‘Too many local authorities scapegoat individual social workers rather than dealing with wider system failures’

Scapegoating is a term most people are familiar with, but for children’s social workers it is a real and everyday threat, says our anonymous blogger

By an anonymous social worker

The concept of the “scape goat” is biblical in origin. The High Priest would select two goats; one to be offered as a blood sacrifice and the other to be sent away to the wilderness. The belief was that the exiled goat would carry away with it all of the community’s sins and the people would be absolved as a result of this action.

Consider this premise alongside the punitive management culture that exists in many local authorities. Recently Ofsted identified that many children’s services departments are wholly inadequate as a result of under resourcing and poor leadership. Deep cuts to preventative services mean acute services are coming under increasing pressure.

The profession is undoubtedly constrained and influenced by the public reaction when a child dies or is seriously harmed. Of course, in these circumstances, decision making should be challenged and scrutinised through investigatory processes. However, it is my experience that the duty and desire to safeguard can be manipulated in another, less altruistic manner.

The following scenario is becoming depressingly familiar and is indicative of the bullying and scapegoating culture unleashed on any worker who dares to speak out. I call it the “retrospective trawl”. Here is how it works: the social worker/team manager in question is likely to be a permanent employee and one who works long and arduous hours with minimal support. This is necessary to cope with a high, complex caseload, which is unmanageable within the contractual hours. The social worker rightly becomes concerned about the impact this working pattern is having on their health and wellbeing, relationships and general ability to function.

If the worker decides enough is enough and submits a complaint of bullying or grievance, then the retrospective trawl is likely to begin. Usually the complaint will be acknowledged, but not acted on. A number of weeks later, the worker will be suspended on the deliberately vague allegation that their “practice/decision making has potentially left children at risk”.

Management will state the need to launch an investigation into the worker’s practice, sometimes going back a number of years. Cases will be trawled through and decisions scrutinised for “evidence” of poor practice amounting to gross misconduct. Often the case decisions in question will have been known about, just never properly considered in supervision.

If the worker does not mount a robust defence, they are likely to be dismissed and referred to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) or equivalent regulator. Internal investigations tend to be riddled with hindsight bias and often confuse the chronological order of events, sometimes deliberately, sometimes due to incompetence. Once the worker is dismissed, the original grievance is never actually properly heard. Their concerns regarding workload, lack of support and bullying remain unchallenged. The exiled worker literally becomes the scapegoat in the vain hope that in removing the troublesome employee the problem of an overloaded, failing service will simply go with them.

We all know it will not.

The practice using a scapegoat to banish sins may date back to the Old Testament but unfortunately it is alive and well in many children’s services departments today.

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21 Responses to ‘Too many local authorities scapegoat individual social workers rather than dealing with wider system failures’

  1. Tracey Waller January 8, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    So well put. This was profound in every team I ever worked in during the 10 years I practised as a social worker. On 2 occasions I was subjected to this behaviour myself, and i learned very early on in my career to keep quiet and struggle on, working increasingly into the night and weekends to manage my caseload. In my experience agency staff are more vulnerable to this kind of behaviour than permanent staff. It is soul destroying.

  2. John Ramsey January 8, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    Thanks, Anonymous, for an interesting and revealing article. If this seems depressingly familiar to readers, there are a number of things you can do which will help; firstly, join a union. Do it now, unions are very reluctant to represent members who don’t join up until they run into bother. If there is a choice, shop around to identify the one which offers the best individual representation – I would generally reccommend UNISON but local circumstances may apply.
    Better yet, become a rep/steward yourself. Anonymous, you clearly have a good analysis of the defects of your organisations management. Being a union rep can be incredibly empowering and beneficial both for employees and, in fact for the organisation in general.
    One of the things a good rep would do in the circumstances you describe would be to ensure that any grievance was properly heard and if necessary appealed before any disciplinary hearing takes place. If the member is supended, ask for specific reasons why their presence in the workplace is not acceptable. If it becomes clear that management have gone on a fishing trip to turn up past instances of poor performance, ask why these were not addressed earlier and take out a further grievance about that, again to be heard and appealed before any discplinary hearing. Above all deflect any crticism of the employee into exposing weaknesses in management. Do this until you begin to see a thousand yard stare come into their eyes when you sit down with them, then offer to solve the issue with external mediation!

  3. sunny monday January 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    Well said.

  4. Ann janes January 8, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    What is Goverment going to do about this . Or Social care governing body ??

  5. Slough social worker January 8, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    Completely agree and this is what is happening in the organisation. Many ethical practitioners are scapegoated to cover up management failings and to fake an inquiry to pacify scrutiny of ofsted. High and unplanned turn over of agency consultants feed into this blame culture and they walk out as soon as the difficulties arise. Permanent employees who bear brunt of the agency staff’s haphazard behaviour is further threatened by disciplinary actions. Important organisational issues such having adequate and reliable personnel, fair processes in place is senior management responsibility that is overlooked in this process.

    The situation is so dismal that one of my colleague who is suspended recently is so isolated and is on the verge of break down. It is three months now and there is still no clarity about the allegations against this worker. The union is not allowed to represent the worker and all the queries about the allegation as well as representation is not responded to. This is a collegue who worked average 50 hours a week to cover up the work left unaddressed by high turnover of agency y workers and also due to rapid changes in the organisational structure that resulted in utter chaos at operational level.

    All of us are so scared and afraid even inquire about this person as at the end of the day our jobs are important to us. This is against the very principles of social work that we are made to overlook such gross injustice to our colleagues and does affect us emotionally. I am not sure how we will be able to break through this circle of unjust practice.

  6. Foster Carer name witheld to prevent oppresive practice January 8, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

    Recently, child long term out of education and provision needs to be found and funded which is of course a LEGAL REQUIREMENT.

    The agency were delighted we were prepared to have them home schooled right up to the point where we mentioned:

    There would be a cost.

    Meeting that cost would be part of “meeting in full the cost of raising the child”

    Then within days a senior manager was actively briefing others against us.

  7. Lionel Carruthers January 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    We often find demonisation at play, when we are looking at how professionals, politicians and the media respond to situations where children, who were in contact with child protection professionals, end up dying through neglect or abuse. Serious case reviews, reviews carried out on the reasons for professional failures to pick up on indicators of abuse when children known to social services have died, often criticise the professionals who were directly involved in work with the children, who are said to have missed evidence, that if they had acted on, would have led to the protection of the child, and would have avoided the death of the child.

    This very phenomenon occurred in the serious case review of the failings surrounding the murder and death of Daniel Pelka, who died at the hands of his parents. The professionals involved in the case were criticised for not taking actions, that might have led them to concluding that Daniel was being abused, and to then safeguard the child, the review and social commentators have not really addressed the question of what it is professionals were focussed on, if not the child protection issues, and why they were uniquely focussed on these issues.

    The authors of the review have been criticised for this. According to Community Care, Eileen Munro has commented that the review, whilst criticising workers does not explain why they acted as they did. ”It’s written totally with hindsight saying that now that we know what was happening to Daniel they should have noticed,” she said. Munro also questioned the author’s criticism of Daniel’s school, which failed to report his bruises. “If you were to go to a group of four-year-old boys and check how many of them had bruises on any one day you’d find it was probably over half. At the time, a bruise on its own does not alert you…. I feel this report just describes what was done and the actual workers are invisible and their voice isn’t heard. It is a complaint [the author] makes of their treatment of Daniel, but it’s also true within the review.”

    Camille Pemberton, writing in Community Care, pointed out that in the last five years, “Referrals to social services have risen dramatically in that time, while the number of children with child protection plans has grown from 27,000 to 44,000. Local authorities also have expensive costs with the increased numbers of children in care. And yet the government is reducing the money it gives to local councils and children’s services. Indeed, the government is as guilty as anyone of creating the blame culture through the priority it gives to serious case reviews. They reduce the time that can be given to children and families by managers and social workers who are distracted by the serious case review processes.”

    According to the Guardian the review hinted that the professionals were under pressure because of high workloads and understaffing, but does not seem to go any further into the issue. According to Community Care the authors of the serious case review noted that some of the failings in applying procedures could be attributed to a severe shortage of health visitors in the Coventry area and high caseloads amongst the social work team. The sheer volume of domestic abuse notifications and referrals were also cited as a potential contributing factor.

    This suggests that addressing the issue of why professionals chose to act in the way they did will provide us with better information on why professionals sometimes fail and what can be done to improve professional practice, but this tends not to happen precisely because is is unpalatable for the authorities and politicians, who would rather the buck stopped with the demonised professionals.

    Demonisation then is a kind of abuse, an organsiational and institutionalised abuse, where directors and senior managers victimize social workers for failings, which are partly of their own making.

    It is like asking a child to do something impossible, and then chiding the child in front of the school assembly for not being able to do it.

  8. iankemp January 8, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    absolutely true.. Social work lost its image many years ago.. It has been marginalised for a long time in all areas . Now it is merely a local Gov job managing the system . It used to be about change and care . Now its about budgets. and management .. Its a long story . My 44 years in the care business including social work than Psychology has reinforced my views.. A lot of money and time is wasted on systems with the main focus on budgets . Social work to survive has to be removed from local authority control and its systems and soulless control. Than it may be able to develop as a profession. In local Gov. it is subject to the incremental bureaucracy and control . This has since the 80 s squeezed the life out of social work.

    • L I Stafford January 9, 2014 at 5:55 am #

      I totally agree. I have been subject to bullying and intimidation as an Agency Social Worker. Short term contract Social Workers are more likely to be scapgoated than permanent employees. As a disabled Social Worker (who fully disclosed limitations due to the disability) I was scapegoated following the death of a close family member. I tendered the required notice and agreed to complete. Completed all outstanding work prior to leaving. During my notice period I was allocated more cases. When I complained and refused to take on the aforementioned allocated cases a complaint was made to the General Social Care Council, who found I had no case to answer and the complaint was dismissed. The Service Manager then contacted recruitment agencies and other regional Local Authorities advising not to employ me. After 25 years as a senior practitioner and Team Manager I made the decision to leave the profession. Until Social Work is removed from Local Authorities, who in the main do not have the capacity to effectively provide a service, I can see no improvement for service users.

  9. Honesty Addict January 8, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    Excellent and succinct description of the scenario which occurs across the professions, and not only in children’s services.
    Weak, institutionalized leaders, ill informed ‘management’ structures who have no practise knowledge and could not cope with the complexity of the profession, and mostly, dishonest and thoroughly corrupt L.A. machines which hide ‘ dirt’ very well, but have no idea how to support a clean, honest and transparent service as a basic standard.

    With even weaker unions, who are complicit with these systems, and the likes of BASW who replicate these patterns with their own institutionalised workers. They fail the professionals they represent ;enjoy the spoils of Social Worker’s monthly contributions, but run to the shadows when they are challenged with standing up to LA scapegoating.

    The very secrecy that allows child and adult abuse to occur in society, is seen in a mirror image, in the way BASW and similar unions advise their members to keep records , day and night, of the effects of scapegoating…..but fail to address the issues recorded in these records.

    ” To thine own self be true”. Our ethical codes are well written, hang on to what is right. never trust anyone to have the same moral code as you. When the shit hits the fan you may find yourself alone. When you do, remember what is important to you, and your loved ones. Sadly, the service user will always be reliant on the very system that you have strived to improve for them. If you really care, you are great ! Just believe it.

    Fear rules….. but hopefully our services will benefit from the diversity in out community one day, will not be dominated by detached and self serving ‘white middle class’ clones, and will not resort to scapegoating…or is idealism the problem….

  10. Maurice Hogarth January 8, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    Well, attack is usually acknowledged as a good form of defence. So, attacking the whistle blower, et al, personally and professionally is likely to take over the headlines and so the cover up activities to protect the guilty move in to place… Remember that if the worker’s immediate line-senior is not competent then their line-senior must also be incompetent for not knowing or doing something, about their subordinate’s performance and so on up the organisation. Reflecting all of the weaknesses of ‘performance management’. Remember everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence. (We only promote people who are currently competent in their jobs. It is the key factor in determining potential for promotion. The incompetent are ignored. Assessing people for competence in their potential job is far too time consuming and expensive. — So how expensive and time consuming are the clean-up / cover-up activities?? Many people go for promotion because of the additional money it brings, with little thought of the changes it will require of them.) So, good Social Workers become poor Supervisors / Managers while good managers may become poor Directors: primarily because the change of roles is not adequately trained and developed for. Primarily because of cost and ‘lack of time’ — So (despite what the policies say) this ‘investment’ — in false economies and lack of training and development — provides the ‘return’ that might be expected: poor / minimum-get-by-performance as the norm at all levels with only occasional pockets of good performance. Whereas with the appropriate investment (primarily effort and thinking rather than money) in ensuring performance excellence at all levels would remove the stain of image, as well as the cost of combatting incompetence and stress. As you sow, so shall you reap.

  11. Ian Merry January 8, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

    The features that the writer details are widespread in social work. I have seen so many good colleagues exit social work in this manner, and I became a victim last year.

    The Trades Unions are emasculated, Ofsted is incompetent, the HCPC is useless and the College of Social Work is an expensive waste of time and money…..so expect more of the above as there is no one to properly advocate on your behalf should you fall foul of the system.

    I have often thought that the Scapegoat should be a universal symbol of social work and social workers. I suggest that all your readers visit the Manchester or Liverpool Art Galleries to gaze in wonder at William Holman Hunt’s great painting of “The Scapegoat”, available in 2 versions. I have indeed made homage to view these paintings on a number of occasions and it remains the greatest experience of reflective practice I have felt in my entire social work career, of nearly 40 years.

    Becoming a scapegoat is a hard road as I am now unemployable and living in penury thanks to the callousness and cruelty of qualified and registered social workers. Codes of practice and ethics….don’t make me laugh. However my social work career is not entirely over, I have one duty yet to complete and that is giving evidence in the trials of 2 paedophiles who I blew the whistle on in 1987,as a newly qualified social worker, and who was not believed at the time. I was scapegoated then for my malicious allegations, and have remained in the dustbin….sorry frontline ever since….so it goes

  12. Alan January 9, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    For me this is symptomatic of the blame culture that exists in this country, finding someone to blame resolves nothing but perpetuates ineffective policies and practice.
    It should focus on what is the problem and how can we resolve it, rather than blaming a person send them for retraining for if a person has a less than adequate track record it may be their training and assessment that was not adequate. If it is a long term issue their supervision may be not of the required quality. So blame gets no where for it could be a complex chain of events that need to be rectified. Blame should never be part of best practice.

  13. Denise watson January 9, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    I agree totally with this article “L.A’s scapegoat individual SW’s.”

    This is alive in all walks of Social work practice.

    True social work is not practiced anymore, it is a budget linked, care management process. Where L.A’s state that they are person centred but in fact services are constrained by the resources available. More and more individuals are given basic services to prevent crisis (if this can be done often the crisis has occurred), Then are being signposted to community based service’ s which don’t cost L.A’s under the disguise of “transformation”.
    SW’s highlight often within supervision (if they get it), and other channels re: work pressures, case loads, etc. Although supervisors / managers appear to listen and write down issues. nothing in practice changes. As management are the gate keepers for higher management and so it goes.

    Then unfortunately as the article indicates one person has enough and shouts out in a cry for help and gets descended upon and dismissed ( I have knowledge of this happening to people outside the L.A.).

    It is a sad state of affairs when you do your job to the best of your ability and then your livelihood is threatened.

  14. John Ramsey January 9, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    I’m not sure that I agree with ian’s analysis although I think Anonymous is most perceptive.
    The key is, as he or she says, to mount a robust defence. Join a Union; do this now as Unions mostly won’t represent people who leave it until they run into trouble! A good rep/steward will address both the individual’s victimisation and the employer’s failings which have led to this sorry state.
    The kind of abject management which the article describes will only flourish where the workforce is too cynical or passive to fight back!

  15. Slough Social Worker January 9, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    Completely agree as we see this happening in the office. Good and ethical practitioners are scapegoated to cover up senior management failings. The problems are even more complex with high turn over of agency consultants brought in to improve the performance overnight. The emerging picture is the hard working permanent staff is burdened with unreal expectations and agency workers leave next hour ( not even a day) when things start getting difficult. One of my colleague is suspended at present and knowing the reality we can not do anything about this as the next casualty will be us. Sad as this is very against of the social work values of justice and fairness.

  16. Charles Huddleston January 9, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Sadly, carers are just as likely to be scapegoated if they complain about the quality of services. As I write, I have four cases on my desk where a family carer has complained, and subsequently found themselves the subject of a safeguarding investigation.


  17. Charlotte Peters Rock January 9, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    This really is a question of deciding whether or not social workers are ‘professionals’.

    If they are professionals, then it is up to them to refuse to take on more than they can reasonably cope with. Where they take on far too much work, they are personally letting down the most vulnerable people in society.

    It is also up to other social workers, both within that team and local authority and country wide, to support each other’s professionalism.. by backing up social workers who refuse to take too heavy a case load.

    If Directors of services, do not adequately lead, then their jobs should be forfeit. Instead of that, failing social work practices within one local authority I know, has brought National ‘recognition’, for the Director of Services. This disgraceful way of rewarding rubbish leadership, is something for which we all pay. We should protest it and get it stopped.

    Then perhaps all social workers will get back to doing the job according to the job description, by being accurate, thorough and efficient both in their work and their record keeping.

    I feel there is a very long way to go with that, having suffered at first hand the rotten cover-ups which take place on a daily basis – within Children’s Services – at one local authority.

  18. Jon Fayle January 9, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    I’m sure this happens all the time. However, an available remedy that is not I think well known is “whistleblowing” under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA).

    This act provides protection for “whistleblowers”. If a “worker” (not necessarily a direct employee) for an organisation, makes a “protected disclosure” (something warning for example about a breach of law, or harm to a person or persons) and the worker consequently suffers a detriment, the worker may seek remedy at an employment tribunal.

    The concerns the social worker or manager raises in the article, are almost certainly “protected disclosures” The social worker then suffers a “detriment” resulting from trumped up charges of longstanding poor practice, strangely not raised before when they were allegedly happening. The worker can then raise a claim to the Employment Tribunal, whose job it will be (if it comes to court) to decide whether the action against the worker results from them “blowing the whistle” or genuine concerns about poor practice. The Tribunal is likely to be much more fair and independent than the LA’s internal disciplinary procedures. Also the LA has to defend the claim – it is on the back foot, no longer in the driving seat. In all probability the LA wont want the matter to go to and Employment Tribunal and will seek to reach an agreement with the worker.

    I speak from personal experience here. I had my contract ended by a LA as an Independent Reviewing Officer, because (I believed) I was making inconvenient challenges about the way a LA was treating looked after children. The LA alleged there were quite different reasons, which in my view were entirely groundless. When I placed a claim before the Employment Tribunal, the LA rolled over immediately. It had no appetite to defend the case, and we came to a good settlement.

    I do encourage all staff who believe they are being mistreated in this way to consider using this whistleblowing legislation.


    Jon Fayle

    Independent Reviewing Officer

  19. L I Stafford January 12, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    This is more so for Agency Social Worker who are a more vulnerable to scapegoating and bullying.

  20. John Ramsey January 15, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    I would like to endorse Jon Fayle’s point; there are remedies and sanctions including the Employment Tribunal. Knowing that there could be an ET is a powerful motivator for employers to keep the internal processes fair and transparent. Again, should it come to an ET your union will provide legal representation.
    While unions nowadays are not as powerful as formerly in the field of collective bargaining, they can be very effective in individual representation.