Someone watching over us

Social workers are fair game when things go wrong. Too often
they are portrayed in the tabloid press as busybodies who barge in
and remove children from family life, causing untold

This misconception could change after the airing of a new BBC
documentary series, Someone to Watch Over Me, about Bristol
Council’s child care team. Film crews followed staff for more than
15 months from August 2003 to make six 40-minute programmes, which
together cost £900,000.

Sarah Johnson, a BBC Bristol producer, came up with the idea for
the series. She previously made the BBC series Love is Not Enough:
The Journey to Adoption in 2000-1, which looked at the adoption
process from the perspective of would-be adoptive parents. During
the filming she found that one of the social workers featured was
off work because a client had tried to run her over. This gave her
the idea for the sister series. She says: “It was something about
that moment that made me realise being a social worker is an
extraordinary job to do.”

Johnson spoke to 12 local authorities before Bristol’s social
services and health director, Bill McKitterick, and the then head
of children’s services, Tony Willetts, agreed to be involved.
Rather than filming a local authority that was chronically
struggling, or a flagship one, she was after somewhere that was
“fair and representative of the majority of child care social
workers and the work they do”.

The motivation behind the series was to raise people’s awareness of
the day-to-day work of child care social workers. Johnson says: “A
child dies and social services get vilified and then it goes quiet
for a few years before it happens again.”

For her, the hardest part was overcoming participants’ fears that
the programme makers would treat them negatively. “They thought we
were going to do what everyone else does – look for mistakes, make
simplistic judgements and fail to understand the difficulty of what
they do,” says Johnson.

But she is proud of the finished product and full of admiration for
the professionals and families who took part. “Sometimes once
things are on television with a nice commentary and bit of music
they can look easy. But this was not easy,” she says. “Making a
series like this is a journey for people and I hope it’s a journey
the families will find enlightening as well.”

Above all, her hope is that viewers, from the comfort of their own
homes, can ask themselves what they would do in a given situation
and realise that the calls are difficult ones to make.

The decision to let in the cameras was deemed brave by some and
foolhardy by others, says Annie Hudson, who became head of
Bristol’s children’s services as the TV crews moved in. During the
first few weeks of filming she admits there was a “collective
apprehension about what we’d let ourselves in for”. This was
addressed by establishing protocols about what the BBC could and
could not film and what they did with the information.

Hudson says: “We were very clear that we didn’t want filming to
continue if a child’s welfare would be compromised. The BBC was
always observant of those protocols.”

She believes the series will highlight the complexity social
workers face when making daily decisions around children and
families. “This will help the public understand there aren’t simple
answers to these very complicated situations.”

The local authority would happily go through the experience again,
if staff and clients were willing. “Social services needs to be in
active dialogue with all media, including the popular press and not
be afraid of doing that.”

Someone to Watch Over Me, BBC1, Tuesdays 10.35pm

Di Goodwillie

The role of Di Goodwillie is one of the most controversial in the
series: working with new mothers who misuse alcohol and drugs. The
drug liaison social worker has spent 21 years in social work after
a nursing career. For the past 11 she has been based at Bristol’s
St Michael’s Hospital. She took part in the programme because she
had been impressed with Sarah Johnson’s previous work and knew that
her role at the hospital would be portrayed sensitively.

During the year that the film crew documented her job she got used
to having gangly Australian cameramen hanging out of the side of
her small car as she drove to visit clients. “It was exciting and I
admit I am a bit of an exhibitionist,” she says. “I feel that
communication is one of my skills.”
Two of Goodwillie’s four clients agreed to be filmed. One who
features heavily in the first two episodes is Kim, an alcohol and
heroin user whose baby Katie was addicted to drugs when she was
born. Goodwillie says Kim was willing to be shown on camera – at
one time she smokes heroin in her mother’s kitchen – because she
wanted the challenge of proving she can raise her child well.

Goodwillie says: “They had no concerns about being identified. It
is the nature of the beast [addiction].” Once women come out of
hospital and others in the community know who they are and that
they use drugs, they don’t care if they are on television, she

The best thing about appearing in the show for Goodwillie was being
part of something that she strongly believes in. The worst part was
when she was filmed crying – shown briefly in the opening titles –
after receiving death threats from a family she was working with.
She believes the series will improve public perception of social
workers: “It shows that we make informed decisions, we don’t just
run in and whip babies away and we don’t ignore situations

Frances Hall

In the first episode Frances Hall, of north Bristol’s duty and
assessment team, faces every social worker’s worst nightmare: the
death of a baby. She was part of a multi-disciplinary team that
agreed the two-month-old boy could be discharged from hospital into
the care of his mother, who misused drugs and alcohol. An
investigation later revealed the baby had died of natural causes
but the experience still took its toll on Hall, who was being
trailed by a film crew at the time.

She says: “They were with me an hour and half after finding out the
baby had died. Initially when the camera was in my face I felt ‘I
can’t do this. I don’t know how I feel myself and I can’t
articulate it to the camera’. Then I thought people needed to know
this is part of the job and it would be effective to see this sort
of rawness.”

Hall was more than willing to take part in the series because she
passionately believes in raising the profile of her profession and
attracting high-calibre staff. Colleagues joked that she was only
doing it “to be on the telly” but she says she wants to be thought
of as a “social worker first and foremost”. She admits to feeling
anxious about how she will be perceived, but is proud to do the job
she trained for. She is also concerned about how her clients will
be seen by the public, particularly the couple who appear in
episodes five and six after “horrendous neglect” of their

Having worked in her team for five years Hall is used to not being
able to discuss her job with friends in the pub on a Friday night
because of client confidentiality and “it not being socially
acceptable to talk about sexual abuse”.

She adds: “The selfish part of me wants my family and friends to
see what my working day consists of and this was a unique

The experience has not disappointed her and she would recommend it
to other social workers. “I found the BBC’s integrity and
sensitivity amazing,” she says.

Leroy Henderson

When Leroy Henderson, a child care social worker for Bristol’s
community child care team, was first asked to take part in the
programme he declined.

“I didn’t want the publicity because people would recognise you,”
he says. He was also reluctant for the BBC to try to pin down his
exact schedule because he can never predict what is going to happen
with his clients, or where he will be.

But Henderson changed his mind after colleagues had to turn down
the BBC because clients were unwilling to be filmed. Initially he
was nervous about being filmed as he is used to engaging with his
clients on a one-to-one basis, but one of his clients, Nadia, was
eager to take part in the show because of her interest in

He says: “My case with Nadia was interesting. She was a teenage
girl out of control and I thought lots of families would recognise
the situation and relate to it.”

The length of time Henderson was filmed with his clients depended
on what was happening to them. Despite his relationship with the
crew being good, he never forgot they were there. He says he was
“conscious of coming across as a professional and dealing with
situations appropriately”. He says Nadia, too, was aware of the
cameras and she was surprised that the crew caught her arguing with
her mum.

Nadia, who was 14 when filming began, provides much of the drama in
the first few episodes as she is drawn into increasingly dangerous
situations. Henderson admits that, at times, he felt “like I was
spinning plates” as they lurched from crisis to crisis.

After 12 years working as a panel beater, Henderson trained as a
social worker because he wanted to give something back to his local
community. Taking part in the series is an extension of that. “I
would like to be considered as a positive black man who is making a
difference for children,” he says. “We need more black male social
workers.” He also likes the idea of future clients seeing him on TV
and thinking he is “OK”.

‘Perhaps good social work makes bad tV’ 

North London-based child protection worker Clea Barry viewed the
first programme of the series. She was not pleased by what she

The social workers were portrayed as unorganised, ineffective
and passive. No one really helped anyone, decided anything or
achieved much; instead they were portrayed worrying about blame,
being manipulated by their clients, and driving around a lot. But
these were experienced workers, on high-profile cases. They would
certainly have had clear plans and assessments, but this programme
did not show them.  Perhaps good social work makes bad TV.
Multi-disciplinary meetings and comprehensive assessments are
time-consuming and unexciting, whereas a pregnant woman smoking
heroin seconds before meeting her social worker is apparently good
TV, especially when followed by shots of her premature baby
withdrawing from drugs.   So perhaps it’s not surprising that the
documentary crew colluded with that mother or began the series,
even before the opening titles, with a story about a newborn baby
dying mysteriously. They followed the obvious drama. It is a shame
they did not aim a little higher.  There were hints of the way the
social work itself could make a better show. Leroy’s intelligence,
humour and compassion shone through in his interactions with
14-year-old Nadia. But he was misleadingly portrayed as powerless
to curb her self-destructive urges. The interviewer might instead
have explored his professional dilemma about whether to restrict
her freedom legally and the reasons behind his choice to maintain
her in the community.  This was a bad programme. It was edited
according to a tabloid idea of social services. Social work is no
subject for a docusoap; reducing it to that benefits no one, and
exploits the clients and workers alike.

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