Social work and damage limitation

When I was at university, our students’ union was in the city centre. Its Friday night discos were popular events, attracting locals and students from other colleges. The three bars and large dance floor on the ground floor were heaving every Friday night. With so many inebriated young people in a confined space, inevitably there were quite a few fights.

I was often impressed by the speed with which these punch-ups were stopped by the union security staff, who were all student volunteers. Just as a fight started, all these blokes would appear from nowhere and grab the would-be protagonists before they had chance to do any damage. Later, I got to know the head of security, a big lad from Northern Ireland, who explained how it was done. 

Each security volunteer had a pen-torch with a red bulb. If he saw a fight brewing, and there is always a build-up to a fight, he would switch on his pen torch and hold it above his head. The other security staff would see the red light and converge on the area. That’s why they were usually on hand to intervene when something kicked off.

It didn’t always work though. My friend reckoned there were eight fights on a normal Friday night and his staff would get to seven of them. There was always one that got away.

I’m always reminded of this when I talk to social workers involved in child protection. In most child-abuse cases, someone shines the red light, the right people gather together and the violence is stopped before too much damage is done. Occasionally, though, one gets away, though social workers have a better hit rate than my students’ union’s seven out of eight. This is all the more surprising when you consider that any number of agencies have to be involved and consulted before action is taken. Schools, the NHS, police, courts and social workers have to work together. Co-ordinating people from different professions is hard enough when they all work for the same organisation. Trying to do it across organisational boundaries is that bit more difficult.

As if this isn’t complicated enough, the environments in which most of the children at risk live are also chaotic. Urban areas like Haringey have large transient populations, often with low levels of literacy and English language skills. Trying to find out what is going on within families in some of these communities is extremely difficult. Against this background, it’s surprising that so few children slip through the net.

But when they do there is an outcry and someone has to be blamed. That the social worker concerned has saved dozens of people from abuse is of no interest to the tabloid lynch mob. ‘Child saved from potential abuse’ is not a news story; a dead child is. Only the failures make the papers.

But social work, like security work, policing and medicine, is, for the most part, an exercise in damage limitation. The most social workers can hope to do is to progressively increase the number of tragedies they prevent. Even if they manage this, they will never be able to get to all of them. Some parents abuse their children, or entrust them to carers who do. They always have and they always will. The ‘never again’ demands of tabloid-led crowds are completely unachievable. There will be more Baby Ps and Victoria Climbies, no matter how many social workers and children’s services directors are sacked. 

Demonising Sharon Shoesmith for the death of Peter Connelly was unfair and the Court of Appeal said as much yesterday. There may have been problems in the way her department worked and some failings and performance issues but Haringey was probably no different from many other local authorities which look after socially deprived urban areas. Looking at what they are up against, it would be surprising if there wasn’t an air of barely suppressed chaos in most large social services operations. Whether or not Sharon Shoesmith’s department was any worse than those of other large urban councils we will probably never know. Had Haringey followed a fair and legally compliant process, all the details about the running of its children’s services department would have been properly scrutinised. That is unlikely to happen now. Perhaps Sharon Shoesmith was a poor manager, though her turnaround of Haringey’s education service seems to suggest otherwise, or perhaps she was a competent one who just happened to be working for the wrong council at the wrong time. Either way, the actions of Ed Balls and Haringey’s senior management have prevented that story from being told.   

The brutal murder of a child could just as easily have happened in another local authority and probably will in a couple of years or so. Another child will slip through a normally well-functioning net and, despite all the good work he or she has done in the past, another children’s services boss will be thrown to the tabloids. These savage media attacks on their profession have demoralised social workers, leading to an exodus of staff and soaring costs, as Patrick Butler explains in his Guardian piece today.

In her recent report, Professor Eileen Munro described the child protection system as “over-bureaucratised and concerned with compliance”. The hysteria that followed the death of Baby P will only make things worse. When people feel they are likely to be attacked and vilified if something goes wrong, they become over-cautious. They protect their own backs, document everything in minute detail and seek sign-off from managers for minor decisions. Anything to spread the risk. That is true of all organisations and social services departments are no different. There will be more bureaucracy and concern with compliance, not less. As well as limiting the damage to abused children, social workers are inevitably concerned about limiting the damage to their own careers.

It is unreasonable to expect children’s services directors to prevent child abuse completely. Senior hospital doctors sometimes can’t stop patients dying and chief constables sometimes can’t catch murderers, yet we don’t call for their heads. If we did, no-one would want to do their jobs and their services would collapse. The vicious media attacks on Sharon Shoesmith, and her illegal dismissal by Ed Balls and Haringey council, have brought children’s social services close to that point. More bureaucracy, more arse-covering, more compliance and more cost will be the result. Repairing that damage will be a tough job.

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8 Responses to Social work and damage limitation

  1. Ged Robinson says:

    As a practicing child protection social worker myself I could not have written a better blog myself. Thanks for writing and posting this.

  2. Pingback: Social work and damage limitation - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Harry ferguson says:

    This is a superb, insightful, balanced, perceptive analysis of the complexities of child protection social work and spit on in it’s criticisms of those who erroneously blame and persecute social work staff for failing to achiece what is impossible, protect every child.

  4. Harry ferguson says:

    Oops, meant to say, I try to show just how complex child proection is in my new book Child Protection Practice, Palgrave, 2011.

  5. Pingback: Miliband Should Remove Ed Balls | Jason Lower

  6. Excellent overview of what happens in such situations. The idea that a quick ‘beheading’ will solve the problems that lie below is short sighted and stagnating. Nothing is learned, but it is used as an attempt to symbolise that the problem has been ‘removed’.
    What quite astonishes me is how few commentators mention that the physical assaults that led to Baby P’s death were carried out by his ‘guardians’. To read some of the comments made one would think Sharon Shoesmith herself inflicted the injuries. Appropriate ‘ownership’ of and responsibility for the consequences of any act is the only way in which an adult-adult system can develop to replace the ‘parent-child’ model that so many of our institutions seem to be based on.

  7. Patrick says:

    I think this summarises what I meant in my earlier comment about the complexity of the system! You make an excellent point about the demonisation of social workers and their managers leading to a worse service instead of helping to improve it. The likely bureaucratisation and increasingly risk averse nature of child child protection is also pertinent.

  8. Horay for child protection workers. I was a CPS worker for four years before eventually snagging a job at a private agency. There is a big different when case loads are compared, but there is just nothing like the challenge of working out of control caseloads. Those were the best years of my life.

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