‘Social workers were betrayed by covert filming – but Dispatches has lessons we shouldn’t ignore’

Birmingham children's services needs to improve but there are some amazing staff there who do aspirational social work every day

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Photo: Stuart Black/Robert Harding/RexShuttershock

By Adam Birchall

I can’t help but cringe. I began my social work career in Birmingham. Many of the problems and concerns that were shown in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme last night were prevalent when I worked there. This piece is not about defending poor practice or poor working conditions, but I feel the programme failed to show any real balance.

Earlier this year, I attended the local family justice board conference in Birmingham. Among the speakers (and by far the best presentation) were young people who either were, or are, in the care of Birmingham Council. Hearing them speak so articulately about their achievements despite the adversity they had each experienced was inspirational.

I can’t help but reflect that these young people would not have been able to achieve so highly without the hard work and dedication of their social workers and the brave decisions made by managers. Nor would they have been able to win, with their eloquence, the hearts of hardened solicitors, judges and social work managers.

Hearing those young people speak made me proud to be a social worker and of what this profession can achieve.

I can’t help but wonder how long news articles would have to be if, instead of listing the names and pictures of children who have died in Birmingham, they showed the names and pictures of those children Birmingham children’s services has saved from abuse and neglect. There are some amazing staff in Birmingham who do aspirational social work every day.

‘Stark lessons’

I expected the documentary to be grittier, more hard-hitting, and more meaningful than it was. But there were several important lessons that I’m keen to learn (notwithstanding the inaccurate description of special guardianship orders as ‘a halfway house between long-term fostering and adoption’). These lessons include the need for social workers in statutory services to be more vocal about their experiences, good and bad, and be more open to mainstream media.

It’s reinforced for me the importance of using my role as a principal social worker to provide challenge and reflection to our director and strategic decisions makers – and telling them what it’s really like on the frontline.

Birmingham children’s services, whether run by a trust or the council, needs to improve. I hope the leaders of those services learn some stark lessons from this documentary. It seems clear that the programme makers recognised the complexities of the work we do with children and families, and were largely sympathetic to the experiences of ‘Vicky’s’ colleagues.

But, ultimately, the covert recording of her colleagues by ‘Vicky’ was a complete violation.

‘Sense of betrayal’

Watching the programme, I felt a sense of betrayal. Private conversations between colleagues are par for the course in any profession, and offer respite from the grind of inevitably emotionally charged and challenging work. They should never have been used in a sensationalist way. For example, we learned that when one worker ‘begged’ for managerial support in court, it was provided and he found it helpful – it hardly seemed to be the drama it was made out to be.

The problems around staff retention and the use of agency workers, managerial oversight and the importance of supervision are known across the sector nationally. The programme did help to make these problems more widely known to the general public which could, eventually, be a positive thing.

However, I cannot help but think that, as a result of this documentary and ‘Vicky’s’ actions, the morale of staff in Birmingham has been further eroded. Likewise, the programme has done us no favours with regard to public confidence in our profession, and relationships between service users and workers. It saddens me to think that vulnerable children in Birmingham are likely to be less safe because of this documentary rather than safer.

Adam Birchall is a principal social worker for a local authority in England. 

4 Responses to ‘Social workers were betrayed by covert filming – but Dispatches has lessons we shouldn’t ignore’

  1. get me out of here May 27, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    Useful timing though, since clearly this Tory Government needs to cut a hatchet job on Social Workers to justify its jailing social workers for up to 5 years for wilful neglect. It is also a policy objective to take control of Social Work training to make sure they understand the Tory view of clients as low life, the kind of people you step over on the way home from the opera. Meanwhile waiting in the dark recesses are private companies waiting to get a large piece of the pie, contracts to take over and run services to make a quick profit. Social Workers understand this they are coming for your job, your terms and conditions of employment. Imagine a boot stamping on your face forever, imagine this Tory Government. Big brother is watching you closely.

  2. Sophie a May 27, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    Thank you for showing hard working social workers facing a brick wall in a failing landscape of child protection.

    However, I have to say I found your analysis superficial and simplistic.

    We are working in an antiquated system of child protection where the government has no real awareness of what a caseload really means.

    You state that social workers should usually only have 20 cases: but what does one case really mean? The fact we are reduced to looking at children in numerical form is indicative of where the system has gone wrong and belies the complexities of each individual family.

    Special Guardianship decisions have been problematic since their creation from the Adoption and Children Act (2002). As social workers we are compelled by the courts to find any way possible to avoid a Placement Order which would enable a child to be placed for adoption.

    As social workers, once a case comes to court, we have 26 weeks to help to decide a child’s future. This is an overwhelming task when social workers are directed to assess any family member, or apparent relative whether they are in Poland, Leeds or Australia.

    The Re-B-S Judgement means that social workers must have considered every other possible option in acute detail before a plan of adoption can be put to a court. This is absolutely right, to prevent one of the most draconian legal orders in English law being used.

    However, in its current state the law has its costs: If a family member is put forward at the last possible moment, we are legally obliged to assess – quite often with the 26 week timescale looming. The court in addition to local authorities restricts the time required to complete assiduous assessments of family members.

    The clear thinking at present is that a child’s permanent placement must be determined at the earliest opportunity – this is rhetoric directed from the government. However, hasty plans and a child being placed quickly has its obvious costs. It is easy to blame ‘slap dash assessments’ but try arguing with a Judge about a court deadline. Never easy and often requests to extend timescales are refused.

    It must also be pointed out that a Special Guardianship Order requires the endorsement of the family court to be granted. Surely blame also lies with the government and family court system? Social workers are challenged through vigorous cross examination in court. A Special Guardianship Order is never granted without the scrutiny of a Judge or bench of Magistrates. I wonder if any criticism be levelled in this area.

    It takes time and reflection to understand if a family can care for the most damaged children in our society. Sadly, with ever increasing pressures and workloads for social workers, time and reflection is not readily available restricted by both local authority pressures and directives from government about the time it should take to plan a child’s future.

    This directive about early permanence is a perfect example of how everything we do, everything we appraise is complex and there are no easy answers. Each child’s situation and needs must be seen in isolation and not be led by government idealist statistics which ultimately place children at risk.

    Courts are rewarded by positive statistics so rarely are timescales reduced. We must jump as the child’s ‘permanence’ clock is ticking to work out if we can avoid the ‘A’ word – adoption.

    This is a very difficult task, when you have so many families to work with.

    I believe that the NSPCC were naive in their assumption that the increase in Special Guardianship Orders is financially led. It is led by guidance from head of the family court, Sit James Mumby.

    Even in authorities where they are rated as ‘good’ by Ofsted, social workers complete so many extra hours to conceal the burden of the work.

    I witness so much good work. Your programme, whilst relevant, only presented the most negative aspect of the situation.

    When will we have a positive, more objective programme which will look at some of the good work being completed and also offer some solutions, rather than just criticisms?

    Tomorrow I will experience the onslaught of disgruntled service users who will be worried about the quality of service that they are receiving due to this negative approach. This programme has vastly exacerbated the chasm between the people we are trying to support and their trust in professionals.

    There is no shame in exposing problematic practice but Channel Four, please at least try to show some of the soul destroying and dedicated work that social workers complete to compound the negativity. Your brief overview did not help viewers understand the role of a social worker at all.

  3. OnlyMe May 31, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

    “we learned that when one worker ‘begged’ for managerial support in court, it was provided and he found it helpful – it hardly seemed to be the drama it was made out to be.”

    Not sure about you, but I don’t think social workers should have to beg for management support. It might not be a drama, but it’s not a safe way of practising social work either.

    “I cannot help but think that, as a result of this documentary and ‘Vicky’s’ actions, the morale of staff in Birmingham has been further eroded.”

    Have you spoken with any? Or are you just speaking for them, as many people launching themselves into this debate with emotive language as “betrayed” “traitor” and other such archaic turns of phrase usually only found on Britain First’s facebook page.

    Who knows, perhaps as a result of this documentary and ‘Vicky’s’ action, senior management pulled out all the stops and created a system where people were free to do their jobs. Maybe they stepped up and met their own obligations and cut aside all the crap that the social workers in that team were having to deal with, so they werent in a position where they felt they weren’t coping with their cases? Maybe, just maybe, this documentary had some small part in actually keeping children safer in Birmingham.

  4. loiner June 1, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    if anyone wants to know how a children’s service can be improved you have to look at what happened in Cleveland in 1986..the area was left devasted and totally distrustful of any professional workers. it has now just started wining the trust of people, by simply looking at how they treat vulnerable families…………it has taken a long time but people are slowly starting to trust again………l wonder how many services have honestly looked at this experience, and instead of saying we aren’t at fault and blaming everyone else…..look at how families are been treated