“Welcome! To the annual child abuse awards.” The cry greeted social workers, managers and even government ministers at The Social Worker of the Year Awards last Friday.
On an evening designed to celebrate great social work, the megaphoned shouts of angry protestors upset many social workers, but prompted much reflection on how the sector communicates with people who are angry at having their children taken into care.
About 20 protestors attended the event following a campaign on social media. Under the watchful eyes of police and security staff the protestors accused attendees of being “child abusers” and “criminals”. Whilst uncomfortable to hear, Bridget Robb, BASW’s chief executive, called for the voices outside the building to be heard.
Speaking to Community Care after the event, she stressed the importance of social work not being defensive. “I think the day we stop listening, the day we stop hearing is the day we stop calling ourselves a profession and we just become local government employees,” she says.
The protestors were expressing pain and anger at a system they feel lies and fails to listen to them.
“Most people in that room would’ve understood the right of those people to demonstrate against what seems to be harsh and oppressive treatment,” says Brian Mitchell, curriculum team leader for health and social care at Bradford College and at the event to present an award. “It’s a fundamental democratic right of everybody so you can’t criticise it, but we’re the one profession that goes, ‘of course they’ve got every right to do that, we might not agree with that but they’ve got every right to do that,’ even on this evening.”
Social media has fuelled the anger of protestors, says Jenny Molloy, who was attending the event in her official capacity as a patron of BASW. “Parents who have had their kids removed have been able to connect with each other and really instil in themselves these amazing myths that social workers want adoptable kids, and they get paid bonuses per every child who is adopted, which is not true.”
She highlights a “serious lack” of support for parents after a child has been removed. “They have to put their anger somewhere. And their anger is towards social workers and the courts.”
“We must never disbelieve that sometimes the actions we are involved in cause hurt. I hope the next stage, having made the protest, is actually finding the ways to have a dialogue about how things can change,” adds Robb.
“We know ourselves how we want the system to change to provide a better service, so we can also understand why people involved in the systems also have views on how things need to change, so why wouldn’t we have a discussion?”
This was supported by Professor Ray Jones, independent chair of the Social Worker of the Year Awards. “What is helpful is to create opportunities for dialogue and debate, as much as hostile chanting and sloganizing. And I hope those opportunities will arise.”
“Creating the possibility for people to meet and talk together, and with a recognition that social workers are not the adoption decision makers, that lies with the courts and judges, and that social workers themselves do not easily look towards children being removed from parents,” is key to generating a discussion on these issues, says Jones.
What’s needed is a service to support parents, says Molloy, as well as advocates for the families during the proceedings, someone not involved in the case but who can talk the everyday language that families need in order to understand what’s happening.
“One of the things we’re guilty of is we sort of assume people know what we do, because we know what we do,” says Mitchell, who agrees there’s a need for a “common language” to explain processes and what social workers do.
“We have a responsibility to try and make sure that people are helped to either challenge the decisions made about themselves or their families or find ways to move on in their lives, whatever that might look like,” says Robb.