How it feels when a child on your social work team’s caseload dies

For all Munro’s attempts to erase the social work blame culture, we’re still a profession dominated by it, says an anonymous social worker

An anonymous social worker’s story

It’s a morning I’ll never forget for the rest of my social work career. Before I sat down, my manager called me over. “A child has died,” she said. I heard her. I saw her lips move. But I just couldn’t process the information. I just shut down and walked away. I was in shock and wanted to be alone.

It’s an uncomfortable reality, but when you enter child protection social work you know children might die (we’ve all read serious case reviews). We work with hundreds of vulnerable children every year. We see abuse and neglect every day. But, you never – ever – think a death will happen on your team.

The child who died wasn’t my case (although it easily could have been), but the fallout has affected each and every single one of my team. There’s the hurt of knowing parents killed a child on our caseload, despite us doing everything in our power to protect them; there’s the sheer shock of the whole thing; and there’s the crippling fear that we’ll be the latest targets of a tabloid witch hunt. The treatment of Haringey social workers in the wake of the Baby P case is still fresh in our memories.

We pride ourselves on working hard. We pull together and support each other. But when a tragedy like this happens, you start questioning your ability. The child’s death, and the looming serious case review, hang over you and your colleagues but the day job doesn’t stop. It’s easy to go into panic mode but you have to keep going.

And, from my experience, it feels like it’s all made worse by the way local authorities handle these situations. Suddenly all kinds of bosses you’ve never seen before come to your meetings. Directors and senior managers – all under their own pressures – tell you the process isn’t about blame. But their speeches feel rehearsed. They don’t feel honest.

The truth is I feel that we are being blamed. It feels like the spotlight is now intensely on our team. My own judgement is getting questioned just that little bit more than it did before.

In fact, everyone has started questioning everyone. Nobody wants the buck to stop with them, whether it’s a receptionist worried they forgot to scan a document or a social worker terrified they may have missed a warning sign. At the same time it feels like other teams are gossiping about what’s happened.

For all Eileen Munro’s attempts to move social work away from a blame culture, this experience has taught me that we’re still a profession dominated by exactly that. For the first time in my social work career I feel de-skilled.

I’ve always, always thought that I wasn’t risk-averse in my practice. I love positive social work. Right now, I don’t feel I have the energy for it. I feel my local authority is forcing us down a defensive route and it makes me sad.

I fear this defensive attitude might last for some time. I hope it doesn’t because working in this defensive culture, under these pressures, makes me sometimes feel like walking away from the job I love.

Whatever happens with this job, I know I won’t walk away from social work as a profession. I love working  with children and families, even the most difficult cases. But, if I’m honest, this has been the hardest experience of my career. I keep telling myself I’ll come out of it a better, stronger social worker. I hope that proves to be the case.

Read more: Social workers blow the whistle on rising child protection thresholds

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2 Responses to How it feels when a child on your social work team’s caseload dies

  1. Diane Johnson November 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    l was involved in a child death 23 years ago. i was joint working with a colleague because l had extensive experience in child protection.
    l felt the baby should have been removed. Complacency abounded.
    My concerns were not listened to.
    Fortunately? the media did not get involved.
    She dies from a fractured skull having been banged against a wall.
    l still feel angry.
    This was a preventable death.
    My colleage never worked with children again.
    Everyone was exonerated at the internal inquiry.

  2. Miss S November 28, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    In some respects I share your experience. I work with children with disabilities so my experience is different in that I work with life limited children. However when a child I was working with died unexpectedly recently it threw me back and has left me doubting myself about whether I am really in the right job. I love my job but the stress I have experienced due to this has really taken its toll. While I know the nature of my role involves sick children, no amount of preparation or training can help you through. It was unexpectedthis madeiit even harder to manage.
    The meetings that came next….child death and rapid response…this was too much. I had to sit in the meeting with other professionals (who only really knew the child as a name) and give my views as though I was detached and hadn’t been her sw for the last 3 years.
    This experience has left me thinking about my role in this team as I will undoubtedly have to go through this again. Am I strong enough? This was the third child in this year that we had pass away in our team and in all honesty this time around management did support me. But the big question is still lingering…even after 5 years of working with the same client group am I really supported by sw when these unfortunate episodes occur?