It’s the day after a TV docudrama examined the 2008 ‘kidnapping’ of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews. The case, where Karen Matthews deliberately misled the authorities by faking her daughter’s disappearance to generate money, is significant to June Thoburn.
It reminds the social work academic of writing her first book, ‘Captive Clients’, which explores what happens when children return home from care, including how their parents behave.
“I talked to parents whose children had been home ‘on trial’ as we used to call it,” June says. “They told me they liked the social workers, they valued them, but they had to be careful what they said to them or they might lose their children again. That’s the term captive client really.”
At times, parents felt they had to lie to the social workers, June explains. This is why she was interested in Karen Matthews and how she could deceive professionals and neighbours alike.
June, recently honoured for her outstanding contribution to the profession at the 2016 Social Worker of the Year Awards, was prompted to write the book by the Maria Colwell case.
Seven-year-old Maria was murdered in 1973 by her stepfather after returning to live with him and her mother. June says the case had a huge impact on her because it made her question why she had always been so “pro” helping parents continue to care for their children.
“After Maria, people were saying ‘don’t ever send children home from care’ – my job had always been to value care, but to try and get children back home. I thought this can’t be right.
“It didn’t make me change my position, but it certainly made me think about how you get this balance between being both supportive of parents, who often find themselves in terrible situations, and the need to make sure their children’s welfare is absolutely paramount.
“You can’t help a child without helping the parents, so that’s where I am – it’s not either/or.”
‘A change in practice’
June says she’s seen the balance tip back and forth during her social work career – and has been practising long enough to know it always corrects itself – but all her research has been about, “how you make sense of that position you find yourself in, either as a child or a parent”.
Her proudest achievement is a small study on parents in child protection conferences. Workers in Hackney wanted to involve parents in the conferences and needed someone to evaluate it.
“We did it – and it was published as a very small experimental study,” June says.
Then, in 1987, Cleveland happened. Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’ report on the sexual abuse scandal, which saw 121 children removed from their families, questioned why parents had not been involved in the child protection conferences and recommended that this happen in future.
Following the report, the Department of Health began to take notice of the Hackney study.
“Immediately we were given government funding for a more extensive study of parental involvement in child protection work, the law changed and, as a result of all that, no one would dream of not having (most) parents in conference,” June says.
“That’s an example of where research has made a real difference.”
While June puts her involvement down to luck – and how her career has always been “right place, right time” – her friend and colleague at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Gillian Schofield, sees things slightly differently.
“Research doesn’t always come up with surprises or complete changes, but if I had to nail a piece of research, not just in terms of June’s career, but one that has changed practice – I would say that study [on parental involvement] has been one of the really significant things.”
‘A mission about social work’
June joined UEA on a joint appointment in 1979, where she spent half her time practising as a social worker at Norfolk council and the other half teaching.
“I had written a book, I was interested in teaching, had taught at city college. I got the joint appointment because I was already working in the partner agency, and did that for 10 years.
“My teaching specialism was policy; I’ve always majored in policy and child and family practice. I’m not on the human growth and development end of things, or indeed on the social work methods part of the curriculum, despite the fact my original course was in that area.”
In 1963, June undertook a 17-month child care officer-training course at Barnett House, Oxford University. She still keeps in close contact with eight of her fellow students.
Taught by professor Olive Stevenson – one of June’s social work heroes, who coincidentally also wrote one of two major reports on the Maria Colwell case – the course was very much an, “Oxford social science training, followed by social work practice theories, with placements throughout,” she says.
“There was also a mission about social work; there was no doubt about that. The very fact that we are still in touch with each other all those years later says something about that.”
June recalls feeling “just at home” when she got to Oxford, but says she never had a “must do” moment about joining social work. She was born in Lancashire to aspiring mill-worker parents who had hoped she would become a teacher.
‘The servant of your clients’
After failing her 11-plus exam the first time (a fact she is quite proud of), June became the only child in her village school to go to grammar school the next year (“I don’t support grammar schools actually,” she hastens to add), and then studied French at Reading University.
June on: receiving a CBE
June was awarded a CBE for her services to social work in 2002. She says “it’s all a mystery” how the nomination came about, but thinks it’s because she was vice-chair of the former social work regulator, the General Social Care Council.
“I was chuffed, but I put it in my pocket and thought I’ll go away and think about this because I know a lot of other people who have turned them down.
“I asked John (my husband) and he said of course you have to accept it. I think it’s for social work isn’t it, it’s the honour, the colleagues, the university – and it can be useful, but I respect the people who did turn it down,” June adds.
“I don’t use it all that often but there are occasions when it’s useful, putting in evidence to the children and social work bill for example. I used the CBE for that.”
She credits university with broadening her horizons following her, “rather protected upbringing”, but was still unsure whether to pursue social work or teaching. “My French accent was really pretty abysmal,” she admits, “French with a Lancashire accent!”
“I was always amazed I got the place at Oxford,” she adds. “I had a 2:2 in French from a middle-ranking university and I’d failed my 11-plus exam. I wouldn’t have got onto Frontline.”
The move towards an apprenticeship model for social work training concerns June, partly because she valued the time she had to, “reflect, argue, work out what it is you are doing”, but also because she believes this direction of travel may narrow the social work role.
“The language is moving away from social worker as helper to social worker as clinician or intervener, but actually, we were taught [by Olive Stevenson] to be creative helpers,” she says.
“To me, social work is an art and you have to be flexible, creative and use a range of methods. You engage with the person you’re going to help and think, okay, what’s going to work here?”
“Although my training couldn’t have been more psychodynamic, it was underpinned by this approach that says ‘you are the servant of your clients’ – and that’s always stayed with me.”
‘Fragmented and competitive’
June’s early days in social work were spent “all over the place”: two years in Leicester, where she also met her husband John; 18 months in Canada, where she first developed her interest in international social work, and an, “inspiring but hairy”, 18 months in Kensington and Chelsea, with the kids of a notorious gang leader on her caseload.
In Leicester, June worked in intensive family casework, with a small caseload of 10 – very similar, she says, to the work done by the troubled families programme today. June supports that model of practice, but not the troubled families programme. “I was doing that work in 1963, there’s almost nothing new about it, it is effective, but they didn’t need the programme.
“I just totally disagree with the government’s way of funding social work innovation,” she adds.
“The government should be giving the money to every local authority to recruit their social workers, provide post-qualifying training, and quality assure their work. Instead, they have this project approach. If you want money, you have to invent something different, which may actually be what you’re doing already, but you call it something else.”
After retiring from UEA 10 years ago, June undertook a research project on child welfare services in 17 countries, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and has also become more actively involved in politics – prompted largely by concerns about the government’s current social work reform agenda.
If she could see one change for social work now, it would be the return to a “respectful partnership” between politicians, judges, academics, social workers, and managers: “I don’t understand how we’ve shifted from a collaborative approach to a tone that is often angry, fragmented and competitive. It feels more combative now than I think ever in my career.”