% cuts to budgets of services that are struggling makes no sense.
During the programme, Social Work Tutor asked ‘Vicky’ for her thoughts on how it had turned out. Here are her comments…
Dispatches aren’t making it about the country so far, is my worry. It’s about Birmingham. It needs to be national. There has been no discussion about 40% budget cuts. That has to be part of this. There are things I would have wanted them to do better.
SWT: Like what sort of things?
‘Vicky': It was too Birmingham-centric and the only mention of resources was me just then. This needed to put responsibility on central government as well as senior management.
SWT: Do you think that can be achieved in the fallout from this?
‘Vicky': Well the whole point of doing that was to begin a more accurate discourse.