Children’s social care reform needs to be driven by the lived experience of communities

For too long, policy change affecting children’s social work has been led by a top-down focus on individual risk. Time to rethink, and to acknowledge structural economic injustice, argues social worker Richard Lynch-Smith

Image of typed text saying 'What's your story?' signifying life experience (credit tech_studio / Adobe Stock)
(credit tech_studio / Adobe Stock)

by Richard Lynch-Smith

“Autonomous – does everyone know what that means?”

Ben was leader, on account of him doing A-level sociology. I remember him sitting in a meeting, waving a copy of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.

The room was filled with teenagers and one youth worker. We were all gathered under the banner of the DIY Collective, a group designed for young people in Scarborough who wanted to put on arts events. The youth worker was paid from the last bit of its council funding. That was gone now. We were autonomous.

Before he went to university, Ben taught us about squatters’ rights. I remember it feeling like a world had been won.

We had keys to the building, held on to them for dear life. There were demos, banner-making workshops, drumming circles. It was our safe space after fighting to keep the British National Party out of town. Some people slept on the couch, for reasons I didn’t then grasp.

Forces that shape lives

If these recollections sound self-indulgent, it’s because they are. I am a children’s social worker now, and recognise that coherence of memory is a privilege. A key part of work with children in care is life-story therapy, in which you try to help young people seeking that coherence.

It means talking to them about why the state believed that their parents could not raise them. We are supposed to speak of the agency and rights of families, but not the political context that so often curtails these.

Social care reform commonly follows tragedy, and means a shift from collective to individual. There is less interest in the voices of those who use services, or in the economic and social forces that shape their lives.

The New Labour reforms of the noughties began with the tragic murder of Victoria Climbié by her great-aunt and her great-aunt’s boyfriend, and were crystallised in the 2003 paper Every Child Matters. The language here was about improving outcomes for children via a social investment state.

Flagship policies such as Sure Start were successful, but the discourses were of universal parenting support, not economic injustice.

Even such gradual reforms were always going to be vulnerable to the next scandal. That came with the death of Peter Connelly in 2007, and the media and political events that followed. The Sun’s ‘Beautiful Baby P: Campaign for Justice’ petition gathered 1.5 million signatures, and was delivered to the prime minister.

Wary of inaction, Ed Balls, then secretary of state of the newly-created Department for Children, Schools and Families, stepped in and ordered the removal of Sharon Shoesmith, the director of children’s services at the local authority in question, Haringey.

The language that followed had an ever-narrower focus on risk. There was little space for community or youth-led organisations like the DIY Collective, and little appetite for the kind of social work that challenged the social injustice of a child sleeping on a sofa.

The shift gathered pace from 2010 under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. Then education secretary Michael Gove gave a speech in 2012 calling for more adoptions, and decrying a system in which the rights of parents were seen to take precedence over the “welfare of a neglected or abused child”.

Austerity’s social harm

We are told to imagine that certain pieces of language are apolitical. We speak of children’s rights, as if this is not a term that is defined by the government of the day. Austerity denied a generation of working-class children their rights, but this does not form part of our definition of social harm.

Studies such as the Child Welfare Inequalities Project have shown that, among all of the factors that could lead to a child having a social worker, poverty is the most common. A child born in Blackpool is seven times more likely to be in out-of-home care than a child born in Wokingham, the project found.

Part of the problem is that public discourses around child protection too often stem from crisis. Both Labour and the Tories have repeatedly fired up the language of child rescue, and used it as a mandate for a focus on the individual.

Barely a week into lockdown, emergency legislation under statutory instrument [SI] 445 was rushed through parliament, which stripped back core protections for children in care.

Gove’s recent Ditchley Annual Lecture was an FDR-cum-Cummings ode to innovation and data. Translated into social care, it means a narrow focus on risk, pathology and performance, with social work services and training increasingly out to tender. It means an end to organisations like the DIY Collective, whose outcomes are hard to quantify. It means the children’s minister, Vicky Ford, leading a moral panic on Twitter about parents using free school meal vouchers to buy alcohol.

Devolve power based on lived experience

Throughout the pandemic we’ve heard the language of mutual aid, of communities pulling together. This is a government that is leaning into its hypocrisy.

Food banks are praised by those who created the exponential demand for them. Councils providing free school meals are portrayed as a triumph of devolved power.

Gove’s lecture spoke of the need to devolve government power beyond just geography, to make it more inclusive of voices that are not southern and middle-class, and also to draw on the knowledge of public servants, including in the social care sector. But for such aspirational measures to be meaningful they need to go further and to put decision-making in the hands of people with lived experience. A good place to start would be the promised care review, which Ford announced recently was imminent.

For all the talk of championing community voices, legislation such as SI 445 went through without any meaningful consultation with those who use services.

A Big-Society-on-steroids approach feels imminent, in which the collective actions of communities are co-opted. Those who exist to try and support families will be instructed to focus on the risk. The rest is open to the market, or running upon goodwill.

Illich taught me, via Ben, that “the schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags”. Reforms to the social care system are so often top-down, reactive, from a bold new visionary – or all three.

The most meaningful language we could use now would be to admit that we do not hold the “proper tags”, and to give power and resources to communities as they define their own needs. Looking back – Ben – I think that this is what autonomy means.

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15 Responses to Children’s social care reform needs to be driven by the lived experience of communities

  1. Hilton Dawson November 18, 2020 at 6:20 pm #

    Simply could not agree more

  2. Arthur Wardell November 18, 2020 at 6:29 pm #

    Believing communities could be given power and resources to communities in a capitalist society where the State and vested economic interests override all else is yet another illusion, just tinkering at the edges at best. It is another way of perpetuating individual interventions. Social work depends on inequalities and its institutions perpetuate it,whatever social workers believe. You do casework and neglect communities, tackle that if you want to challenge poverty and discrimination.

  3. Nihat November 18, 2020 at 9:44 pm #

    What is it about social workers that they love to wallow in their self chosen impotence? “The state believed their parents could not raise them”, “discourses were of universal parenting support not economic justice”, “those who exist to try and support families will be instructed to focus on the risk”. So here we are with a social work that neuters itself in a belief that it has no autonomy outside the State, that it is powerless to fight injustice because it’s ” made” to do things. Do what you have to do to keep your jobs but don’t bind us all with a hopelessness not all of us are burdened by.

  4. Julie Williams November 19, 2020 at 11:58 am #

    Social Work is about social engineering, they remove children from working class families and place them with middle class families, I am living this nightmare, my two children were removed because I asked for help and support for my daughter who has severe learning disabilities, under section 17 of the children’s act LA have a legal duty of care to provide support, this very rarely happens, and when a parent asks for support you automatically are deemed a risk. The current system is extremely skewed, its powered by private adoption and fostering agencies, making millions of pounds each year, transferring costs for supporting families to stay together by LA, into the private sector, leading to families being torn apart needlessly. This ideology is extremely damaging to children and parents, children grow up with extreme mental health problems, turn to crime, drink drugs end up homeless, because SW break down family bonds, the system is failing generations, and they will blame the targeted parents, child protection is child abuse in its current form.

    • Shona Sinclair November 21, 2020 at 7:21 pm #

      Thank you Julie Williams

    • Kay November 21, 2020 at 9:16 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more. Are you aware of the group, “Legal Action for Women.” May be able to provide some support.

  5. Ray Davies November 20, 2020 at 9:04 am #

    In response to Nihat, I’d say that we’re all free to act within the bounds of our facticity but that for many of the people interacting with children’s social care the space in which one can act freely is severely reduced.

    We each exercise freedom with regards to acting in any one moment. Yet we are also bound by our physical limits, social status, economic position and the actions of others. I would contend this is a commonly held truth in the social work profession.

    In the last few decades, politicians and government have delivered policies that have served only to limit the autonomy, or the freedom to choose, of young people, families and communities. Instead public service reforms have simultaneously drained commissioners of funding (namely, councils) whilst applying ever more onerous eligibility criteria and reporting. This has had the effect of severely reducing the autonomy of voluntary and community groups and, thereby, the people they serve.

    Effective social work has to start with recognising how social and economic structures limit the autonomy of the people we work with. This rightly includes a recognition of the ambiguous role local authority social workers play within the current system. However this is not, as Nihat attests, hopelessness. Instead, it is the very drive behind good practice. It is to work tirelessly to will freedom, whilst challenging the factic.

  6. Nihat November 20, 2020 at 11:45 am #

    I think people social workers have contact with understand far better and with more nuance the oppression, not the more palatable social work pretence of autonomy, imposed on them by the State. Stops pretending to be champions of justice when it seems to me you retreat into a self imposed, yes, helplessness, and convince yourselves you are bound to a way of working that is imposed on you and one which you can’t escape from. Your ‘freedom’ to act may be severely reduced in your work, which I dispute, but you are still a citizen, you have privilege and agency to act outside of your work constraints. There was a time when social workers stood alongside other citizens and campaigned for change and fairness. Admittedly this was at a time when social workers were no doubt proper “professionals” and didn’t seem obsessed with inferiority complexes about academic qualifications. Ask yourself why there was a time when social workers managed to stand in solidarity with “clients” in campaigns, were active in their community and why social workers have turned practice into an atomised casework activity now? Social workers are promoting their own supposed helplessnes when they deny the grief of a person to save their employer money as in the recent Birmingham case. When you practice social work as a bureaucratic activity and make decisions without even seeing the person you are supposedly assessing, you can’t blame that on “ambiguity”, it’s a choice. I ask that social workers own their choices and not blame others for supposedly forcing them to act this way. Be honest, if nothing else, it’s good for your mental health. You have power and privilege, you have autonomy, you have choices, just use them to challenge how you work. In my contact with social workers the “commonly held truth” seems to be how put upon, stressed, powerless and unappreciated you all are.That’s not the most positive and empowered way to work “tirelessly…while challenging” is it. Evidently, citizens understand the power structures, the economic exploitations, the oppressive state apparatuses that shape their lives far better than social workers, that’s my point.

  7. Sandra November 20, 2020 at 12:27 pm #

    Not sure how social workers play an ambiguous role in the current system when they are the current system.

  8. Sara Barrat November 20, 2020 at 3:31 pm #

    Effective social work starts with the admission that social workers have chosen to implement the very social and economic policies limiting the autonomy of people they ‘work’ with. Accept that your work is dictated by budget constraints not needs. Social work in the round is complicit in perpetuating poverty and benefits dependence. What passes for radical social work these days is sending people to food banks and then complaining about form filling. Extentialist angst doesn’t change social and economic structures nor self indulgent Twitter affirmations.

  9. Ravi November 20, 2020 at 5:42 pm #

    A friend showed me this article. I wished she hadn’t. I suppose it’s meant to make a care leaver like me feel heard and important. Fails that test I’m afraid. Writing and wringing hands is easy. Where was the committed social worker when I went from living in a care home to friends sofas and then the street? Nowhere, no answering the phone, no response as apparently I became an adult one minute past midnight of my birthday. 6 years of moving homes, short fostering, denied responsibility and threatened with worse and than apparently I was capable of making decisions and had choices. You social workers live in an Alice in Wonderland world where reality is what you say it is and not the one of my experiences. If you want to really help people put your jobs on the line if you are forced to do things you don’t like. Easy to talk about giving power to the likes of me when you are in front of a computer. Everything I am I gained in the Army, nothing from a social worker. We don’t beleive you any more.

  10. David Paulsen November 21, 2020 at 12:13 pm #

    Nihat is a little harsh but Ray Davies you can’t dig social workers out of their self imposed malaise by dismissing his arguments. Every time the profession fails it looks for an excuse or blames others, what is that if it is not a crude helplessness? There is no honesty in social work and certainly no ownership of actions taken and their negative consequences. If social workers were honest they would stop complaining about how unfairly treated they are and see the obvious in front of their nose which is that the economic relations we are subjugated under needs poverty and gorges on discrimination. Social work has nothing relevant to say let alone an inclination to challenge injustice effectively. Carry on commissioning research, carry on railing impotentantly from the sidelines is not meaningful action. Choose to stand in solidarity with those of us who see a world outside of the shrivelled hopelessness that passes for thinking in today’s social work. Some of us reject the inward looking self indulgent feeling sorry for itself irrelevance of the narrative, we value solidarity and boring dirty political activism. How many of you have been disciplined for refusing to implement inadequate care plans? How many of you have been shouted at for daring to question the motives of your managers? How many of you have been threatened with being arrested at PiP appeals for daring to support your ‘client’s? Social work will be a social justice focused activity when we collectively reject the artificial limitations forced on us. You may well be right that the “space to act freely is severely reduced” but that’s not down to wicked politicians, it a consequence of social work leaders and educators meekly acquescing so ‘we’ can call ourselves “a profession”, a meaningless aspiration when almost every activity from sports to yoga instructors see themselves as professionals. Social work really needs to get over its inferiority complexes about psychologists, there was a time when we soared above what is the ultimate white middle class cabal. Our bounds of facticity are self imposed and frankly a hedging of bets for when we have to find excuses for failiures. Yes I am thinking of the accountan-social workers in Birmingham. I am a proud social worker, I don’t obsess about how I am perceived by SWE, nor do I take my cues from the likes of BASW. I am never going to be asked to make speeches at conferences, I am never going to be chosen as the Social Worker of the Year, I am never going to be recognised by a senior manager, I am never going to post a tweet or like a hashtag “celebrating” social work, I am never going to wallow in the supposed complexity of my job and I will never be ‘honoured’ with an MBE. Not a great loss in the great struggles of life. What I will remain is a small grit in the shallow industry that passes for contemporary social work. My worth is measured by how I am perceived by people who use my services not by the ever changing fads that bind us to a corrosive leadership that values bureaucracy over unpalatable truths about its place in the State.

  11. Miss blessed November 22, 2020 at 6:58 am #

    The most honest and sensible thing I’ve heard been said from social services! as its very true, those who are subjected to the every day norms of poverty and other detrimental social factors are more adequately able to determine the needs of their self and communities they are coming from rather than going with some protocol out of a sociology text book.

    However even though these texts books are very informative and covers the realities faced in real life by individuals , it’s a shame that social services berely consider these factors written in the text books they are forced to learn from when practicing and assessing individual family needs.

    Another thing that was rightly mentioned In the article was the driving force to protecting children can’t be just focused on safe guarding as it’s got to also include the poverty factors! that alot of children are subjected to for numerous reasons as these are the real driving forces to alot of children been exploited and not safe guarded.

    I think if we get rid of the covert hidden agendas of this government led organisation, then we can maybe scratch the surface, when it comes to tackling the real pressing issues communities face on a daily basis pertaining to the social factors.

  12. Chris November 22, 2020 at 10:58 pm #

    Tragedies happened and will happen because social workers allways blame every other social and political entity for their failures rather than face up to their shortcomings. The narrative of social care is not just shaped by politicians, social work leaders have facilitated austerity however unpalatable it might be to acknowledge it.

  13. Franklyn Fowordu November 23, 2020 at 9:12 pm #

    Thank you Julie the truth is hard to hear.