Clare Jerrom looks at how social workers are made the scapegoat following horrific child abuse cases.
Child abusers are, by their nature, sly, devious, cunning and manipulative creatures who can somehow justify harming a child or baby. The crime smacks of the playground bully on a massive scaled up version where a fully grown adult willfully impacts pain and suffering on someone so much smaller than them, often babies or a toddler.
It was widely reported at the time of Baby Peter Connelly’s death that his mother Tracey Connelly had smeared his face in chocolate to hide his bruises on a social work visit.
There is no excusing behaviour of this kind. In some instances, the perpetrator of abuse may have been a victim of abuse at some point in their lives. But to inflict the pain they felt on someone else is not justified.
The recent horrific tragic deaths of baby Star Hobson and little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes have shocked the nation. The reports of Arthur, left so weak after being poisoned by salt, saying “Nobody loves me” and “No one is going to feed me” breaks the hearts of the country. The pictures released of baby Star, bruised and pained are devastating.
While the public are rightly outraged at such atrocities, they also want answers and the finger is usually pointed at social workers.
While the independent review into Arthur’s death and the independent Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review into Star’s murder will make recommendations as to how practices can be improved to try and stop cases like this happening again, it is too easy to scapegoat social workers.
Due to data protection laws, social workers cannot talk about any of their cases. Therefore, they cannot celebrate the many successful cases that they work on where they keep families together, working on their vulnerabilities to improve parenting, communication and relationships.
In fact, during COVID, social workers were a lifeline for many, providing vulnerable families with vouchers for food banks , assisting with familial problems such as substance abuse and mental health problems and some families were requesting social work intervention to enable them a school place for their child to alleviate the pressure of home-schooling during lockdown.
Yet on these rare occasions where there is a tragedy, social workers are hung out to dry, lamented for not preventing the harm or death of a child.
The vitriol is so extreme, some might assume the abuse had been carried out by the social worker.
Yet what is forgotten is that a social worker cannot remove a child from their family. A judge or a police officer can. But a social worker cannot. They can only go on the information they are provided with and, given child abusers become adept at hiding their crimes, they are often powerless to act.
The #Respect4SocialWork campaign was launched earlier this year urging a greater understanding of the social work profession and calling for a more balanced media coverage of the valuable work social workers carry out.
The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Parliament: “I make it clear that police officers, teachers, social workers, health workers and others go to work each day to try to make things better and to do their best at what are very difficult jobs. Those already serving our country’s most vulnerable children deserve our thanks, and I want to be extremely clear that no safeguarding professional should be the victim of abuse. The targeting of individuals is wrong and helps nobody, but that does not mean we should not seek to understand what went wrong and how we can stop it happening again.”
When asked by Kelly Tolhurst MP whether it is time to look at and deal with the case load that social workers have to deal with, including very complex cases, Mr Zahawi said: “When I was children and families minister, I was the champion of social workers, and I will continue to be the champion of social workers as Secretary of State. I am very confident about the MacAlister review—hence why it was such a priority for us for it to be in our manifesto. It is so important that we now get this right, and case loads are very much a part of that, as she quite rightly identifies.”
Chief social workers Isabelle Trowler and Lyn Romeo have also offered their support of the social work profession .
The fact is, social workers are not to blame for these tragic cases. The people who inflicted these heinous crimes are to blame. Social workers go into the profession to help people and many do, on a daily basis, with little recognition for the complexities they deal with.
COVID did not help matters. WillisPalmer Chief Executive Mark Willis warned a month after the first national lockdown began in March 2020 that a long-term lockdown period would be detrimental to vulnerable children, out of sight of professionals .
This was reiterated in Ofsted’s recent annual report which found that vulnerable children were ‘out of sight’ during lockdown .
We all need to listen to the messages from the various reviews into the devastating cases of Arthur and Star and learn how working can be improved in order to protect children.
But aiming bile and vitriol at social workers is like blaming the police for a burglary that has been committed.
Speaking to Parliament about Arthur’s death, Nadhim Zahawi said: “The father and partner were obviously evil and manipulative, but nevertheless we have to make sure, if there is any evidence, any inkling, any iota of harm to any child, that the child is taken away immediately.”
The system is not set up to support this. Social workers hands are tied. Local authorities have had cuts after cuts to their budgets to the point that the majority of early services have been abolished.
Early intervention is key to prevent problems escalating to crisis point. But social workers are fire fighting a wall of crises every day.
Children in care are already at a record high at 80,850 at March 2021. If social workers took every child into care when there was an ‘inkling’ of neglect or abuse, this number would rise 10 fold and local authorities budgets do not reflect this.
The key is, where any safeguarding professional be it a doctor, social worker, midwife, health visitor or health visitor suspects any sign of neglect or abuse, to implement family support. A family support worker can stay with the family 24/7 if necessary and while child abusers can put on an act for a short announced professional visit, they cannot maintain this long term and this solution would highlight any familial difficulties or concerns.
Social workers cannot and should not be held accountable for the heinous crimes of child abusers. But they should be funded and supported to put in place measures to ensure that children are safe, when, as Zahawi said, there is an “inkling” of doubt.