Review of Channel 4’s Dispatches Undercover Social Worker

Channel 4's Dispatches sent a reporter undercover to Surrey Council children's services to reveal the true state of child protection. Social worker Sharon Brown reports

Channel 4’s Dispatches sent a reporter undercover to Surrey Council children’s services to reveal the true state of child protection. Social worker Sharon Brown reports

Channel 4, screened on 7June. Also at

A fundamental part of social work training is learning not to generalise. We should bear this in mind when reacting to last week’s Dispatches programme on Channel 4, in which an undercover reporter joined Surrey Council children’s services as a family support worker.

The media is notorious for sensationalising what the public has come to expect from the social work profession – a chaotic and failing workforce.

In all teams, in every council, there will be good and poor practice and to highlight one council is not a true portrayal of the profession. The programme focused on the self-preservation of workers and their efforts to protect themselves.

However, the overriding message this programme highlighted was the frustrations and feelings of helplessness common to social workers and their managers who find themselves juggling limited resources and unrelenting workloads, a problem felt nationally and not just in Surrey. This was evident when one tearful worker stated: “I think I care too much and I don’t think you are meant to care.”

This simple, yet powerful, statement emphasised the conflict between workers trying to adequately do the job they are trained for, and, more importantly, aspire to do, and the constraints imposed by government which sets unattainable and unrealistic targets.

The manager was technically wrong to allocate a potentially high risk child protection case to undercover family support worker, John, but should she have delayed her response to the case? She weighed her options and gave John the case under her supervision for which she acknowledged she was accountable.

Inspections of child protection teams allow substandard reports to be deemed acceptable, so long as they meet the deadline. Most social workers would delight in being able to sit with a family to ensure a solid assessment is made before returning to the office, compiling a full report detailing the strengths within the family and areas where support is needed.

In an ideal world there would be sufficient funding to train, recruit and support social workers, especially those new to the profession. But in an ideal world there would also be no need for social workers as there would be no child protection cases.

These cases will not stop arriving on social workers’ desks – improvements will only be made with realistic and effective government intervention allowing workers the freedom to practice.

Now all the profession can do is wait until the powers that be inform the nation on how the proposed cuts will affect an already struggling profession.

Sharon Brown is a qualified social worker, freelance writer and photographer. She currently works for the Riding for the Disabled Association.

Read about Surrey’s response to the programme

What carespace contributors thought…

Sympathetic take or misleading portrayal?

queenb: It was a good representation of life in a overworked, understaffed team, who are trying to by the skin of their teeth to deal with a caseload that is too large and complex for the staff available. It seemed to be a very sympathetic portrayal of staff who mostly want to do a good job and care, but are swamped and unable to do what they want to.

jelly_tot04 Although the programme’s contents came as no surprise to me, I’ve just been chatting to some non-social worker friends who watched the programme and it’s opened their eyes as to what actually goes on. They say they are now less likely to vilify social workers at every opportunity, which can only be a good thing.

Hatgirl: The emphasis was very much on the inappropriate use of unqualified workers and paperwork which although both significant problems are not ‘just’ what goes on in social work teams. As many on this forum suspected the title was very misleading.

Molly Garboden, journalist, Community Care: The documentary is more a plea for help for social workers and support workers rather than a condemnation of them. Yes, practice is shown as sloppy, social workers are seen not following protocol, but the film makers seem very sympathetic of practitioners’ plight. Workers are shown crying because they “care too much”, venting frustration at being trapped in the office under mountains of paperwork.

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