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.
- Related conference: The ‘Baby P Legacy’ five years on: What have we learnt?