The clients think we are all baby snatchers," says Rebecca, clamping the satnav to the windscreen of her battered Toyota Corolla. "You read what is written about social workers and you think, 'Who would do that job?' But I love it. You need a thick skin to cope with the constant criticism, but when it works it is so fantastic."
Easing the car into the evening traffic, she taps in a postcode and we're on our way to her next case. Given the vitriol heaped on her profession since the case of Baby P, the 17-month-old child killed while under the care of Haringey social services, her optimism is remarkable. The Sun collected one million signatures demanding the heads of those who failed to protect Baby P, and this month the Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, announced a new intensive training programme for children's services directors.
But Rebecca is unfazed. "One positive thing that has come out of the Baby P case is that now I can say to clients, 'Look, you know what my job as a social worker is, you know the criticism we have had. I am not just a nosy cow coming round and asking intrusive questions. I have got a real job to do protecting children." But tonight's visit – to an address on a housing estate in the south-east London borough of Lewisham – is unlikely to end with that kind of warm, all's-right-with-the-world feeling.
This is Rebecca's first visit to a family who have had all their four children removed (by social workers in another London borough). The woman is pregnant and, on the basis of the information from the neighbouring borough, the plan is to take the baby as soon as it is born. The record shows a family marked by violence, drugs, criminality and domestic abuse. Rebecca is nervous and so am I. She's brought along a colleague, David, for moral and – if necessary – physical support.
Lewisham is second only to Haringey on the doleful scale of offences against children – neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse and rape. Its 120 social workers deal with 4,500 referrals a year – most from the police – but these have increased greatly after the publicity about Baby P (there were 550 referrals in November, almost 60 per cent up on the same month in 2007). All must be assessed, more than half will be visited, and many will be investigated in more detail. About 150 a year end up subject to a formal child protection plan.
As we wind through the busy streets, the satnav barking instructions, Rebecca explains that this is an unannounced visit; the couple do not know we are coming. "It is clear from the papers we have got [from the borough that removed the children] that this family has a lot of problems. They say they want their children back but they are not complying with the requirements laid down by the court." These are that they undergo psychological assessment, hair analysis for drugs, and other tests. "It is possible we will go in and they will say they will work with us. I am trying to keep an open mind and not write them off on the basis of the information that I have. I will ask them to give me their take on what has happened and what we can do to stop the process."
Social workers, who are never celebrated when things go right, as doctors or the police are, have found themselves in a dark place in recent months. Frequently lambasted for tearing families apart, they are now accused of failing to protect children by letting families stay together. The brutal treatment of Baby P, who suffered multiple injuries over months that went unnoticed in spite of 60 visits by professionals, including social workers, has been used to beat not just those in Haringey but an entire vocation.
Rebecca parks the car round the corner from our destination. "I don't want them to recognise it," she says. Aged 30, she has worked for three years in child protection – already a year longer than average for her colleagues. Most are newly qualified, doing their stints so they appear on their CVs and then moving off the front line to other areas of social work. Only the "adrenalin junkies", in the words of Lewisham's director of children's social care, Alastair Pettigrew, remain on the front line.
Rebecca, David and I get out of the car and walk to the block of flats. Brick-built, with open walkways, it is indistinguishable from a thousand others across London. "I can see how it happens," Rebecca says of Baby P. "Parents can be so needy; they tell you about their housing difficulties, problems with neighbours, [but] never about the children. You always have to make sure you see the child on its own. If someone is not letting me have access, that makes me worry. With this family we are visiting today, social workers have never been allowed access. That sets the alarm bells ringing."
The couple live on the sixth floor. Rebecca presses the entry phone and stands in the biting cold waiting for a reply. She is wearing a lime green jacket and leopard-print shoes. I have on a heavy coat and am already chilled to the bone.
The big change in social work in recent years, everyone acknowledges, is the huge growth in bureaucracy. It has meant more time sitting at computers instead of out on the beat, as we are tonight. The justification for this change is clear – to ensure a fair and open system, and a more professional approach. Pettigrew says: "When I qualified 30 years ago, we were flying by the seat of our pants – we didn't know much research and we weren't always clear why we were visiting. There is more clarity and more scrutiny now."
The danger for workers on the front line is that this encourages a box-ticking mentality. "There is a purpose behind it all, I can see that," Rebecca says, "but there is such a lot of sitting at a desk writing the same thing again and again."
The entry phone crackles and she leans into the mouthpiece. "I'm Rebecca from Lewisham social services. Could I come in and talk to you? [pause]... It's really, really important... that I talk to you... I've got a letter down here for both of you..." The phone clicks off.
The couple do not want to see us. They sound calm and measured on the entry phone, not angry, so Rebecca decides to make one more attempt at contact by going up to knock on their door. We linger by the entrance for a few minutes until someone coming out allows us to slip inside and take the lift. "I'm shitting myself," Rebecca says as we troop along the walkway and she knocks at the door. We wait for a full minute, and she knocks again. A Venetian blind twitches, two fingers and an eye appear, and are gone. No contact. We post the letters, informing them they need to attend a case conference the next day, and leave.
"If they don't engage, that's the worst thing for them," Rebecca says once we're back in the car. "All I have got to go on is what [the other London borough] told me. I don't know if they have made any changes or recognise the problems."
With a degree in sociology, an MA in social work and several years working in a pub and as a counsellor for the Samaritans, one thing Rebecca has learnt, she says, is not to prejudge people. The best thing, she says, is to work with clients long enough to see changes. "I have one family I have been with for a long time. Once a fortnight, I pick the 11-year-old daughter up from school and we work on building her self-esteem. I know them so well that I can see when problems start straight away. I had a kid the other day who had been in care and has gone home – when I see them happy and settled, where they should be, I am just so pleased."
She hopes to prevent what happened to another of her clients – a young woman with mental-health problems whose child Rebecca had to remove, and who subsequently killed herself by jumping into the Thames. "She couldn't get anywhere, she was so damaged. I wish I could have made a difference but I don't see what more I could have done. If we hadn't acted we would have had a dead child on our hands as well."
Working in child protection is not popular with social workers – and it's not difficult to see why. The families tend to be hostile and angry, and blame the social workers for causing their problems. The catalogue of child abuse scandals, from the murder of Maria Colwell in 1974 to the prolonged torture and killing of Victoria Climbié in 2000, have tarnished the profession. This month Balls announced an inquiry into Doncaster children's services, after a serious case review into the death of a 10-month-old boy in 2007 revealed a "chaotic and dangerous" situation.
Alastair Pettigrew is critical of social-work training, saying that many degree students do not spend enough time in placements – essential for learning how to deal with families – and many teachers lack current experience as practitioners. A few years ago, one London borough offered a £1,000 bonus to any social worker prepared to move into child protection; there were no takers.
On my second night out in Lewisham, I am with two social workers, both, confusingly, called Emma. Two are needed because the family we are visiting is so large – seven children – that it is too much for one to handle. In the car, they set out the problem. It's a nightmare scenario, and you wonder how they could address it. The parents are refugees who arrived in England six years ago. Their children range in age from 18 months to 15 years. The eldest, a girl, has sought protection from the council, alleging that she is being bullied, beaten and scapegoated by her family.
She says that her parents, who are Muslim, will not allow her any freedom, and that when she left home to stay with a friend they sent out a search party, which found her, beat her and smashed up her friend's flat. She has complained to social workers before of being beaten and now claims that her mother has threatened to kill her. Two other children in the family have also told teachers about being beaten. The social workers' biggest fear is of "honour based" violence – the girl has been in care at a secret location for a month.
Her parents flatly deny everything. "While the girl is very clear what happened, her parents are equally clear that it did not happen. It is a complex case," say the Emmas.
We arrive at the address – a pleasant council house, clean, tidy, freshly painted in white – and are welcomed in. The six remaining children are sharing a meal in the kitchen. In the lounge the TV is on, and there's a poster displaying Islam's Five Pillars of Faith on the wall. Neither parent speaks English so the meeting is conducted, haltingly, through an interpreter.
The parents are calm and co-operative – or perhaps resigned – as the two Emmas explain how they plan to work with the family to resolve the problem. To my untrained eye, nothing seems out of the ordinary, with the youngest children crawling in and out of their parents' laps as we talk. It is only when we go on a tour of the house, half an hour later, that doubts surface. Upstairs, the rooms have beds, a wardrobe or two, but nothing else – no pictures, books, games or toys. Indeed, there are no personal effects of any kind.
As we descend the stairs the mother, noticing something spilt on the skirting board, orders the 12-year-old – now the eldest, and the only family member wearing a hijab – to clean it up. She does so, obediently and silently. She has said almost nothing during our visit, remaining hidden in the kitchen. Afterwards, the Emmas agree that she will need watching in the coming months. Is she under pressure now that her sister has gone?
But the visit is counted a success. The family accepted that their daughter is in care, and agreed to work with social workers. Now it is up to the Emmas to build a relationship where they can make regular visits and monitor the children's progress. "It's about seeing it all play out. It's about engaging with the clients. But it can take a long time and it doesn't always fit with government targets" – one of which is that a "core assessment" of the family must be made within 35 days.
Back in the office, Pettigrew reveals a remarkable statistic. Of all children deemed at risk and with a child protection plan, 96 per cent do not go into care. They remain at home with their parents. Of the 4 per cent who are removed, three-quarters are back home within six months. So, a tiny percentage of children deemed at greatest risk are permanently removed from their parents. Why? "You are never dealing with an ideal position. You are considering which is the least of the evils," he says. "Determining whether children can remain in massively unsatisfactory conditions, or be removed and face the uncertain future children in care face, is a decision that causes everyone involved with it massive anxiety."
There are about 90,000 registered social workers in England, of whom slightly under half work in children's services, in local authorities and for voluntary organisations. There is an average 10 per cent vacancy rate countrywide, but that falls within a range of from near zero to 50 per cent.
Front-line social workers are mostly young, newly trained and earn £25,000 to £30,000 a year, slightly more in London. In 2007, they took 23,700 children into care in England, bringing the total number of children looked after by local authorities to 60,000. Of these, more than two-thirds were fostered, and the rest were in children's homes. In all, 3,300 children were adopted.
While we've been out, duty managers Pamela and Keith have been fielding referrals flooding in from police and teachers – and calls from anxious neighbours about a crying child. The rise in calls since Baby P is unprecedented, says Ian Smith, the manager. "Professionals – doctors, teachers – who were previously willing to work with families now don't want to take the risk and are referring them to us," he says.
On the duty desk, a file contains the criteria to help managers decide what action is required in response to each referral. Keith and Pamela show me a few of the dozens that have come in today.
Doctors have reported a three-year-old taken to hospital 60 times by his mother with unexplained injuries, but they're reluctant to diagnose fabricated induced illness (formerly Munchausen's by proxy) in case the parents sue. A teacher has called about a child whose parents were arrested this morning – he has nowhere to go. A mother called 999 because of violent arguments between her 14-year-old daughter and the girl's father. A parent has reported a nursery where there have been previous allegations of abuse.
"I have worked in child protection for 30 years," says Pamela, 60. "I like the emergencies, the crises, the need to think on your feet. How can we protect this child? Can we make it safe? I like that."
A key weakness identified in Haringey was the high number of agency staff, said to be 50 per cent. It is not like that in Lewisham. "All my staff are permanent. That really helps – they are more committed," Smith says. When permanent staff start heading for the exit, as they did in Haringey, that is the clearest signal that something is going seriously wrong. But, like so many other signals in that benighted borough, no one picked it up.
Some details have been changed to protect identities
Baby P scandal: How the fallout spread
Died aged 17 months in August 2007
Suffered more than 50 injuries at the hands of his 27-year-old mother, her 32-year-old boyfriend (neither of whom have been named) and their 36-year-old lodger, Jason Owen. The trio were convicted in November 2008 at the Old Bailey of allowing the death of a child. Sentencing has been postponed until the spring.
Head of children's services, Haringey Council
Dismissed without compensation in December 2008 after it emerged that social workers and other professionals had made 60 visits to Baby P over eight months but failed to protect him. Shoesmith is considering legal action against the council after her appeal against dismissal was rejected last week.
George Meehan & Liz Santry
Haringey Council leader; and cabinet member for children, respectively
They resigned in December 2008, within hours of publication of a damning report into Haringey's children's services, which found nine fundamental defects putting children at risk.
Maria Ward, Sylvia Henry & Gillie Christou
Baby P's social worker; senior social worker; and team manager in Haringey, respectively
Suspended from working with children in December 2008, pending further investigation.
Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
Described the findings of the report, which he commissioned, as "devastating and damning". The key criticism, he said, was that social workers failed to talk directly to children. He ordered more training for heads of children's services.