With another round of social worker bashing on the horizon, Terry Brownbill looks at where the responsibility should lie when a child tragically dies
As the PR consultant employed to support Birmingham City Council and to liaise with the media throughout the Khyra Ishaq murder trial, I have some insight into the effects of the media response to such high-profile child protection cases.
The coverage of the Ishaq trial took an unexpected turn when the care proceedings judgement of Mrs Justice King was released on the final day of the second trial.
The judgement was reported by a large part of the media to have placed the blame for Khyra’s death on social workers. The trial judge, Mr Justice Roderick Evans, made no such observation. The people to blame for Khyra’s death were the two people in the dock and he handed down 15-year prison terms to them both.
In Mrs Justice King’s judgement, Khyra would probably be alive today if social workers had carried out an adequate initial assessment and had acted more robustly on the referral from Khyra’s school that she and another child in the care of Junaid Abuhamza and Angela Gordon had been stealing food. The direct link between the referral and stealing food was not made in court.
Up to the point where Mrs Justice King released her judgement, two important issues had emerged from the trial evidence: first, social workers lacked the legal powers to enter a property without a court order granted by a judge; second, local authorities have extremely limited powers on regulating elective home education.
As a media specialist in the public sector I am used to defending local authorities where high-profile issues are involved. But it is of depressingly perennial concern to me that society expects social workers to “blag” their way into hostile environments without the essential legal powers to do so. And, when they are refused entry and a child dies, society holds the profession to account.
In the Khyra Ishaq case, more than 30 witnesses in the community were identified to give evidence. Many of them had seen, heard or suspected something, yet no-one thought to alert police or social services. In the area of Birmingham where Khyra died, there are about 90 languages and dialects spoken. The range of cultural differences and the consequent dilution of community cohesion is a complicating factor for social workers in the city.
Across the country, not just in Birmingham, social workers are thin on the ground. They need the support of the community as their eyes and ears. The often gratuitous media scapegoating of social workers plays a role in discouraging members of the public from “making that call”.
A greater sense of proportion is called for from society – and the media. Children’s social workers don’t enter the profession for the money, they do so because they want to make a difference to children’s lives. Mistakes and negligence by the medical profession routinely kill more people than social workers, yet they escape the vicious public animosity that seems to be reserved just for social workers.
One thing is certain: whenever the serious case review into Khyra’s death is released by Ofsted, it will highlight where lessons can be learned by all the agencies involved in the protection of children. But for the media (with a few exceptions) it will be another opportunity for social worker bashing.
Perhaps it is too much to expect the media to reflect on their one-sided coverage of social work, but a serious consequence of seeking out only the bad news is that there is an acute shortage of social workers across the country and that is endangering the lives of children too.
Terry Brownbill is a PR consultant to local authorities in England
This article is published in the 1 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Social workers didn’t kill Khyra, the two in the dock did”