It was, I later realised, a disaster waiting to happen. It happened in an all too familiar scenario – a highly-pressurised social work department with many unallocated cases, staff vacancies, low morale and one of the team on long-term sick leave.
In all of this I was an agency worker dealing with duty cases. The sickness absence left a child protection case unallocated. It had been ongoing for two years without progress. I was asked to take the case on, which I did.
I liked the mother, but she was brash, rude and clearly not able to meet her children’s needs. The children had no friends and were struggling with school. The house was filthy and had been so for years.
Chronic emotional damage
It felt to me like the mother had no capacity for insight or change and much of the emotional damage to the children was chronic. An impasse then.
I developed a good relationship with the family by developing mutual respect, but could not do the impossible. I knew I could not put off the inevitable. So when the time came to write the report for the child protection conference, the department’s view was that we needed to seek legal advice. Inevitably, care proceedings would follow.
Giving the family the bad news fell, of course, to me. The mother became very irate. She said she would stop the conference, cursed me and threatened to make me lose my job. I left her ranting like this, it was her habit to do so if challenged; there was no more I could say.
Next morning I was told that the mother had reported me for assaulting her son on the visit; for the moment the conference was stopped. Then the machinery of a child protection enquiry swung into action; I had been the person doing the investigating before but now I was being investigated.
Sense of dispair
I immediately went home and wrote down all that happened and who else had witnessed the visit. The next month was nightmarish and I shall never forget the sense of despair that sometimes gripped me during that time. Knowing what to expect made it no easier, it some ways it was worse.
I had very good family support but when I tried to find out who would support me formally during the investigation, there was no handy guide. My agency said come back when it was over and my union said they could only help if it was a formal disciplinary process.
Even a private solicitor was wary about helping unless it came to a formal police investigation. I was worried that the mother may have had hit the child to blame it on me, but thankfully she had not and so it became a single agency investigation.
As so often in these things it dragged on. When the week came for my interview the solicitor would not help. Approaching a local union official I was told my subscription did not cover their representing me; it was nice to get a clear answer in such a risky situation. Luckily for me my agency’s line softened and my consultant came to the interview I had with an investigator.
The outcome was that it had been a malicious allegation. An immense relief. So what next? The placement would not take me back, saying I should not have visited the family on my own. It felt like I was being blamed for the allegation – there was no logic and my agency’s protestations fell on deaf ears.
Had I been a full-time staff member there would have been procedures for reintegration, but I was an expendable temporary worker so there was no such obligation. The hired hand. Our profession has much to learn about how its own staff can be abused but I doubt if it ever will.
‘I was an outcast’
When I arranged with the team manager to get my belongings I was told “not to discuss the incident with anyone”. When I went to the office it was clear I was an outcast, met with a wall of silence.
It occurred to me then that no matter what happened in the future, I would never go through anything more brutal than this. I can understand how others feel when they have been a victim and yet are treated as if they are guilty.
I had insight into what families go through, not something I had sought. Even now, after many years, I can only talk about it as “happening to someone I know”.