Staff in the dock

Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbie is another
painful reminder of how things can go wrong when child protection
agencies fail in their duties.

We learn once more that warning signs were missed and the tragedy
was preventable. Public anger and distress is vented at the workers
and organisations who were directly involved and frustrations spill
over to accuse professionals of incompetence. The entire child
protection system is deemed by some to be in need of radical

Child protection tragedies are examined in order to learn lessons
and to apply those lessons to the development of good practice
guidelines. Indeed we owe it to the children who have lost their
lives to learn quickly and act promptly to improve practice. Much
energy is directed to scrutinising systems and implementing
recommendations. Politicians and organisations plan for the future
with the obvious intention of preventing similar

But what do these inquiries do to front-line workers? How are they
experienced by social workers involved or holding case
responsibility at the time the tragedy occurred?

How does it feel to be faced with the terrible news that must be
considered the worst nightmare of any person working in the child
protection system?
When a child dies as a result of abuse most professionals would, if
honest, admit that it could be a child on their caseload. Even
where there is evidence of excellent practice there is no room for
complacency. A minority of parents and carers do commit criminal
acts against children and most are unlikely to tell social care
staff first. Experience suggests that the impact of the death and
subsequent inquiry on the lives of front-line workers can be
greatly underestimated.

The news of a child’s death or serious injury will be received as a
shock and workers’ reactions are likely to be similar to those of
any bereaved person. A worker may have known the child and family
well and, in addition to coping with the legal and organisational
responses, will be experiencing grief and the sense of disbelief
characteristic of bereavement. Into the normal working day comes an
event so terrible that routine coping mechanisms are likely to be
completely overwhelmed.

While the social worker is trying to absorb the full ramifications
of what has happened, it is likely that investigative processes
will swing into action in ways that can leave the worker feeling
terrified and unable to cope. The worker may be suspended from duty
and advised to have no contact with colleagues or others involved
in the case. At this point, workers are usually in a very
vulnerable state and, whatever the circumstances of the case, do
need support.

In the early stages of the investigation it is vital for someone to
help worker(s) by making decisions that protect them, their
colleagues and service users. Professional representation and
advocacy are strongly advised. There is also an obvious need for
emotional support for those caught up in the unfolding

Workers may face lengthy interviews with police and senior social
services officers, who may also be affected by the case and may be
dealing with their own personal distress but also bearing
responsibility for the apparent failure of service delivery within
their department. Files are routinely taken as the investigative
process gets under way. Despite their central role, social workers
report feeling excluded from the investigative processes.
Discussions and decision-making may not involve them.
Understandably, this increases feelings of fear and

Many reactions will be common to social workers in this position:
distress, fear of of the inquiry and its repercussions, trepidation
at the public scrutiny of their involvement and, based on knowledge
of previous inquiries, alarm at the media reaction. A tragedy of
this scale also means that the normal boundaries maintained between
personal and professional life are breached. The worker’s family
and friends may soon be hearing, through the media, minute and
critical detail about the case, often focusing on what the worker
is perceived to have done wrong. The most extreme example of this
as we know is the accusation that the worker “allowed this child to

We know that workers may feel tremendous guilt even if no blame is
warranted. They are likely to feel bewildered and isolated and
steps taken to protect evidence may compound this. Sadly, normal
support systems may become unavailable if the worker is suspended
from duty or instructed to have no contact with colleagues.

Consequently, all parts of the worker’s life will be affected at a
time when they are feeling least able to cope or deal with the
reactions of others.

It is understandable that workers faced with such traumatic events
are themselves at risk from disciplinary action and from the
emotional fallout that the events may cause. They will be
emotionally vulnerable and are likely to suffer disruption to
normal sleeping and eating patterns. Some may suffer ill health.
Relationships are put under strain. Personal safety and security
are threatened.

It is not surprising to hear workers say they felt like running
away or escaping from the awfulness of the situation. This may
become particularly acute if there is widespread media coverage of
the case. People have had experiences of press reporters waiting
outside their homes or pursuing them and their family. We know that
some colleagues have been under siege in their offices or

If we imagine the impact of this on someone who just got up to go
to work as normal we can begin to comprehend the enormity of the
experience and the need for a sensitive and compassionate response
to those concerned.

In many ways we can draw on our knowledge of responses in disaster
situations to see how we can help colleagues in these extreme
situations. For this is nothing short of a disaster for the child’s
family and those professionally involved.

However, individuals cope with such crises – and we must recognise
the uniqueness of the experience – it is not surprising to find
that even very competent social workers report a loss of confidence
in themselves and their ability to practise. Some experience a
sense that they have the capacity to contaminate others with the
trauma. For other social workers there is an overwhelming sense of
having let the side down.

Inevitably, life is changed by what has happened and recovery takes
time. But much can be done to ease the distress and enable workers
gradually to regain confidence.

Historically, front-line social workers have shouldered the lion’s
share of the blame in child abuse inquiries. Perhaps Lord Laming’s
report heralds a more balanced attempt at analysis of failures of
corporate responsibility. This makes the reading of Victoria’s
terrible ordeal no less painful but it may help us to appreciate
the need to provide appropriate support to staff and to feel some
compassion for social workers operating in these very difficult
circumstances. They too have suffered a form of personal and
professional bereavement. Some will have lost careers.

When children die it is essential that we learn from our mistakes
and move practice forward but we must also take care not to ignore
the plight of the often forgotten victims, for they, as colleagues,
need our help and understanding too.

Janet Foulds is chairperson of the British Association of
Social Workers and works for Derby Council social services
(children and families). Contact her on 01332 717575 or

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