10 of the best and worst TV social workers

Community Care looks at 10 social workers on TV and lists the varying qualities

Gabriel is a social worker in an episode of The Simpsons. Photo: Frinkac/Fox

by Deborah Wain and Luke Stevenson

If you watch television as much as we do, no doubt you’ve probably been outraged or enthralled by a depiction of social work on there at some point.

Television drama and comedy has churned out a number of forgettable, flimsily-drawn social workers. Here we round up some characters who have made an impression over the last few years – the good and the bad.

1. Regi Darnell

Regi Darnell, The Killing. Photo: AMC

Regi Darnell, The Killing. Photo: AMC

Played by: Annie Corley

TV show: The Killing US

Invented for the American version of the epic Danish hit, Darnell is protagonist Sarah Linden’s social worker who saw her through her childhood years in foster care.

Breakdown: Boat-dweller; mother figure; sounding board for Linden’s pent-up emotion.

2. Gabriel

Gabriel, The Simpsons. Photo: Frinkiac/Fox

Gabriel, The Simpsons. Photo: Frinkiac/Fox

Voiced by: Delroy Lindo

TV Show: The Simpsons

Gabriel is drafted in to help The Simpsons after a game of Monopoly goes awry and the family ends up strangling one another. His role is to look at each family member individually and find a way to get them to put their anger to one side and work together.

Breakdown: Caring and committed, Gabriel helps bring the family together by almost getting mauled by cougars, proving his commitment to going the extra mile. However his last line, ‘Homer you’re a bad man and your seed should be wiped from this earth, no offense children’, would likely leave him on the wrong side of a HCPC hearing.

3. Sam Healy

Sam Healy, Orange is the New Black. Photo: Netflix

Sam Healy, Orange is the New Black. Photo: Netflix

Played by: Michael Harney

TV show: Orange Is The New Black

Actor Michael Harney himself left social work for acting. Healy is initially one of the most likable male characters on Netflix women’s prison drama, however his character grows increasingly dark during the first series.

Breakdown: Homophobe; manipulator; accomplice in attempted murder. Led to American social workers to question what impact on the profession his portrayal might have. Overall, not great.

4. Agent Jessup

Agent Jessup, Family Guy. Photo: Fox

Agent Jessup, Family Guy. Photo: Fox

Voiced by: Richard Viener

TV Show: Family Guy

Agent Jessup tells Peter Griffin “I’m here to take your kids away because you’re mentally unfit to take care of them” after Peter takes an intelligence test and accidentally throws fat-fryer oil over his wife. He tells Peter in court “You’ve inspired me to distrust all mentally-challenged parents”, and the Judge thanks him for “comically misleading” remarks.

Breakdown: Cold, emotionless and in a suit, Agent Jessop isn’t the greatest example of social work on television.

5. Verne

Verne, Family Guy. Photo: Fox

Verne, Family Guy. Photo: Fox

Voiced by: LeVar Burton

TV Show: Family Guy

In the same episode, Peter gets a “state appointed inspirational social worker” to help him. He describes his role as lending a helping hand, and gives Peter a lot of high fives and, at one point, is seen bathing him.

Breakdown: Super enthusiastic and energetic, Verne is seen as being supportive while possibly not doing a whole lot.

6. Kaye Bawden

Kaye Bawden, The Casual Vacancy. Photo: BBC

Kaye Bawden, The Casual Vacancy. Photo: BBC

Played by: Michele Austin

TV show: The Casual Vacancy

From the TV mini-series adapted from JK Rowling’s 2012 novel, Kaye Bawden is assigned to the family of young carer Krystal Weedon, but has her own life in the parish where the family live.

Breakdown: Single mother; caring, seen to be doing a difficult job well.

7. Rose Denby

Rose Denby, Damned. Photo: Sky Arts

Rose Denby, Damned. Photo: Sky Arts

Played by: Jo Brand

TV show: Damned

Comedian and daughter of a social worker Brand is in full deadpan bloom as Rose in the comedy she co-wrote with Morwenna Banks that piloted on Sky Arts.

Breakdown: Child protection officer; work/life balance in that both are equally chaotic; dedicated but overstretched; loves all biscuits.

8. Trish Barnes

Trish Barnes (background), EastEnders. Photo: BBC

Trish Barnes (background), EastEnders. Photo: BBC

Played by: Tessa Churchard

TV show: EastEnders

The actions of infamous social worker Trish Barnes in forcibly removing care leaver Lola Pearce’s baby Lexi sparked over 550 viewers’ complaints to the BBC.

Breakdown: Officious, but does show a different side when she speaks up for Lola in court.

9. Louise Marsh

Louise Marsh, Silent Witness. Photo: BBC

Louise Marsh, Silent Witness. Photo: BBC

Played by: Claudie Blakley

TV show: Silent Witness

Social worker Louise Marsh came under increasing pressure as she managed the cases of the children involved in this two-part episode of the crime drama, which was heavily focused on child protection and social services.

Breakdown: Some praised Blakley’s performance for highlighting the emotional toll social workers face, and others dubbing it ‘the worst portrayal’ of the profession they had ever seen. The BBC’s portrayal of Louise Marsh led many viewers to think she was in fact the villain.

10. Hilary Pugsley

Hilary Pugsley, Coronation Street. Photo: ITV

Hilary Pugsley, Coronation Street. Photo: ITV

Played by: Caroline Pegg

TV show: Coronation Street

Hilary Pugsley was a “sour and formidable” social worker who worked with parents on their application to become adopters. The Windasses of Coronation Street were “taken aback by the frosty exterior” of the social worker. However Pugsley, who was a diabetic, was won over by the parents’ charms when the dad offered to make her a special diabetic cake, and approved the first stage of adoption.

Breakdown: Being described as sour and formidable doesn’t sound very social work, but being won over by cake does.

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8 Responses to 10 of the best and worst TV social workers

  1. Milo June 6, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    There was also the movie Precious, Maria Carey played a social worker; the movie Coloured Girls which a social worker was played by Kerry Washington; Father’s and Daughters where a social worker was played by Amanda Seyfried. These depict more positive aspects of social workers.

  2. anon June 6, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

    I wonder what people think of Renee Zellwegger in case 49 😉

    • Emma June 6, 2016 at 7:50 pm #

      Case 49 still scares the beejesue out of me! Didn’t think much of Renee’s portray of a SW but liked that it showed how attached we become to the young people we work with.

  3. Emma June 6, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    Cobra Bubbles from Lilo & Stitch. He reminds me of some of the male social workers I’ve worked with. Tough exterior but big heart & placed kids first. 🙂

  4. Julian Hodgson June 8, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    Please look at the film Oranges & Sunshine which portrays the Nottingham SW who uncovered the forced deportation of hundreds of children from the UK (often without their parents knowledge) with state approval during most of the 20th Century. An absolute scandal that still rumbles on!

    • anon June 9, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

      Did the actress also play the appropriate adult in the film of the fred west case?

  5. Amy June 9, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

    How about Maxine Grey in American TV show Judging Amy? Committed social worker assertive but caring went above and beyond for children. I think she probably inspired me to become a social worker.

    • Saskia June 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      Totally agree, re Maxine Grey in Judging Amy, kicked ass when she needed and always child centred. Brilliant role model. Compassionate, down to earth and pragmatic