‘I already live with the risk of being vilified’: A social worker’s letter to David Cameron

In this powerful open letter, a social worker with 30 years' experience in child protection tells Cameron why his jail threats are misguided

Photo: Mariesacha/Fotolia

Dear Mr Cameron,

I am writing to you as a social worker with 30 years’ experience of child protection work.

During that time, I have always done my best to keep the children I have worked with safe. Most of the time, I have succeeded. I am particularly proud of my involvement in a complex piece of work that uncovered a group of multiple perpetrators sexually abusing acutely vulnerable children across county borders.

Despite graphic disclosures from the children, none of the adults involved in the abuse were ever prosecuted. But care proceedings kept the children safe. When I meet up with two of the children concerned (who are now adults) they still ask me why the man that hurt them so badly never went to prison.

‘Risk is not always preventable’

But I also know that I have made mistakes, as we all do. Risk is not always predictable or preventable. I have been involved with children who have been seriously hurt – this is tragic but almost inevitable in a long social work career. Even when we do everything right, we don’t always know how to stop children getting hurt.

Because we are human, we don’t always do everything right. The consequences are serious. As a human being, I am motivated by my wish to improve the lives of the children and families I work with. Nothing else is needed to ensure that I do my very best.

More money would not make me try harder and nor would the threat of prison. I already live with the risk of being vilified in the media if I make a mistake – or even if I don’t, but something goes wrong anyway.

What might help is: smaller caseloads, more time to think, better supervision, less paperwork and more training. We know from international research that the best way to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children is to invest in the lives of all children.

‘Would you encourage your child to join the profession?’

We also know that it is possible to create a care system far better than ours and build a social work profession that is regarded with respect.

More procedures, more inspections, more punitive responses will not achieve this and nor will threats of imprisonment. We already struggle to recruit and retain high calibre applicants to this profession. We need people willing to commit to work that is immensely demanding – intellectually and emotionally – and requires a high level of integrity along with excellent communication skills.

Would you encourage your child to enter a profession in the knowledge that they risk imprisonment if they make a mistake? Should we not be focusing instead on ensuring that those who perpetrate abuse are imprisoned? Despite numerous inquiries into child sexual exploitation, most of those responsible have not been charged with any offence.

Investigations and support

We are just about to spend a vast amount of money on an inquiry into child sexual abuse. There is a wealth of academic literature about why people do not recognise and report such abuse. While I respect the needs of survivors to have their stories heard, I struggle to understand how this process is going to reduce the numbers of future victims.

One thing we have learnt from serious case reviews is that we learn very little from serious case reviews. It is more useful to focus on what works.

We should be spending our time and money on improving services to investigate such abuse, support survivors and attempt to rehabilitate offenders.

Please do not criminalise the social work profession.

Yours sincerely,

Polly Baynes

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52 Responses to ‘I already live with the risk of being vilified’: A social worker’s letter to David Cameron

  1. Zoe Smith March 19, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    Totally agree with all points made. Well written Polly

  2. Alison March 22, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    I agree entirely the letter being sent to Cameron about how disgracefully social workers are being treated

  3. Zowie Overy March 22, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    Accurately written, I completely agree with all the points made.

  4. Hilary Fisher March 22, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    Totally agree Polly – the powers that be are blinkered………

  5. Sharron Gardner March 22, 2015 at 5:46 pm #

    Makes you laugh doesn’t it that each time there is an investigation in to why a child or children have been abused or killed there is always the acknowledgement that social workers are overworked in terms of unmanageable case loads, they spend far too much of their time on paper work instead of visiting families, and what is the response? Always more paper work and cuts cuts cuts to support services. Should we not be putting the people who make the job impossible in prison instead of paying them massive salaries to ensure the job can’t be done effectively?

    • Dennis Hopkins March 25, 2015 at 11:51 pm #

      Your comment is clearly made in ignorance! You are way off the mark Sharron.

      • Steve April 6, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

        I think you are wrong Denise and Sharon is spot on with her statement. I also work in a service with very similar problems.

      • Femi April 18, 2015 at 11:22 am #

        Dennis, I think you have either not read Sharon’s statement correctly or you do not understand what she meant. Sharon is absolutely spot on…absolutely. I think one of the simplest way to answer David is to vote out Cameron and the likes NOW!

  6. Sue Davies March 23, 2015 at 6:17 am #

    This threat of jail is disgusting. What next? Jailing doctors and nurses if a patient dies. We are all human. Mistakes can be made. What about the judges who refuse care when requested by a social worker? If the outcome leads to a ciild being harmed, will the judge be jailed? I can see this leading less good people being recruited to a profession that is already under pressure with cuts to the administration and support teams as well as the social workers. If you want our vote David Cameron please stop these insane cuts in the Public Sector workforce. Start supporting people who in the main want to do these jobs through a genuine desire to help others.

    • Sarah March 23, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

      Totally agree…. If social workers can be sentanced then so should judges… I think you would find a lot more judges in prison than social workers!!…
      I also find it atrocious that perpetrators and abusers are still very rarely punished.. After all.. These are the ones that actually hurt the children!.. NOT social workers or judges..

    • Andy Faulkner March 24, 2015 at 6:21 pm #

      Sue. None of your scenarios would ever come to pass. As Polly says, it is only our profession that is vilified. It is only our profession that is ALWAYS made the scapegoat, regardless of where the responsibility actually lies. Doctors, nurses, judges and the police will NEVER face jail as the medical and legal professions always have us to lay the blame on.

  7. Becky O'Reilly March 23, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    I sign

  8. Emma March 24, 2015 at 9:01 am #

    I absolutely agree. Our profession needs more respect and not the threat of imprisionment!!

  9. Lorna Fitzpatrick March 24, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    Brilliantly put!

  10. Julie March 24, 2015 at 11:51 am #

    I totally agree with Polly’s letter and the responses above. I work at home in the evenings and at weekends and during my annual leave just to try to keep on top of the never ending paperwork. I am admonished by senior managers and service delivery managers for not having things like core group meetings on the system albeit they are typed up in ‘Word’. I find the paperwork impossible to keep up to and the pressure to ensure that everything is on the system in a ‘timely manner’ leads me to work in my own time and also not see children as I would like. I am told that I talk too long on the telephone and spend too long with children/families. I have been off sick twice and occupational health have stated I should not have a high caseload but this is not adhered to. I have requested training over and over again but that which is agreed I have to cancel due to the constraints of the work/reports outstanding etc. OH also identified that I should have relevant training and a mentor, none of which has been provided. There is a culture that I should be able to do this work, why then am I working in my own time double my contracted hours.

    I love the job I do, I am empathic about the families I work with, I know that some can change with support and have been able to evidence this in my practice. And isn’t that what we are all about, supporting families to bring about change for children? It is also vital that we ensure that children are safe, this is our upmost thought in all the work we do. I am currently despairing with the job. In respect of identifying risk and being imprisoned when we ignore it perhaps David Cameron needs to be aware that we all have managers who do not always agree with our assessments and it is they who make the decisions. We only make recommendations. Personally all of my cases have progressed where they have needed to and children have become safe because of this but often it is a battle with management.

    This job is difficult and as such we need more support, more training, better resources, and to be able to ‘sleep at night’ without fear of being reported to HCPC because we are ‘unable to manage our caseloads’. Keeping children safe is our first thought, how we do that differs in relation to the risk, what we need is support not oppression. I hope our views are taken into account.

    Sorry for being so ‘wordy’ that’s part of my problem…………………….

  11. Rosemary March 24, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    I completely agree with the contents of this letter.

  12. Kelly Burgess March 24, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    Totally agree. However, it’s easier for the government to deflect blame onto others, especially during election time. And it also detracts from the finger being pointed at Westminster, where there have been concerns raised from allegations there. Good on you for standing up to them.

  13. Evonney Martindale March 24, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    I sign the open letter. I condemn Mr Cameron’s bullying and intimidating approach towards committed frontline Social Work professionals, who already operate under very stressful conditions.

  14. dave woodward March 24, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    fabulous letter..i agree with it all.Makes total sense.

  15. Ray Jones March 24, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    Well done Polly. A powerful statement about why social work is important and why others, in politics and the media, ought to recognise the damage they do by being populist and playing to the gallery. Your letter is impressive. THANK YOU! Ray

  16. A Magic March 24, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    Hi Disagree

    I believe Social Workers like police and doctors etc hold such a powerful job that accountability and prison if found to be guilty should be exactly the case. If health and safety on a work site are not adhered to and an accident occurs and death happens then a prison term is in the making for person responsible.
    I’m finding it strange so many social workers are against this – I would be thinking that it’s the not so good social workers that are against it (but then they should think about leaving such a high responsible job) whereby the good social workers aren’t scared and in many cases agree as it is those bad social workers that are ultimately giving all social workers a bad name.

    • Dennis Hopkins March 25, 2015 at 11:58 pm #

      It would appear you are on the outside looking in and have no knowledge whatsoever about the life of a social worker and the workload involved. To bring it down to good or bad social workers shows complete ignorance.

    • Daisy March 26, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

      Your not a Social Worker, are you? You have to do the job to understand the oppression and discrimination that Social Workers face on a daily basis whilst fighting for other peoples rights.

    • Steve April 6, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

      A reply based on pure ignorance. I am not a social worker but am in a role helping people and understand and empathise with the plight of Social Workers.

  17. Anne ward March 24, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Excellent letter, would like to see it in the national press as a counterweight to the simplistic comments promoted so frequently promoted, tincluding the Prime Minister’s .

  18. Tanya Hawkins March 24, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

    I agree with Polly’s letter and comments however, I very much doubt if this will be acknowledged by this government as historically they have not backed the social work profession.

  19. Mosslynn March 24, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

    i totally agree with the content of the letter. More support rather than threats of prison is needed to continue trying to keep children safe.

  20. mrs.p beale March 24, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    I agree with this social workers letter more support is needed.

    • mrs.p beale March 24, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

      More support is needed come on David cameron get your finger out NOW.

  21. Julie Summerson March 24, 2015 at 9:26 pm #

    I sign the open letter

  22. Sonya Ridley March 24, 2015 at 10:05 pm #

    The Social workers I know are dedicated and hardworking – not criminals. These measures will not encourage anyone to join the profession

  23. Tina March 24, 2015 at 10:11 pm #

    I totally agree with Polly,s letter. I too have worked in the profession for many years, Mr Cameron and other ministers need to look at the Judiciary who have described young girls as ,being up for it, therefore the men abusing them get very lenient sentences if a sentence at all. As a manager, I agree case loads need to be lower, social workers need to spend proper time with children and families, investment needs to be put back into Social Care, let us get on with the job we are good at and stop beating us with tables/inspection reports, look at what we do really well and say well done, instead of all the negativity that comes from above

  24. Claire Ellis March 25, 2015 at 7:31 am #

    I’m very interested to know whether those disagreeing with this letter are social workers?And if so, do they work in a frontline statutory setting?

  25. Rebecca Anderson March 25, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    I totally agree. I think it’s ridiculous how the social workers, who are doing their utmost are persecuted because of government decisions and lack of funding, that prevents them attracting and retaining staff, creating and operating the service they need.

  26. MF March 25, 2015 at 8:58 pm #

    I just want to say that you couldn’t pay me enough to be either a social worker or a teacher in this country. Both are marvellous, valuable professions made impossible for dedicated workers by the bureaucracy of this country and the attitude of the government.

  27. Colleen March 25, 2015 at 11:53 pm #

    I agree totally

  28. Polly millington March 26, 2015 at 9:39 am #

    I sign the open letter

  29. Lynette Davison March 26, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    I sign this open letter, and is Mr Cameron going to jail all professionals in children’s services, as we all have a duty to safeguard.
    Not supporting Social Workers in my opinion is going down a long slippery slope.

  30. Ali Anderson March 30, 2015 at 12:43 am #

    Couldn’t agree more, a well written and constructed letter and Every point valid. Well done Polly .

  31. Sue Jago April 3, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    I sign this open letter

  32. Jackie April 4, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    Agreed and signed.

  33. Jane Whatley April 5, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    I agree totally with everything in this letter and hope that you will listen Mr Cameron.

  34. Debbie April 5, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    I have signed and agree with the worker who has asked for this letter to be posted on ‘front pages’ of the all newspapers given the dreaded ‘Daily Mail’ could not wait to vilify social workers when trying to sensationalise the recent Munby report/ruling (incorrectly as usual).

  35. Jane Whatley April 5, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    I agree totally with all that you so eloquently say Polly. I just hope Mr Cameron changes his plans and acts to support social workers rather than vilify them!

  36. lindsey sayer April 5, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

    I totally agree. It show just how out of touch this Government is in regards to the impact of their cuts. As a mother and practising Social Worker, I am now seriously considering leaving the profession which I love so much. This is because I love my child more than to leave her to grow up with a mother is prison.