by Sophie Ayers
When my workload is intense, I have a recurring dream where I have missed a child on my caseload and not visited. I wake up in a pool of sweat, heart thumping only to realise that the child in my dream does not exist.
I entered child protection social work in 2008 in the midst of the media and political storm surrounding the death of Baby P, or Peter Connelly as he should be known.
The redaction of Peter’s name sends chills into my spine. It represents a sanitised label, the forensic tone enables people to cope better with the gruesome horror that this child endured.
The shockwaves from his death: a babe in arms; a little person who may or may not have proffered the world with ideas, intelligence and character, still loom over our profession.
At present, social workers are faced with the trepidation that their lives will be destroyed by media humiliation; being unable to practice again and in the future, receiving a prison sentence if grave mistakes are made.
Peter’s life ended when he was killed aged just one year, five months old on the 3rd August 2007. At the time I write he would now be nine years old.
The overwhelming response to Peter’s death was to seek retribution: He was a child who could have been saved, if only the system worked correctly and adequate procedures were followed.
The political narrative at the start of my social work career was one of blame and criticism. Within my new status of a social worker, I was met with ever increasing hostility from families. From their perspective, I was coming into their home with ‘minor’ concerns and yet children were dying.
This view continues to be presented within many newspapers today: social workers are invasive and intrusive to families that do not deserve draconian intervention, while at the same time we willingly allow children to suffer and die due to negligence.
This perspective does not in fact reflect the strict legislation in place and the criteria to be met before children can be placed outside of their birth family. Nevertheless it continues to be a view that is held by many members of society and one that was actively promoted by politicians following Peter’s death.
I will never forgive the popular, political approach following Peter’s death. So many condemned and labelled social workers as inadequate during hostile debates within parliament. I truly believe that their inflammatory comments gave unprecedented permission to criticise and defame our profession.
My transition from social work training into child protection social work was a veritable culture shock.
As a student I’d worked punishing hours within a residential unit to fund my studies, I was by no means guileless. Yet in my new job I was confronted by a pile of files on my desk that nearly hit the ceiling; post-it notes tethered to the documents, indicating the urgent action required.
I was lucky enough that my first manager lovingly tolerated my endless questions and guided my naivety and promise into a robust worker.
But even with cogent support, my awakening into the grown up world of social work was engulfed by negative stereotypes and fighting to be heard among professionals who had lost faith in our profession.
I have increasingly learned over the years that we work in a multi-faceted and non-scientific world. In social work, situations can be misinterpreted: sometimes due to poor practice but often there is simply not the evidence available to demonstrate harm despite intensive, good quality assessments and thorough enquiries.
Multi-agency work has improved since Peter’s death. It is now embedded in practice, but there continues to be a misunderstanding of social workers’ roles. We are often looked to for a ‘magic solution’, with impassioned frustration vented at our inability to find one.
Frequently, the desired outcome for children does not exist due to the overwhelming complications of the human race and the elitist society that we practise within. Our profession bears the brunt of injustice and sadness associated with children facing pernicious harm and not reaching their full potential.
We continue to be confronted with ‘disguised compliance’, one of the greatest hurdles to recognise and overcome. Unfortunately no amount of training and suspicion can override absolute deception.
The alarming example of Ben Butler and the horrific murder of his daughter, Ellie, illustrates that people who harm children do not fit the stereotype of ‘evil’. In so many cases when serious injury has occurred to a child, parents present as loving, doting and attentive.
We work within an increasingly divided country where it appears to me that the most disadvantaged members of our society are punished and denounced.
Over the past two years I have been shocked by the amount of families requiring the service of ‘food banks’ and living without electricity or gas when their resources dwindle. We are expected to elicit change within a country that has seemingly walked away from the issue of child poverty. It appears that social care is expected to ‘prop up’ the failing welfare state with ever decreasing budgets.
Child protection social workers continue to work in a climate of fear, terrified that we have missed something that will ultimately lead to a death or a serious injury to a child. The guilt and anxiety can be all consuming.
In my professional life so far I’ve seen numerous attempts by politicians to shape, transform and ameliorate the social work profession. Their attempts at reform leads me to believe that true change will not be achieved until our leaders and their advisors have a much better understanding of the ever increasing nuances of child protection work.
They need to experience and encounter the lived experience of children and the social workers guiding their future.
Better policies and reforms can only come after true comprehension and direct observations of the intricate and foreboding world of social work.
Come sit in the cars of the professionals that witness the breathtaking and entangled lives of those we try to help and then you will have a true appreciation of the changes that must take place.
To Peter Connelly, Damilola Taylor, Daniel Pelka, Victoria Climbie, Ellie Butler and all the murdered children that have not been named in the media: please accept my heartfelt sorrow and apology for your grotesque and untimely end. Your deaths are inexcusable. Our profession must accept responsibility when profound errors have occurred: we will never be able to atone for your bitter end.
But just as we must seek to better understand your worlds and experiences, so must leaders, ministers, journalists and other professions strive to understand the intricate practice of social workers and the reality of your true circumstances.
Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982