By a children’s social worker
In a novel I once read, one character says to another “…if you get on the wrong side of senior officers, they take it out of you in other ways.” He was referring to the army, but it’s true anywhere.
In pressurised children’s services there’s often a tendency to take the multiple external pressures and turn them inwards. I was a senior social worker in one such organisation.
The local authority was in special measures after an Ofsted inspection. There was an improvement plan in place and we all lived under the fear of further draconian measures.
Things were made worse by a shortage of and a high turnover of staff. Looking back, I should have heeded these darker warnings.
‘I was drawn into a chaotic culture’
When I was offered the role of team manager due to my level of experience, I protested about returning to management. I’d done it before and remembered the unrelenting pressure but I was reassured that I would have a two-week handover with the outgoing manager.
This handover did not happen. Instead, I came in one day to find I was responsible for more than 200 cases. Rapidly I was drawn into a chaotic culture, which included practices that went unchallenged and placed children at risk.
One Friday I was told by my seniors to close multiple cases where the children had not been seen, in order to comply with government guidelines for timescales. It was a very dangerous thing to do, so I refused and wrote to the assistant director about it.
An anxious weekend followed – no one else in the organisation said no, so I was taking a huge risk. Come Monday I found the cases had been closed and in front of the team, I was given an award for closing them.
It felt surreal, like Alice in Wonderland where words meant what those in power wanted them to mean. A week later, an allegation was made against me of altering records. I was formally suspended, with the threat of dismissal if the allegation of gross misconduct was proven.
If these events felt strange, the following months were even more so. I felt shock and panic – my attempt to raise concerns had forced me into now having to work day and night to protect myself.
My world was turned upside down. I looked for help and joined a trade union. They were only willing to offer help when I’d been a member for 12 weeks. Who could I turn to? I could no longer contact my colleagues. Friends in the profession were very helpful, but could only offer limited support.
So I decided to get my own solicitor; it was the best decision I could have made, for that person battled on my behalf very assertively. They helped me see ways forward and set out options clearly.
‘I felt anger, fear and guilt’
After a month I was finally told what the allegation was. Again, it felt both unreal and only too real – and I went through a succession of emotions, like a rollercoaster. Anger, fear, guilt and self-reproach jostled for space. I’d say to myself I shouldn’t have blown the whistle, had I not done so the children would not be seen. Although it seemed that happened, I would have hated to have it on my conscience.
Being suspended is a strange limbo like situation to be in –the world was getting on with its life but mine was frozen, awaiting the outcome of this investigation. Understandably, I felt periods of acute depression, sometimes wanted to kill myself. My sleep was frequently disturbed. Effectively, I was an outcast.
Months went by and after a horrendously long period the local authority found I had no case to answer. I later learned that the assistant director had not followed up my concerns. For all I know the practice of closing cases without the children being seen could still be going on. However, I had been effectively silenced about the matter.
I was invited to return to work within the organisation but the trust between my employer and I had gone. Had I done so, my seniors would surely remember everything and forget nothing, for I was tainted and likely to get blamed again. It occurred to me then, that no matter what happened in the future, I would never experience anything more brutal than this.
So I left and went to work elsewhere. It took me a long time to regain my confidence and for the fears I had lived with for so long to subside.