‘Will Silent Witness compound views that no child is safe from removal?’

The latest episode of crime drama, Silent Witness, showed some appreciation for the pressures of social work but it was littered with inaccuracies, writes BASW professional officer Sue Kent

Photo: BBC

By Sue Kent, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers

Ratings rivals Broadchurch (ITV) and Silent Witness (BBC 1) are both facing flack for their inaccurate portrayals of professional and courtroom procedure. A TV writer, who I previously duelled with over an EastEnders social work storyline, argued this is not real life, this is fiction. But does that make such inaccuracies okay?

After a busy day immersed in social work, I settled down to watch this week’s two-parter of Silent Witness and within the first five minutes found myself tutting. The episodes, entitled ‘Protection’, focused on the murder of a paedophile in a London park and placed social worker, Louise Marsh, at the centre of the action.

Marsh, a seemingly confident and experienced social worker, is initially shown in court giving evidence to support her application for an interim court order. When the judge asks for evidence, Marsh refers only to a gut instinct that the child is in danger. The judge declines to grant the order, prompting Marsh to approach the bench and whisper a desperate plea that he change his mind.

‘Child snatcher’ myth

The myth of the social worker as avenging ‘child snatcher’ was a theme that ran throughout the drama, with one child saying to Marsh “you’re the lady who tried to steal me”. Marsh herself stalked the corridors of various institutions (no heavy caseload for her) muttering robotically to anyone who would listen: “I have to protect the child”.

The audience was confused as to whether this was a stressed social worker on the verge of a breakdown, or in fact the murderer of said paedophile.

‘Glaring errors’

The competing storylines were confusing, with a number of unrelated child protection cases covering almost every aspect a case could have. We saw child sexual abuse both within and outside of the family, historic abuse, non-accidental injury, conflicting paediatric diagnoses, care leavers, adoption, and care proceedings.

There were glaring errors, such as referring to a long-abolished child protection register and a child sexual abuse medical examination being conducted by a pathologist. The social worker was seen withholding evidence, using poor Achieving Best Evidence techniques, and out-dated practice such as using dolls to re-enact scenarios.

She even popped up at the mortuary to hob nob with the pathologist, which really stretched the bounds of credibility.

No support

By the end of the first programme we are led to believe that Marsh is ‘super social worker’, working totally in isolation without a manager or any support. I hoped the second episode would show her turning a corner and she does in a way, by spiralling into depression and an unsuccessful suicide attempt, before being rescued by a care leaver.

Episode two also shows the social worker ignore medical advice regarding a baby with extensive bruising on his body and pressing ahead with an application for an interim care order, again believing her gut instinct of non-accidental injury.

This evidence would have been challenged and the conflicting information would have emerged. The case would not have been resolved by an anguished doctor turning up outside court and urging the social worker to redeem her tattered reputation by returning the baby to its innocent parents.

Lasting image

There was some appreciation in episode two of the toll the job can take. When asked who would want to do her job, Marsh replies: “Me. I wanted to do it. I always wanted to do it. I thought I could make a difference to people. At the beginning it’s just odd; it surprises you that people could be so cruel. When you begin to find that cruelty normal, it’s like a long winter and you forget that spring will ever come”.

But as a social worker, I am concerned about the lasting image of the social worker on viewers.  Following the episode, Mumsnet was active with posts such as ‘I am slightly concerned that it could scare some people concerned about bruising on their child and discourage them from seeking medical help. I know it’s a drama but even so.’

As to Marsh’s meltdown, I wonder if viewers would identify this as a reflection of the pressures of a very difficult job done daily by social workers, or is it more likely to compound views that no child is safe from removal?


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9 Responses to ‘Will Silent Witness compound views that no child is safe from removal?’

  1. Glenys Turner January 22, 2015 at 10:57 am #

    Whilst i can agree with the comments made in this piece, it does have to be said that this was the best portrayal of social work I have seen on TV. It did show how Doctors expert view is the reason the social woprker has to apply to the court and seen as the bad person whilst the Dr. remains a distant figure. The comment from the child would have been what she had heard her parents say, and I’m sure this is quite common. However, it also showed the complexity of work and how one moves from one case to the next creating the pressure she experienced. Way off perfect, but it’s a start.

  2. Helen Burrows January 22, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    I didn’t identify any feeling that the social worker might have been the murderer, but I really do agree that procedures were very badly portrayed. The police interviews never follow PACE guidance, and the application for an ICO in the case of the bruised baby would never have got into court in reality – no pre-proceedings work done, no consideration of extended family care or S20 while a fuller parenting assessment was made. It would have benefited from portrayal of reflective supervision (or any supervision at all!) BUT – the second episode showed the SW’s awareness of the ethical dilemmas in practice, and the pressures on practitioners, and her breakdown felt all too real. The storyline might have given the impression that yes, any family can find themselves on the ‘wrong side’ of social work, but I think it may have been an eyeopener to those who don’t realise what SWs have to deal with on a daily basis

  3. Peter Teague January 22, 2015 at 11:32 am #

    Made me cringe.Have never seen a decent portrayal of a SW on TV. They always seem to go with member of the clergy type or it’s a calling bit. When in fact it’s more about justice and advocacy. Louise was weak and seemed to be working on gut instinct. Nikki Alexander was portrayed as much higher status and was basically offering Louise SW support. Yes it is fictional but as with Wolf Hall an effort must be made to achieve some authenticity.

  4. Pat Curran January 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

    Silent Witness is one of my favourite tv programmes and I am left wondering whether any research was done by the writers on this occasion. The social worker’s office was luxurious, no thought to confidentiality, no mention of her seeking advice from team manager, did she get all that overtime authorised, safeguarding issues when the young person held a knife to her throat. I can probably understand why she overdosed on alcohol and tablets but then we see her strolling back into her office and getting a bunch of flowers from the pathologist. You really could not make it up and whilst I was making comment throughout the programme my husband decided to decant to the upstairs room.

  5. Tina Tuck January 22, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

    I actually think the serious was very true to life. Isn’t it in the news today about how Essex County Council Social Care unlawfully detained an elderly man.
    I personally have had a lot of experiences with social workers and feel that when things get tough, they use the “Best Interest” comments to do as they wish. Mental Capacity assesments never completed. I think the series showed that Social Workers arn’t alway right and do make mistakes, which is very much the case with the old man in today’s news. I wonder how proud Essex County Council must be feeling today being shown up in the press.

  6. Ian Kinsley January 22, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    I thought it was a horrible portrayal. I agree that at one point I wondered if she might be a harmer/abuser herself. The gut reaction stuff was very damaging to SW. The fact that she did not take a balanced view of the younger doctor saying he thought there was a medical reason for the child’s bruises. Giving her address (albeit under duress and as a way of protecting the child being placed for adoption) and then taking no further action. The latter was quite unbelievable as a story line. It was just horrendous and did nothing remotely helpful to the profession of SW.

  7. Rebecca January 22, 2015 at 11:21 pm #

    I thought it was a wonderful piece of drama. I am certainly aware of the difficulties faced daily by social care services. However I always take programmes the way it seems to me that they should be taken.. drama series are dramatic entertainment! If I wanted a documentary on social care system… I would watch a documentary!

  8. Kristy January 24, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    IT’S A TELEVISION PRGRAMME!!! It’s main purpose is to entertain it’s audience. How dull it would be for most of the hour long programme to be taken up with the beaurocracy and minutiae of actual social work. I absolutely agree with Rebecca – this is not a documentary on SW, it is simply a well acted, entertaining piece of TV drama; enjoy it for what it is or watch something else!

  9. Stefan Wolfhouse January 28, 2015 at 10:56 pm #

    Dear Ms Kent
    Your contention that “This evidence would have been challenged and the conflicting information would have emerged”. Is contradicted by a case that has appeared in the Press only this week, where social services completely ignored evidence than was staring them in the face and completely ignoring procedures not only removed a child but then went on to give a determination of significant harm. All based on the uncorroborated word of an over zealous social worker.