I have spent the last two days with a child protection team working in a deprived area. They deal with high-risk cases but took the radical step of inviting me to see what they do.
How did this happen? After all, many councils are infamously reluctant to open up their social work departments to the press.
Well, at a recent event a social worker from this team grabbed me. She said: “You’re from Community Care but you’ve never visited us to see what we do. Why not?”
I explained that many councils, or more to the point defensive communication teams, often block these visits. The fear seems to be based on a blunt calculation that social work + journalist = trouble.
Having none of it, the social worker simply said: “leave it with me”. Three days later the visit was arranged. Social workers really are good at sorting things in the face of all sorts of obstacles.
The explosive revelations
So what were the shocking revelations that confronted me when I walked in to the child protection team? After all, I’d finally secured access to an area of work so many local authorities seem to want journalists kept away from.
Here’s the truth. I found a team not of the down beaten, burnt out social workers you read about all too often (and I’ve definitely written about). Instead, this was a group full of energy, humour and driven by an incredible commitment to the children and families they work with.
They loved their local area and community. We talked about inequality – not in the way ministers or think tanks do – but because the office we were sitting in backed onto a road where a housing estate notorious for gang violence sits opposite a new high-price flats development for the rich.
I met a head of service who sits alongside his team, not out of sight in a plush office. He was open to new suggestions and, more importantly, being challenged by his staff too. I heard about managers trying to keep caseloads manageable for their teams, not pile more work on them.
No social work fairytale
But this wasn’t some kind of social work fairytale. Staff grumbled about hotdesking – a consequence of working in a dated council building that is creaking under the pressure of accommodating more and more staff without the room, or budget, to expand.
The team took calls from angry clients, they complained about housing shortages and got frustrated with IT equipment (which office doesn’t?).
Although I didn’t witness it in person, one manager was candid enough to admit that disagreements between staff over cases have, at points, boiled over into full on shouting matches.
I met newly qualified social workers and students who had great experiences. I heard about others who went through tough times and felt they should have had more support from their teams and local authority as a whole. I also heard how the teams acted and learnt from this criticism, they didn’t bury it.
Likewise, I met service users who didn’t have a bad word to say about social services, and others who had experienced fraught and fractious relationships with their social workers. One admitted they had been terrified of a profession they thought of as ‘child snatchers’ prior to actually working with them.
An infectious environment
This wasn’t a whitewashed PR version of social work. Nor was it being presented as one. What I saw was real, messy and alive. It was a buzzing office with a team full of energy, passion, at many points frustration, but always, always supportive of one another.
It was infectious. It was a million miles away from the social work so often portrayed in the media. And the social workers I was with told me that, despite developing thick skins through their jobs, the barrage of negative, often inaccurate, press coverage of their profession does hurt.
When it comes to changing that, many in social work are obsessed with the idea that we need to tell ‘good news stories’ or ‘positive stories’ about this job. I think that misses the point.
What we need is to tell real stories about social work. We shouldn’t be afraid to show that this is an incredibly complex world where cases rarely fit some kind of black/white ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ story.
Where journalists are given the access, and make the effort, to reflect this complexity, the public responds too. Look at the reaction to Protecting our Children, the BBC series on frontline child protection that was aired earlier this year.
Personally, long before I was a journalist, I remember thinking Deborah Orr’s article in The Guardian on the realities of being a mental health social worker was incredibly powerful. Why? Because it was real and captured the rewards and frustrations of this kind of work.
Journalists have a duty too
Of course I’m not saying let any hack loose on your social work team – far from it. Yours is an incredibly sensitive area of work and journalists have a duty to be responsible in their reporting too.
Ahead of agreeing to any visit ask a journalist what they are looking to cover about your team and why. Check out the kind of stuff they have written before. These visits should only go ahead if there is trust on both sides.
I want to do more of these visits. But I was only able to do this one because one social worker, her team and head of service made it happen for me. I am incredibly grateful to them all. It was a brave move – they asked me to simply write what I saw.
By means of contrast I have been trying to set up a visit to another social work team via the official communications team. Four months of emails, briefings and phone calls later and still nothing has been sorted. All I want to do is see what being a mental health social worker is like.
I’ll publish a full account of my time with the child protection team in January and of course reveal exactly where I was based (for now, you know who you are and how much I appreciated spending time with the team).
But if any social workers, team managers or communications people reading this would be interested in discussing a visit to one of your services please email me at email@example.com.
At the end of the day, the last two days made me want to be a social worker and be able to do what you do (ask my colleagues – I’ve barely shut up about this visit since starting it). I can’t offer higher praise than that. Have a good festive break.Andy McNicoll is Community Care’s community editor