Do social workers get a raw deal in the media?

In partnership with Sheffield Hallam University

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The Independent Online

A recent BBC documentary, ‘Baby P: The Untold Story’, highlighted failures across multiple agencies that contributed to the death of Peter Connelly in 2007. Yet in case after case, from Baby P to the sex abuse scandal in Rotherham reported earlier this year, individual social workers bear the brunt of media – and public – fury.

Why is that? Andrew Anastasiou, managing director of Medicare First and Capita Social Care, believes that part of it is a lack of knowledge. “Most people simply don’t understand what they do,” he says. “Social workers deal with complex caseloads and the public needs to be educated about the pressure and constraints of working in these front line roles.”

The pressure on social workers is exacerbated by the fact that they are not always able to put their opinions across within their organisations, let alone the media, according to new research by Dr Lee Pollard, a senior lecturer in Social Work at Sheffield Hallam University. Even in reviews after cases of child deaths, the case workers contacted by Dr Pollard remained marginalised. “The individuals who are able to make the most telling insights and contributions are denied a voice,” he says.

Instead, blame for the faults of the system is laid at the feet of individuals, argues Professor Keith Brown, director of Bournemouth University’s National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work. “When things go wrong, rather than blaming our structures or policies, society wants to blame an individual,” he says. “In this case, that’s social workers.”

Brown acknowledges that individual social workers have, of course, made errors. But blaming them exclusively fails to address a social care system damaged by austerity. “Why are we blaming the individual worker when we know that the system itself is underfunded and stretched?”

One social worker, speaking anonymously to The Independent, said that while they understand the blame impulse, “it’s terrifying as a social worker.” Each case is complex and unique, adding to the challenge of identifying and stopping abuse. “We must try, but we can’t see everything,” they continue – to help, society must take “collective responsibility” for protecting vulnerable people.

Anastasiou suggests that positive change will come through raising awareness of the hard choices faced by social workers. Fran Fuller, a lecturer in social and community studies at the University of Derby, adds that the profession must be proactive. “People misunderstand the role social workers have,” she says. “We need to engage with the media and provide examples of good practice.”

 

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