The fly on the wall has to tread very carefully: Making a film about social workers and their clients caused Peter Carr a certain amount of heart-searching

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
TEN YEARS ago I made a series of television films about women in prison which were shown at a festival in Belgium. Afterwards I was taken to task by the Finnish delegate, who maintained that I had added to the women's problems.

He wanted to know why film makers were attracted to distressed or disadvantaged people. He said we avoided filming the rich or powerful because they could protect themselves, in the courts if necessary. People who were already vulnerable had no protection if a film maker wanted to make a currency of their unhappiness.

A year ago Granada Television gave the go-ahead for a film about social workers and I had occasion to reflect on these matters. Social workers have had a bad press, particularly in relation to child protection. When they take children into care they are portrayed as baby snatchers - and if children are harmed in the home they are accused of neglect.

Robert Lake, director of Humberside social services, agreed that the truth was more complicated and said he would back any of his staff who were prepared to let us film them at work. The first team we approached, working in Hull, would not even allow us to visit them to discuss it. We got the same dusty answer from a team in Beverley. The team leader did media studies at college and belonged to the same school of thought as the Finnish delegate. We never got to meet his team.

The team that did agree to talk to us worked on the Bransholme estate, just outside Hull. Seventy thousand people live there. It is the largest municipal housing scheme in Europe and, to the irritation of its residents, is regarded as a problem estate. Much of the housing is of a poor standard, there are large numbers of single parents, there is drug abuse, and of course unemployment has the place in its grip. Child protection work accounts for most of the social workers' caseload.

The team members were not sure about the film. They were aware of their vulnerability to an unfriendly press and also felt a duty of care and protection towards their clients. A month's observation period was agreed. At the end we thrashed out a deal.

All but one agreed to take part. Consent by either social workers or clients to being filmed did not mean we could use the film. The team would be invited to see the programme before it was finalised and would sign release forms only if they were happy with the way we had used the material. They would also be party to any signing of clearance forms by their clients. We started filming.

We soon encountered problems. The closing of psychiatric hospitals means that social workers deal with people who are not used to making decisions for themselves. Young people think that it's great going on the telly, no matter what they are saying or doing, and some older people are not really aware of what being filmed means. I was dealing with these problems when Dale came along.

Dale is a 12-year-old in foster care. He constantly absconds, running away from home and school, stealing air fresheners to sniff with his mates. I first filmed him when he was being arrested on the roof of an old tyre depot. He had been missing for four days and was in a dreadful state. He was certainly not competent to give his consent for filming as we followed him to the police station. Later I explained to him what we were doing and filmed him several times - with his foster mother, visiting his solicitor, talking to his social worker.

When he went on the run and was arrested again, I hurried to the police station. The inspector on duty would not let me in. We had permission to film in police stations as long as we had the consent of the people we were filming. I explained this to the inspector, he made the relevant phone calls, and still he wouldn't let me in. Eventually, after the police processing of Dale was complete, he allowed us to film him with a social worker.

I was mystified. Elsewhere in Hull we had been filming a case of serious child abuse and another policeman had taken against us. He had decided I was untrustworthy and excluded us from the case. Naturally we argued and the situation became tense. I assumed that now I was catching some flak from that other row but I was wrong.

When we had finished filming the inspector called me aside. He knew Dale and he did not like what he was seeing. Dale, he explained, was at that stage where he could go one way or another. Giving him this attention and glamourising his behaviour would help to push him the wrong way. As a father and an experienced policeman, he knew what he was talking about.

In the cutting room I looked closely at the footage of Dale. It is disconcerting stuff. In the earlier sequences he is tense and fearful, later he is quite composed. There is even a glimpse at the camera in which he looks rather pleased with himself. I was glad we were not going to be filming him again.

Where Dale is concerned, my conscience is clear. I have kept in touch with him, he has seen the film and his foster parents think it might even help to focus his attention on the life-threatening nature of his solvent abuse. They are aware that the film will make him an object of curiosity to some people on Bransholme. They are going to watch it with him and then keep a careful eye on him for a few days. I shall be watching it too. I am sure that somewhere in the distance I shall hear the anxious voice of that Finnish delegate.

The writer is producer/director of 'True Stories: Care for Dale', to be broadcast by Channel 4 on Thursday at 9.35pm.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments