‘Dispatches child protection programme was neither fair nor constructive’

Ray Jones gives his take on Channel 4's undercover documentary on Birmingham's children's services

by Ray Jones

The Channel Four Dispatches programme targeting Birmingham City council’s children’s services and social workers delivered, as anticipated, all that might have been expected from programme makers focused on creating a story to shock.

For the public at large they may have been switching channels well before the repetitive and poorly filmed programme ended, with what seemed like canned noise backing the secretly and surreptitiously filmed conversations with social workers making it hard to watch and hard to hear.

But what of those who were the central contributors to the documentary? The programme which was broadcast we now know was not the programme the undercover social worker thought she was a conspirator in making.

Lacking context

There was nothing on the national context of an 80% increase in child protection workloads at a time of 40% cuts in government funding.

There was nothing about less help for children and families because government cuts were leading to the closures of children’s centres, youth services, and of assistance provided by organisations like Home Start.

And there was nothing about the progress in difficult circumstances being moved forward in Birmingham, with the time-lag since the secret filming taking Birmingham back rather than forward. And now the programme has contributed to the major disruption and distraction ahead as children’s services and social workers are moved outside the council.

Was the undercover social worker naive? Was she herself exploited? Did she not see the programme in advance of the broadcast? Did she have no opportunity to influence the editorial line which was being taken – a story line of a council with poor leadership and management and of demoralised social workers whose incompetence led to the deaths of three children, and with the distress of families being drawn on to dramatically add to the programme?

Hopefully the undercover agency social worker will now move to a permanent practice post and contribute to the stability and continuity needed to deliver good social work services to children and families, albeit what has been left behind for Birmingham’s social workers is more change and churn.

Expert contributors?

And what of the contributions of the ‘social work expert’ and the NSPCC senior manager which were featured throughout the programme? Did they not require the opportunity to shape the editorial line running through the programme? Did they agree to contribute to a programme without any control over how their contributions were used?

As they were filmed making their damning and critical comments were they not reflecting on how they could be edited and used in contributing to a programme which has undermined social work and social workers and with no balance or positive perspectives?

Did they not think providing a national and political context to what is happening to children’s services across England was necessary and important? Did they not spot the dangers of a destructive programme which will have undermined good people doing difficult jobs in difficult circumstances?

The public at large may have watched a programme about Birmingham, but may also then have generalised their views to encompass social work and councils more widely.

For understandable reasons, including doing demanding and distressing work and then being professionally and personally attacked in the media, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain social workers, managers and leaders in statutory children’s social work services. Maybe the expert commentators in this programme would want to deploy their knowledge and wisdom by taking on these crucial but challenging roles.

Today Birmingham’s social workers and managers will be back at their desks and out on the road working very hard to help families and protect children. They may have the Channel Four programme thrown in their faces by challenging and confrontational families where they are having to follow up concerns about the welfare and safety of children.

The referrals of children and families will be flowing in. The Section 47 child protection investigations will be stacking up. They will be busy and probably feeling bruised and battered. Their feelings may be shared by many colleagues across the country.

But they will also be supporting each other and should know that they also have support across the community and profession of social work. Thank you for all that you strive to do and for what you achieve every day. A difficult job done by special people.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University

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13 Responses to ‘Dispatches child protection programme was neither fair nor constructive’

  1. Brid Featherstone May 27, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    Ray – thank you- I could not agree more!

  2. Guy Shennan May 27, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    I echo Brid – very well said, Ray. See also BASW CEO Ruth Allen’s response on the BASW website. Guy, BASW Chair.

  3. Lorna Fitzpatrick May 27, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

    Excellent piece

  4. Milo May 27, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    The response in this article contributes the chaos that was observed last night. It wasn’t like words were put in the mouths of the social workers that we saw being filmed. Institutionally there is a problem which affects it’s workers.

  5. Get me Out Of Here May 27, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Pathological hatred of Social Workers by a Tory Government drives the agenda. Lets talk about Austerity a project imposed on the 99% by the 1% Broken down

    Families do not matter especially poor and working class. We are closing children’s centres as fast as we can. We are cutting your benefits as fast as we can. Soon you and your children can eat at food banks, sanctions will see to that.

    We rich people don’t wish to pay tax to look after the children of the poor.

    Social Workers we are coming for your job and your far too generous terms and conditions of employment. Why can’t you work for the minimum wage like most of the workforce do? Don’t worry soon there will be no money due to 40% cuts to budgets and we will impose zero hour contracts on you.

    Social Workers know your place in society, you are just s–t on our boots.

  6. Mary May 27, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Hi Ray – I agree with your comments. In addition – the ethical aspect of colleagues’ comments being aired ‘disguised’ in a way that left them easily identifiable by friends, family and senior managers makes me shudder.

    On a slightly positive note, the people I know outside the profession who have commented on the programme expressed shock about the conditions social workers have to practice under (whatever the context). Even my partner, who works in a third sector organisation and who has been known to vent his frustration about the contact his organisation has with social workers, expressed views that showed much greater empathy and appreciation of a social worker’s lot. A small positive maybe – but even a little change can help.

  7. Beth May 27, 2016 at 6:21 pm #

    I agree Ray. As an agency social worker I am there to support colleagues until stability is achieved. I have worked in many teams over the years and usually encounter overworked social workers who are simply striving to to a very good job in increasingly difficult circumstances.
    I would not betray their trust by going undercover and strive to ensure that both teams and families have a good experience even when you are temporary. This social workers actions may prove counter productive if permanent staff feel that agency workers go undercover!
    The climate of social work is now so difficult and this could be spoken about without going undercover.
    There is often a combination of issues in the most struggling authorities and usually include
    Case loads that are impossible
    Very poor ics systems where the social worker spends a ridicules amount of time grappling trying to keep their ‘performance’ recorded.
    Poor management oversight
    Hotdesking – social workers need to be grounded and in a team with support
    Lack of simple support such as admin
    Lack of parking – which is time consuming taking time out of their day to find it
    This is just a few simple things which i have found on my travels…..
    This did not betray my colleagues up and down the country, it’s a simple and true reflection of what is happening in many LA’s.

  8. Mark May 27, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

    Well said.

  9. Sharon Shoesmith May 28, 2016 at 9:38 am #

    Well done yet again Ray, you express all that I was thinking and feeling watching this poor piece of journalism.

    I recognise the tough job of social workers and wish those in Birmingham and elsewhere strength and determination to have their voice heard on their own terms.

  10. Colin Watt May 31, 2016 at 1:34 pm #

    Helpful review; clear analysis, wise words. Thank you.

  11. kas May 31, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    Thanks Ray, its easier for people to judge from the outside and make up documentries with a case load of up to 30 at times no wonder soical workers and support workers seem stressed, with all the cuts from this goverment who are only intrested in saving money not lives

  12. Sharon May 31, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    As a person looking in from the ‘outside’ I am saddened and appalled that social workers, some of whom are friends and people like Shoesmith bleat on and on about the challenges of the job, how difficult it is….. I also recognise it is a very challenging and difficult job, one I certainly couldn’t do but if I did then I would be a whistleblower and not keep quiet about bad practices which could result in yet another tragedy!!! Maybe the programme did come across as one sided but it didn’t report anything that wasn’t happening!!!

  13. Chris June 2, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

    Absolutely, completely agree. I have been a social worker/team manager in CIN & CP for 30 years. There are many more pressures on SW’s now than when I started, as well as a more diverse and harsh environment and ever increasing bureaucracy and paperwork. I am a front line manager and can testify that the current government’s cuts in LA funding which impacts on preventative services results in ever more intrusive interventions at the CP level. How in this environment are new social workers to be judged? The current over-interference by government, in my view is extremely worrying and will affect decision making and outcomes for children.