by Sophie Ayers
It may be strange that I consider myself a ‘veteran’ in child protection, given the fact that I have only been working in this field for eight years.
Despite this, I am unusual, I am ‘long in the tooth’. There are not many child protection social workers who remain in this line of work for this length of time.
Within my time as a child protection social worker I have seen so much. I’ve borne witness to injustice, been physically assaulted, chewed my gums bare as decisions were made that led to insomnia and wept as exhaustion eroded my soul.
It is a tough, formidable job that sometimes seems thankless but other days I feel like our profession could really change the world.
However, even with our intelligence and clear skill, individual social workers are blamed for systemic failures. From my perspective, it is easier to blame the lowly worker on the frontline rather than examine systemic failures, propped up by government rhetoric that is not supported by our legal system.
The government dictates that care proceedings should be completed within 26 weeks. The reason for this guidance is to prevent delay for children and to help them to obtain permanence at the earliest possible moment. This aspiration is right. It is child focused, and aims to improve the lives of our most vulnerable. However we can only do the assessments we physically have capacity to do.
The status of social workers has been a key theme in recent academic literature and political discourse. There is a clear aspiration to improve social work status yet in in my experience we are often the last to be included within discussions relating to court timescales.
Until the idea of a “safe caseload” based on an arbitrary number (rather than looking at the challenges and complexities of each case) is recognised as being potentially dangerous, the substantial assessments required within care proceedings will be an overwhelming task.
My observation of social work within the court setting in general is disheartening. Despite our knowledge of the families we work with, we are often ignored, dismissed or sometimes disparaged.
I will always recall a retort from a barrister two years ago – when I did not agree with her suggestion regarding a written agreement – “will somebody do something about this social worker”. This occurred in a canteen full of people. She had no regard for my individual expertise or autonomy in the situation. It was acceptable for her to refer to me in the third person and even my own solicitor did not challenge this blatant public abuse.
Sadly, I believe that as a group of professionals we have become accepting of the derision and a lowly status in court amongst other professionals. It is a fact widely accepted by social workers – our views are the least important. This is despite our knowledge and aptitude to analyse the current level of risk.
We are incapacitated to challenge due to decades of degeneration and a culture which makes social workers know their place. While we are professionals, when we walk into court we know that our voices will be the last to be heard and we will always be the first to blamed in impossible situations.
The problem we face as a profession is that there is often no ‘perfect’ solution; just the ability to balance the least probable evils. Within this analysis, we will always face criticism and no easy solution can be reached.
My view is that even when you are deeply experienced or robust, your views will be subjected to an onslaught of legal arguments, which will intimidate you to change a well thought-out argument, even prior to entering a court room. I often find it much better to make your arguments in front of a judge rather than within the politics and cosiness of the legal consultation rooms.
We should know that there is no right or prefect answer to be found for the children that we work with. This is just the reality of complex situations and despairing lives that we have the delight, and sorrow, to work with.
Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker