‘Social work must challenge political and public anxieties about child protection’

There needs to be robust and honest dialogue about the uncertainties and complexities of child protection social work, and the policies needed to achieve real change, says Jo Warner

Photo: Gary Brigden (posed by model)

By Jo Warner

Ten years after the death of Peter Connelly, or ‘Baby P’, it is right that we should reflect on what has happened since. In this article, I will focus on changes to the emotional landscape that characterises our work and the wider social and political context for it. I argue that social work’s mandate to intervene in families should be revisited. In particular, we need to scrutinise more closely the political and public anxieties that underpin the cycle of crisis and reform in children’s services, and challenge these rather than accept them as given.

It is understandable that the focus of attention over the past 10 years has fallen on the anger, blame and fear of victimisation that has distorted our work for so long. Service users also continue to live with the emotional politics of the responses to the death of Baby P. The politics of shame and austerity for the growing number of families living in poverty continues in its devastating effects, and the capacity of social workers to respond appropriately to increased demands has been questioned.

But there are other emotional mechanisms that have been neglected. These are the wider public and political anxieties about social work, child protection, and indeed about parenting more generally. The two ‘big’ constituencies – the public and the political – are seldom scrutinised in their own right. They are of vital importance because it is on behalf of these two constituencies that social work operates.

State mandate

It is the state that provides the mandate for social workers to intervene in private family life. The idea that such intervention is right in certain circumstances to protect a child continues to achieve a broad social consensus. This is why, despite our apparent abject failings in the eyes of the media and others, social work as a profession survives, albeit with endless reform and reinvention.

However, beyond this broad consensus about the need for our existence, we know relatively little about what the media, politicians and the public deem as appropriate thresholds for intervention.

When a scandal occurs, it leads to a wider questioning of the apparent chasm between what social workers consider to be acceptable risk and what, according to some politicians and the media, anyone else in the country would deem acceptable. We need to ask much more probing questions about this supposed ‘acceptability gap’.”

It is not just social workers who are fearful of the next Baby P. So too are the neighbours, relatives and friends who are concerned about a child they know and who need to decide whether to tell someone. On the other side of the anxiety that the crying child next door may be the victim of horrific abuse is the paranoia on the part of parents that they may get caught up in the social worker’s pursuit of a spurious or false allegation, with all the stigma that entails. Media coverage increases the salience of ‘the worst case scenario’ in everyone’s imagination – not just those of professionals.

Rise in referrals

Since 2013, the Department for Education has collected data on the source of referrals to children’s social care. This coincided with a rise in referrals during the same year, associated with further intense public scrutiny of children’s social work, including publicity over the death of Daniel Pelka in Coventry.

The headline figure on referrals is the high proportion that come from the police, constituting more than 25% (from 2015 onwards). However, of relevance here are the three categories that together might be classified as ‘public’. They are: ‘Individuals’, including family members, neighbours, and Members of Parliament; ‘Other’, including voluntary agencies and children’s centres; and ‘Anonymous’.

Taken together, these three categories made up more than 20% of the total referrals made in 2013/14; more than from health (14%) and schools (13%). While other sources of referral have remained stable or have increased slightly, referrals from ‘the public’ appear to have moved slowly in the other direction, down to 16.7% in 2016/17.

Understanding more about the anxieties and uncertainties that underpin the volatility in referral rates is important. Paradoxically, when referrals increase alongside media coverage, such as in 2009 and 2013, the additional pressure on services that are already overstretched only adds to the risks facing some children and families.

Nowhere has this effect been more poignantly observed than in the serious case review into the death of Hamzah Khan in Bradford in 2009. There was a steep increase in the level of referrals across the country from the end of 2008, following reaction to the death of Baby P. In Bradford, the referral rate rose from 409 per 10,000 children in 2007/08 and peaked at almost 600 per 10,000 in 2009/10. This increase in demand reduced the capacity of services to follow up on the kind of basic checks needed to keep track of a child like Hamzah.

‘Perfect decision-makers?’

Media coverage of child deaths not only demonises social workers and the families they work with; just as damagingly, it elevates politicians and the media audience to the idealised status of being perfect decision-makers. In all cases that hit the headlines, they know with absolute certainty how the terrible outcome could have been prevented; why didn’t the social workers?

This setting apart of social work from the public and political spheres is not just bad for the profession; it is bad for the democratic system that affords social work its mandate. Most of all it is bad for the families that are in desperate need of support.”

We need to find more ways to engage in robust dialogue publicly and politically, alongside service users, in which there is greater honesty. Not only honesty about the profound uncertainties and complexities of the work, but also about the policy changes that are necessary to achieve real change. How can we do this?

While there may be little we can do as individuals, change is possible through collective action and in alliance with others. A good example was the successful campaign to remove exemption clauses from the Children and Social Work Act 2017. The Standing Conference for Social Work seeks to take this type of alliance forward. It is only through collective action and alliances like this that social work will find its voice in the public and political spheres.

As for what we use our voice for, achieving change does not just mean educating the public about how difficult social work is or trying to get the media to tell more positive stories. It means challenging society to own the mandate that it gives to social work via the state in the first place, and acknowledging the deeply political nature of that mandate.

Jo Warner is the author of The Emotional Politics of Social Work and Child Protection, published by Policy Press. She is reader in social work at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent.

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12 Responses to ‘Social work must challenge political and public anxieties about child protection’

  1. LongtimeSW November 15, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

    Well said Jo, particularly,

    ‘Media coverage of child deaths not only demonises social workers and the families they work with; just as damagingly, it elevates politicians and the media audience to the idealised status of being perfect decision-makers.’

    – we are none of us perfect, we are however human with human failings and human qualities.

    • Jo Warner November 16, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

      Thanks for that, LongtimeSW.

  2. frustrated November 15, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

    You are right Jo we need a fundamental debate about what promoting and protecting a child’s welfare actually means in our society and how we can do that.
    This is extremely difficult because our own profession are not honest about the challenges and purpose of the roles we do and especially at management level. With the changing demographics of Social Work many are expecting carers to do that which they re not doing themselves i.e. care for their children 24/7 thus increasing the them and us attitude
    The general public do not want to know and would not believe the level of neglect and emotional abuse that are in our society and it is very difficult to tell them.

    The politicians believe that ever more laws that bring even more children under the public scrutiny but without real support are the answer. And they know best! Lord Soley’s private members bill regarding Home Education which is about to have its second reading in the House of Lords is a case in point. Current legislation could protect those he appears to worry about!

    In many ways the Social Work profession is its own worst enemy we work long unpaid hours. I am currently recruiting tradesmen they would tell me to get lost if I agreed a job with them then expected them to work into the night and at weekends for no extra money. And these long hours are not always for the benefit of the children.

    • Jo Warner November 16, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

      Thanks frustrated, I couldn’t agree more that people do not really want to hear about the levels of abuse and neglect and the difficulty this poses when we try and explain it. I do think this emerging evidence about deprivation and SW activity might help us do that, in that it puts the onus back on policy-makers. I don’t know much about the Home Education Bill – will look into it. Best wishes, Jo

  3. Polly November 16, 2017 at 6:34 am #

    Are we engaging Emma Lewell -Buck MP ? Not sure if current children’s minister is up to spead

    • Jo Warner November 16, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

      Hi Polly, yes I think some are and Emma has an excellent reputation among those SW that know her. Best wishes, Jo

  4. Andy November 16, 2017 at 3:42 pm #

    Did anyone catch the Nick Ferrari show on LBC last week following the death of the little girl in South Wales at the hand of her adopted father?

    A social worker got into in argument with Ferrari about the complexity of child protection. His response? He exhorted Social Workers to go knocking on doors and ask questions……
    His response demonstrates the public and mainstream media have no idea about the nature of the work and the fact that we can’t just knock on doors due to data protection laws.

    I think it also shows that even when we do challenge those perceptions, the agenda is so skewed we are unlikely to be believed. I would suggest the government bears a great responsibility for this state of affairs by the demonization of social workers in high profile cases where children have been killed by parents or carers.

    • Jo Warner November 16, 2017 at 6:57 pm #

      I didn’t hear it Andy but sounds very depressing! I do think that if someone like him just stopped and thought about it, he would see how ludicrous the suggestion is! Best wishes, Jo

      • James November 27, 2017 at 9:12 am #

        Unlikely, he is a professional troll who it is pointless to engage with.

  5. frustrated November 17, 2017 at 1:11 am #

    But wasn’t Ferrari right to be asking those questions, but the analysis of the complexity of child protection takes longer than he or the general public are prepared to listen and understand. Perhaps Ferrari like many others does not realise the limits of social worker’s power. There are many within social work itself that are guilty of the same lack of understanding and analysis, which leads to the demonization of the profession from within.

    Why are MPs so quick to assume that the LA is in the wrong when a manipulative aggrieved parent contacts them because the social worker is putting the children’s interests before theirs or is unable to provide them with what they want because of socio-economic policies that are beyond the control of children’s services.
    These MPs have not had the training and knowledge of evidence based practice that the social workers do neither do they have the humility to realise that. The lowly social worker ‘s hard work is undermined ( and putting others including children and social worker at more risk of violence.).Neither do they have the time or desire to analysis the complexity of child protection and those families and make informed decisions. What is more important is making cheap political points.

  6. Anne November 17, 2017 at 6:26 pm #

    Maybe it is time to be very honest, both social workers, MPs, health professionals, teachers and members of the public (but mostly the NSPCC), we cannot prevent some children being murdered by those that are supposed to protect and love them, it has happened from the beginning of time and always will.

  7. tcm November 22, 2017 at 9:29 am #

    Anne comment 17/11/17 strikes a cord.. Alas, The Sun, Daily Mail and others will not change the ” hysteria” they print, no matter what. They are not and will not be challenged by LA and MPs will continue to comment on child murders as the failing of Social Workers . As if Social Workers are the only profession involved with children .

    The NSPCC , regardless of there good intentions, are as it says, a charity and not child protection experts as they like to portray and I suspect most of the public think they are ?

    Sounds pessimistic ?

    It is.

    The rhetoric of LA finances and the safeguarding of children are at odds with the reality of day to day Social Work with children and families ? AND WILL CONTINE FOR A LONG TIME.?