Criticism of social workers has angered Mary Collins, who says her job is hard and thankless
I'M A SOCIAL worker in a child protection team based in a county office about eight miles from Leicester. There are seven of us in the team, and as well as the other cases that come in, we handle referrals coming from the community at large of suspected child abuse, whether physical or sexual.

Morale is low amongst social workers and this is partly because we are so squeezed at the moment. I wish people would come and see what we actually do before criticising us - I think that social workers have had very bad coverage. While organisations such as the NSPCC are generally seen as protective and caring, there seems to be a negative response to the social services; social workers are often portrayed as Jesus-sandal-knitted-pully- wearing left-wingers. In fact, we come from all kinds of backgrounds.

On average we have about 12 referrals a week, far fewer than within an inner city. Most of these are concerned with neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. We get about the same number of referrals on sexual abuse as physical abuse. In the case of sexual abuse we liaise with a special police unit called the Family Support Unit, which works alongside us. Since people have become more aware of the need to protect children, the number of referrals has risen, though this doesn't necessarily indicate there are more incidents taking place.

People find child sex abuse very hard to deal with. The abuser is not your Chitty Chitty Bang Bang child-catcher, it could be a businessman or the man on the street. The powers-that-be seem to prefer to sweep it back under the carpet. When I first started social work in 1979, child sexual abuse didn't exist as an abuse category, it was only categorised in the early 1980s.

Each referral is investigated in detail. We will make inquiries as to whether the child is already on the child protection register, whether the case is already active, who the child's GP is, and so on. We then build up a picture from the other agencies involved, including police and schools, and obtain their views. In order to protect children and to safeguard their welfare we have to make sure that we have got as clear a picture as possible before diving in. The problem is that it does take time. It may very well be true that a lot of this work will leave us with very little evidence, which can be frustrating, but it's not true to say that it's a waste of time. You can't just go rushing in, grabbing a child and interviewing them or accusing the family member.

We always try to carry a supportive family member with us through the investigation and to consider the family, but the child's well-being is the most important factor. Sexual abuse is a serious criminal allegation and you have to be very careful to interview children in a specific way. Children respond in different ways when recalling the events - some get so traumatised that we have to abort the interview. But when a child tells you that sexual abuse has taken place it is unusual that they will invent something that hasn't happened. In the case of physical abuse it's much easier because you usually have evidence to indicate that that injury has happened. We always have a dilemma as to how far we go to protect the child since it may possibly involve removing the child from the family. Although we will try not to split the family up, sadly child sexual abusers do tend to re-offend.

It's extremely difficult to ever really know if perpetrators have stopped abusing. Work with them is in its very early stages, the resources are lacking. Yet we seem to be having a backlash against attempting to work with the perpetrator. Although sexual abuse cases are hard to anticipate, we would all like to work with families before abuse occurs. When I see families under stress I'd love to be able to give them help, support, housing and strategies for dealing with their children. I can understand the criticisms that we don't address enough low-level enquiries, but the Government is not giving us the resources to carry them out. We're not God, we can't know everything, all we can do is to try. It is very draining work, particularly since there are no winners in child abuse situations. lInterview by Katie Sampson