Birmingham journalist spends a day with social worker

by Terry Brownbill

Journalists are vociferous armchair experts who consistently lead the battle cry against social workers whenever a child dies in unexplained circumstances. 

Proudly flying the banner of ‘the public has a right to know’ they wade in, armed with righteous indignation, to vilify and blame social workers.

They gather facts as building blocks for their story angle, but they are rarely balanced accounts because they lack an essential ingredient – a real understanding of the complexities involved in making life and death decisions on a daily basis.

Birmingham City Council’s Children’s Social Care is tackling these self-perpetuating negative media perceptions head on. The directorate invited Birmingham Mail and Post feature writer, Richard McComb to join a social worker for the day and find out what is involved in protecting children and supporting families in what is one of the most challenging areas in the country – and it turned out to be a real eye-opener.

By the end of the day he was exhausted and stressed and open in his admiration and respect for the professionalism of senior social worker Wendi Grizzle.

After a day shadowing Wendi as she conducted delicate negotiations with two clients, Richard said: “I don’t know how you sleep at night. We often have to make difficult decisions as journalists, but the cases that Wendi comes across on a daily basis are potentially life and death matters and the effect of dealing with them must be traumatic.

“Journalists are able to leave work and switch off. It must be very difficult for social workers to go home each night and leave some of these emotionally-draining cases back at the office.”

Richard’s day with Wendi began with a 10am meeting with a pregnant woman, Melissa, who has an alcohol problem and is prone to outbursts of violence. She and her boyfriend are on the run from a notorious gang in Birmingham. She failed to turn up, claiming she had been confused by the Bank Holiday and thought the meeting was the following day. Wendi hastily rearranged the meeting for later in the day and then phoned her next client to bring their noon meeting forward.

In the drive across Birmingham Wendi outlined a complex tug-of-love situation to Richard. It involves Katanya from Ghana, who came over to Birmingham on a study visa more than seven years ago. She became pregnant by a man who then disappeared and was forced to bring up her daughter, work and pay for her studies.

Katanya could not afford expensive registered child minder fees but placed her daughter, Kay, 6, with a family friend on the other side of Birmingham for a fraction of the going rate. Kay slept over at the unofficial child minder’s five nights a week and was visited each night by her mother. Katanya would take Kay home at the weekends.

This arrangement continued successfully for five years without social workers needing to become involved. Trouble came to a head when Kay was of an age to attend school. Katanya wanted her daughter to attend the school near her home, the ‘child minder’ wanted her to attend the school close to her home.

Over the years, the ‘child minder’ had grown attached to Kay, who is a lively and beautifully-mannered child.  The ‘child minder’ went to a solicitor claiming she was effectively the child’s mother and accusing Katanya of hitting Kay.  The Birmingham Family Court issued a Prohibited Steps Order and gave a Temporary Residence Order to the ‘child minder’, giving temporary residency to her. As this was a civil case, CAFCASS were the agency to initiate a welfare report. 

CAFCASS referred the case to Birmingham City Council for a social worker to investigate under Section 47 Child Protection the allegation of the physical abuse. To further complicate matters, Kay had written in her school ‘feelings book’ that the ‘child minder’, had slapped her.

Social worker Wendi challenged both women about their respective allegations of abuse. Katanya admitted openly that she had smacked Kay on the hand for being naughty. In contrast, the ‘child minder’ denied slapping Kay, saying the child had been confused and that it was her mother that had slapped her. Wendi took the view that the ‘child minder’ was being evasive and was not telling the truth.

To further complicate matters, it was found that the ‘child minder’ had claimed to be Kay’s mother to claim child benefit, something Katanya knew nothing about. Because she was on a student visa, Katanya believed that she could not claim child benefit. In fact she could have claimed as soon as Kay was born.

Katanya, on the other hand, may well have been under the impression that at the age of seven, Kay could claim a British passport by birth right (as of December 2008 this is no longer the case) and Katanya  may have believed that this would secure her residency in England. Clearly, both women had a strong emotional bond with Kay, but they also both had practical reasons for wanting to be seen as her carer.

Wendi concluded that after investigation, there was no need to instigate a Child Protection Conference. She attended court with both parties, ensuring Katanya had a solicitor too. At court, it was decided that, because of Kay emotional state, there would be a phased return to her mother’s care.

After the court decision, Wendi visited Katanya’s house with journalist Richard and observed the interaction between mother and daughter, it was clear to her that a long transition period was actually going to harm Kay as a decision on where she was to go to school had to be made immediately and could not wait until Christmas. In addition, Kay was clear and open about wanting to stay with her mother.

Wendi left the house with a clear intention to get the court to alter the decision for the transition period. Richard left the house bewildered by the complexity of the issue.

Then it was on to the re-arranged meeting with Melissa in a women’s refuge, a rundown bed & breakfast ‘hotel’ on the outskirts of the city.

Melissa’s life had been thrown into chaos by drink and by an attraction to men who consistently proved to be unreliable. She already has two children, both of which were removed from her care while they were babies and given to her mother to care for. Melissa then had nine abortions and now, at the age of 31, she is pregnant again and on the run from a violent Gang who accused her of whipping up opposition to their drug dealing activities.

In a face-to-face confrontation the gang said they were going to put a gun to her head and ‘blow her away’. When someone intervened to say she was pregnant, they decided they would take it out on her boyfriend instead. He escaped with a severe beating that put him in hospital.

Apart from being on the run, Wendi is aware that Melissa’s boyfriend is not who he says he is. He claims to be out of prison on license and to have five children in London who have been taken into care because of his violence and abuse. Wendi has checked out all his ‘stories’ and found them to be untrue. He is currently hiding out in London.

Wendi’s dilemma is what to do with Melissa’s child when it is born at the end of December. Melissa says she has been off the drink for seven months. Wendi praises her but brings her back to the reality of situation, bearing in mind her previous attempts to bring up her two children. Wendi also tells Melissa straight that it would not be wise to let her keep the child with a partner who goes by a number of aliases and for whom there are no records.

Wendi carefully brokers a possible solution, which involves her going back home to live with her mother. This would have the advantage of giving her a stable environment and of being with her two other children aged six and eight.

The difficulty with the plan is that Melissa’s mother lives within the territory of the gang. Wendi gets round this by offering to talk to the housing department to get Melissa and her mother re-housed in a different area of the city.

Ironically, Richard has accompanied Wendi helping one mother to get her child back and another mother to keep her unborn child. This is totally at odds with the media stereotype that social workers take children away from their families.

At the end of Richard’s day with Wendi, he said: “Before today, I, like most people, had concerns about how social workers act in some of the most important and urgent child protection cases, particularly those high profile cases.

“I found the day with Wendi Grizzle extremely illuminating. I was really impressed with her thoroughness and her professionalism. It was reassuring to put a human face to what is often seen as a faceless bureaucratic machine.

“I was genuinely struck by the rapport Wendy had with the lovely little girl, Kay. She handled a very complex situation with great care and compassion and realism. It brought home to me the extremely difficult decisions social workers must make on a daily basis. When she told me she had six children of her own, I was astonished that she had the emotional strength to deal with these heart-rending issues year after year.

 “Observing these two cases through the eyes of an experienced professional, I could see how Wendi had arrived at her decisions and I was in full agreement with her approach and conclusions.

“But then, when I got home, I began to worry about whether the evidence presented to us by Melissa and Katanya was real or a fabrication … and what if the decisions were wrong.”

Welcome to the world of social work, Richard.

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