Social workers need to be upfront about what we can and can’t do

In light of a BBC investigation into three child deaths in Scotland, Viviene Cree examines the lessons for social work

A screenshot from last night's BBC Scotland documentary

by Viviene Cree

I watched BBC Scotland’s Fife’s Child Killings: The Untold Story last night with some trepidation. Was this going to be another public humiliation of social work and social workers – another of the ritual slaggings that so often accompanies a child death?

In the event, it was not. It was, for the most part, a story about loss and about the sadness and anger that are inevitably part-and-parcel of the death of a loved-one, and especially the unexpected death of a child.

Liam Fee, Madison Horn and Mikaeel Kular were all killed by their caregivers in the early months of 2014. The overall theme in the programme was to find answers – to identify things that had gone wrong and might be changed to prevent such tragedies happening in the future.

A solution proposed by one interviewee (a local councillor) was that an independent review should take place into what went wrong in all three cases; particular concern was drawn to discrepancies in accounts in reports relating to Madison Horn’s death (including in the Significant case Review).

But the journalist, Lisa Summers, was just as interested to track down the one social worker who had been publicly ‘named and shamed’ in the first scenario.

Lesley Bate was off sick when Liam Fee was killed – had she been wrongly singled out? In the event, Lesley said she had loved her job and felt she had been a good social worker, though not in the end – she had gone back to work before she was ready to do so, and at that point, she admitted, “I was no good to man nor beast”.

What came across was that the social work department in Fife was under pressure, and social workers were hard-pressed to cover their own work, let alone anyone else’s.

So what should we make of all of this, as social work educators, practitioners, students and members of the public?

I don’t think another review or inquiry is the answer – all this will do is to take the department back two years, and waste valuable time and resources when the department is currently trying to rebuild confidence and morale, and with it, good practice, as demonstrated in a recent positive inspection by the Care Inspectorate.

I have been privileged to work with Fife Council this year as part of their improvement process, running workshops for child and family social workers, in a project supported by the Scottish Association for Social Workers and the Scottish Social Services Council.

This was an ‘impact’ project, designed to forward findings from research – in this case, the Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) study and the Changing Culture in Child and Family Social Work project, both funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

What we found in Fife was a group of social workers, from all levels, who were initially anxious and more than a little uncertain as to what we were expecting from them.

But they quickly realised that we wanted to hear from them – to connect their current practice experience with our findings from research. Their engagement (and their shared learning) throughout the four months of workshops was impressive.

What we heard again was that social workers in child and family social work are doing incredibly difficult and challenging work. They have to try to build relationships with parents and children who do not want them in their lives.

They have a job to do on our behalf that feels more like policing and surveillance than anything else. They came into social work because of a wish to help people and be alongside them in their distress, but this is hard to achieve in most statutory child and family social work.

My own solution is that we need to be much more upfront as social workers about what we can – and cannot – do.

Social workers cannot protect all children, and cannot prevent all child abuse. It is not, on the whole, social workers who harm children – it is their parents and carers, and as pressures on families increase (financial pressures, mental health pressures, drug and alcohol abuse etc.), so the likelihood of a child being harmed also increases.

This makes child and family social work an increasingly scary job, and social workers need support, good supervision and recognition that the work that they are doing on society’s behalf is valued. We also need, as a social work profession, to shout more about the impact of cuts – cuts to services and cuts to welfare – which have driven preventive, supportive aspects of social work to the margins.

We have produced lots of free resources for children and families social workers to use in their practice and training – have a look at the websites below.


Professor Viviene Cree is head of social work at Edinburgh university

3 Responses to Social workers need to be upfront about what we can and can’t do

  1. Nick Child August 3, 2017 at 6:26 pm #

    Hello Viv.
    Thanks for this reflection on being clear what social work/ers can and can’t do. The BBC programme was a vivid reminder of my old days in a small CAMHS in the peripheries of excellence. We had a less frontline role (than social work) in the enormous shared responsibility for responding with humanity, common sense and a wide range of expected professional skills in sometimes extremely complicated and worrying situations. And even in those good old days a sense of crazily low resourcing for the most demanding work plus (social work) being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I thought Lisa Sunmers has been doing some really dogged old fashioned journalism. I really hope she keeps up her good work. Maybe there’s lots of it about but it seemed important to kinda team up between practitioners, academics, and journalists to bring out this difficult discussion for the public and politicians (without descending into embattled factions).

    I had one other question that I did think Lisa should have looked at. One of the cases was a familiar one SW compartment not thinking to tell another about a known risky man. The other two were female perpetrators and each had other social group identity factors – sexuality and race.

    Trevor Phillips controversially argued that poliically correct thinking can be so powerful that professionals and politicians will fail to take appropriate steps when faced with obvious abuse going on. He cites Rotherham and Victoria Climbié in his C4 programme: Things we won’t say about race that are true. And more recently: Has political correctness gone mad? See here:

    So it seems to me entirely likely that social workers and council staff and politicians – some of the most saturated PC sectors there are – would have been slower to think of women, LGBT and ethnic minority groups as likely perpetrators as if they had been male, for example.

    What do you think?

  2. May August 3, 2017 at 7:16 pm #

    I totally agree with what you have written, and as a foster carer would also like to add in the lack of support, and the condemnation from the media needs strongly countered.

  3. Margaret August 5, 2017 at 12:26 am #

    I’m sorry but I disagree, Social Workers are not afraid of LGBT or ethnic minorities when it comes to evidence of abuse. It’s managers who shut us down also, managers that are afraid. They want to be seen as sympathetic. We as Social Workers are more than aware that members of the LGBT and and ethnic minoritie or religious beliefs are just as capable of abusing children. As are heterosexual members of society.
    We are very aware abuse has no bearing on LGBT culture or race or religion. We live in the United Kingdom the law is very clear on what constitutes ‘significant harm’ all Social Workers in the Inited Kingdom are aware of this.

    It’s also true that members of LGBT religious cultural and heterosexual couples are the most loving caring and supportive parents that we have the pleasure to work with. We are not fools. Our managers well I can not speak for them, I’m sorry but I have no bias with regard to a child’s safety