Trial by the media

When the murder of Baby P hit the headlines in November the familiar castigation in the press of the social workers “responsible” was quick to follow. Baby P’s family had been seen 60 times by professionals, including social workers, by the time he died in August 2007. But, as with the Victoria Climbié case in 2001 and countless child abuse cases before and since, it was the social worker assigned to the case, her manager and director for children’s services who were singled out for particularly damning criticism by the media.

The idea that someone other than the abuser themselves is responsible is peculiar to this country. Unlike many of our European neighbours, which have inquisitorial legal systems, our adversarial one produces a culture of individualism and a feeling that someone somewhere must be to blame.

Mark Easton, home editor for BBC News, has recently looked at children’s services in Denmark and Finland. He says the idea that social workers who are doing their best are pilloried for getting something wrong is seen as bizarre in these countries.

“We do have a very adversarial culture,” he says. “Somebody has to be blamed. With Baby P that was Sharon Shoesmith. Other countries think there’s something sinister about the press pursuing her for weeks and weeks until they finally snared her. They see that culture as unfair.

“We know that Baby P sells newspapers but it only works if we can turn it into a fairy tale – black and white, heroes and villains.”

The English child protection system has a reputation as a particularly stressful place to work among continental social workers. Unlike their English counterparts, they enjoy at least a degree of respect from the public and child abuse is seen as a failing by large groups of professionals and society itself rather than individuals.

Andrew Cooper, professor of social work at the University of East London and the Tavistock Clinic, says the thought that social problems and society itself could be partly responsible for abuse is too much for most English citizens.

“There’s something intolerable in the public’s mind about a child being tortured. No one can bear to think of it, so [rather than societal failings] it’s about the idea that somebody should have done something,” says Cooper, who has written several books on European child protection social work.

He says it’s the British tabloid press that takes the most aggressive stance.

“Eight to 10 years ago what struck us was that no other country had got the kind of pressure child protection was being given by the media in England,” Cooper says. “At a cultural level with cases like Baby P they are creating mythologies for our time; myths built around the deaths of children.

“I don’t think that you find in other countries a tabloid press with so much hunger to perpetuate these myths.”

The way child protection is set up in England is unusual in Europe. Although we have a child safeguarding model driven by the legal system, most other European nations, including Scotland, place more emphasis on a child welfare model, of which child protection is a part.

The system in Belgium is strikingly different from England’s. Under Belgian law citizens are not legally obliged to report intrafamilial child abuse to the authorities or the police but are instead required to provide assistance to the child. So, as long as a person helps the child in any way they see fit, they will not be prosecuted.

This could involve trying to help the child themselves or referring the case to one of the many confidential centres across Belgium, staffed by multi-agency teams consisting of social workers, child psychiatrists and pedagogues, which provide child protection services.

Although many choose to request the centres’ help, some professionals, such as school counsellors, do so at arm’s length, choosing instead to continue to try to help the families themselves but with input and supervision from the centre workers.

Unlike in the UK, the centres run separately from the judicial system – the staff prefer the public to have the discretion to choose not to inform the police of cases of intrafamilial abuse.

The model aims to make child protection everyone’s responsibility and encourage local communities to look out for each other. Liesbet Smeyers, head of a social work team at a confidential centre in a Flemish community, says this prevents buckpassing and allows people to help families known to them.

“We are the centres that people can make reports to, but we say because there is no mandatory reporting there is more focus on the whole community to take responsibility and try to go as far as they can to give help.”

In cases when abuse concerns people outside the family or centre workers feel an abuser is so damaged they require compulsory intervention, a different system kicks in and the police are told.

Smeyers explains how this broadening of responsibility together with the multi-agency team structure of the centres has a knock-on effect on media coverage. Social workers are not singled out and child abuse is regarded as a collective societal failing.

“We don’t have the kind of blaming of social workers [the UK does],” Smeyers says. “We do have blaming articles [in the press] but in general coverage is OK. They are not aggressive or unfair.”

Child protection social workers in France also enjoy a less pressured relationship with the public and the media.

In England, the courts simply hear the evidence put before them and rule on the case. Despite having the power to decide whether a child should be removed, they are not required to hold any further responsibility and, as a result, when things go wrong they are not blamed.

In contrast, under the French system it is children’s judges who are ultimately accountable for cases. Educateurs, equivalent to social workers, and children’s judges work in partnership and, although not equal, have a level of professional understanding. The social workers have autonomy when carrying out their day-to-day work and decisions but all work takes place under the direction of judges.

Cooper says French children’s judges are more accessible to the subjects of the case. “In France anyone can refer a case to the judge including the child themselves if he or she thinks there’s good grounds. Breakdown between the family would be enough.”

The responsibility for child protection work in France is further diluted by the separation of the investigative and support functions. Whereas in England it’s social workers who are largely required to carry out the investigation of a family they may have previously helped, in France this part of the process is passed over to the Procureur de la République, a judicial professional who evaluates whether cases go to court.

As in Belgium this sharing of responsibility transfers to the press coverage. The idea that the media can influence, rather than just comment on, decisions about child protection systems and professionals simply does not feature in France.

Related articles
Child protection systems in Belgium and France

International social work

This article appeared in the 19 March issue under the headline “It wouldn’t happen there”

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