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.
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.