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

  • 16 Nov 2017

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

Jo Warner, November 15, 2017 in Children,

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.