‘This targeting of social workers and managers echoes the reaction to Baby P’

Ray Jones writes about the impact on the profession of the media naming and targeting social workers in complex cases where children die

Photo: gustavofrazao/Fotolia

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.

‘Wilful neglect’

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.

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7 Responses to ‘This targeting of social workers and managers echoes the reaction to Baby P’

  1. Chris Mills November 20, 2017 at 10:42 am #

    An excellent article – very well put.

    If social workers are afraid of unjust punishment when things go wrong, then not surprisingly it will be hard for them to be open and honest when mistakes are made. That means that valuable learning from error will be lost and services become increasingly less safe.

    In civil aviation and some other safety critical industries this lesson has already been learned. The emphasis there is on building a just reporting culture, not a culture of blame.

    That’s what we need in social work; a recognition that safer services will only come about when people feel free to talk openly and honestly about what goes wrong and explore ways of improving services to reduce the likelihood of future disasters.

  2. sabine November 20, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    Inciting hatred and violence in itself is a criminal act. The issue for me is that social workers will think twice about joining the profession and especially child protection, or they get to a point sooner or later where they say enough is enough and leave the profession alltogether. Who in their right mind wants to constatly have a numberof ‘Damocles’ swords’ hanging over them?

  3. Maharg November 20, 2017 at 4:09 pm #


    (of a bad or harmful act) intentional; deliberate.
    “wilful acts of damage”

    synonyms: deliberate, intentional, intended, done on purpose, premeditated, planned, calculated, purposeful, conscious, knowing; More

    Wilful also implies doing without due consideration to the outcome or consequences.

    So if there is going to be a piece of legislation drafted to scapegoat individuals wilful neglect will have to consider a different derivation.

    As I’m sure many social workers may be accused of being neglectful with the benefit of hindsight focusing on their actions that led up to the outcome which is now being scrutinised, I’m sure that they would not have chosen that course of action based on the information that they were working with until things went wrong.

    After all, all of us would win the lottery on Sunday morning after knowing what the numbers were on the Saturday night, can we sue , take the lottery companies to court wilful neglect of failing to provide us with our dreams which they so readily promote, or would it be argued given the information, and our mental capacity, in conjunction with the odds, these moneymaking services cannot be held accountable as to why we didn’t win.

    Though I can accept there is a need to evaluate the situation, scrutinise what led up to the negative outcome, all these situations have been looked at in the past and individuals clearly state lessons learnt, so why this must not happen again, it is clear that there are too many variables which means predicting the outcome will be virtually impossible in some situations, until the outcome has happened.

    As highlighted in the text above this potential piece of legislation will possibly cause more people to inherit more work, done by less individuals, which in itself will make the likelihood of something going wrong more likely to happen, which in itself will justify why wilful neglect needs to happen is piece of legislation. But it won’t stop the situation in itself, it will only justify accountability, promote a bigger blame culture, and sell newspapers, who are only interested in promoting a story to sell their own existence.

  4. Sarah November 21, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

    I’m a student social worker and had been reading The Story of Baby P when all of this regarding little Elsie came out in the press. I was horrified and have voiced my concerns with various people/agencies. There seems so little support for the social work profession, and nothing gets done to change people’s perception of us. Things like this are only going to be detrimental – we will be terrified of making ‘mistakes’, those who need support will be reluctant to engage and people will be reluctant to enter the profession (and when S47 investigations are at their highest we urgently need more people coming into it). We need to find our voices and start to advocate for ourselves, we wouldn’t allow anyone else to be marginilised and treated in this way.

  5. Tom Hughes November 21, 2017 at 10:31 pm #

    As a Social Worker who has a previous career as a journalist, I consider it absurd that Camilla Cavendish has been appointed Chair of Frontline.

    She has no professional track record as a Social Worker and placing a journalist in such a prominent position damages the integrity of Social Work.

  6. LEE J November 22, 2017 at 12:06 am #

    Social workers should be held accountable when a child dies due to there failing other professions are doctors nurses police what makes them any different,

  7. Gary irwin November 27, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    Correct as usual,many thanks for your informed and invaluable input.