by Ray Jones
I, along with others, am distressed by any case of a child dying, and especially when it is a consequence of assault and abuse, but I am also concerned about the violence threatened against social workers named by an irresponsible and ill-informed press.
What is of no surprise, but still shocking, is how awful deaths have recently been reported by parts of the media. As should now be expected, but not accepted, it was social workers who were targeted for criticism and vilification by, especially, The Mail and The Sun.
The Sun, as it has done before, named all the social workers and the health visitor, but not the doctors, involved in a case where a child died. It door-stepped the wife of the recently retired director of social services and visited the home of a social worker, whose photograph was then printed in The Sun.
It is a case where I tracked the media coverage of the criminal trial and was interviewed about it by the BBC. Even with all the benefits of hindsight and now knowing a child died, I am still not able to identify any patterns of events prior to the child’s terrible death which would have raised significant concerns for the health professionals and social workers who had contact with the family. That, though, is not how the story gets told by parts of the press.
Vilification and anger
There are so many echoes here of The Sun and its threatening and abusive behaviour when it led on the mistold ‘Baby P story’. Again, its vilification and anger, which has been targeted at named social workers and their managers, generates threat and fear. The reprehensible and irresponsible behaviour of The Sun continues and is replicated 10 years on from the death of Peter Connelly.
Some others in the press have also jumped to conclusions that it was social workers who failed. It is particularly noteworthy that the new chair of Frontline, Baroness Camilla Cavendish, was prominent in her criticism of the ‘failures’ of social workers in a piece she wrote in The Sunday Times on 12 November.
It is within this context of attacks by parts of the press, and knee-jerk assumptions of ‘failure’, that there should be concern about two items still on the government’s ‘to do’ list.
First, with the prospect of press-inspired threat and fear targeted at those who work with children if a child dies from abuse, it should only be expected that ‘mandatory reporting’ of concern about a child’s welfare and safety will lead to a considerable increase in referrals and child protection activity as covering backs takes over from considered judgements.
Secondly, introducing the criminal charge of ‘wilful neglect’. This would mean if a child dies following abuse or neglect – and the view is retrospectively taken that all was not done that is now seen with the benefit of hindsight as necessary to have protected the child – a baying media and politicians who cave in to press bullying create the context where social workers and others will be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned.
There are already sanctions available, and applied, if someone has not properly fulfilled their responsibilities.
Heightening the threat and fear of those working to assist and protect children, and making them the target of potential hostility, is not going to lead to better child protection. Instead there will be more work to be undertaken by fewer workers.
There is plenty of prospective opportunity here for those in the press who make their profits and get their wages out of creating stories generating hatred against social workers and others.
Ray Jones is a professor of social work at Kingston University.