Threatening social workers with jail won’t do much for recruitment

I defy anyone to listen to Maria Ward, Baby P’s social worker, and not feel sorry for her

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The Independent Online

The world is, of course, a much simpler place if you view it in black and white. And, where children are concerned, most of us probably do. So, let us give our clear backing to David Cameron’s headline-grabbing initiative to re-designate child abuse as a “national threat”. The aim is laudable: to galvanise the child protection agencies’ approach to this scourge, and to encourage them to co-ordinate it.

The PM also wants teachers, social workers and councillors who fail to act on evidence of child abuse to face up to five years in prison. To the extent that this is a proposal presumably designed to force a cultural shift rather than to fill our cells with liberal-leaning professionals, we can support this too.

His proposals – released in advance for the morning papers – were forwarded at yesterday’s Downing Street summit of the key agencies and experts in the aftermath of the Rotherham scandal. At least 1,400 children there were sexually abused over several years, in a searing indictment of care for the vulnerable in today’s Britain.

Significantly, the PM’s speech came on the day police and social services in Oxfordshire were heavily criticised in a devastating report which concluded that more than 370 girls and young women had been groomed and sexually assaulted by gangs over the past 15 years. As in Rotherham, victims were – criminally, you might say – dismissed as naughty teenagers, even when turning up at a police station blood-splattered and asking for help.

A social worker told a recent criminal trial in Oxford that nine out of 10 people responsible for the youngsters’ welfare knew what was going on, and failed to stop it. Hence Cameron’s plan to extend the offence of “wilful neglect” to a much wider group of public-sector workers and elected representatives is intended to force a bias against the blind eye.

Upgrading sexual abuse of children to a “national threat”, to place it on a par with serious organised crime, is similarly pitched to increase police co-operation across  county boundaries.

We should now be ready to see councillors – and police, for that matter – who fail to act, possibly because of some misguided notion of political correctness, face imprisonment. Teachers, too, I suppose.

But what about the role of social workers, that much maligned profession? This, I am afraid, is where we have to view the world in shades of grey rather than in the comforting simplicities of black and white pre-election politics or newspaper headlines. Make a mistake in your job, and what does it cost? In the columnist’s case, a correction in the relevant place, perhaps even with someone else’s money attached as balm. For a social worker on the front line, a child’s life at risk.

Intervention means stress, threats, even assault. Could you live with such pressure? For dealing with miserable situations which would be unimaginably harrowing to most of us, a social worker might be paid the average wage, even after years of studying. They work long hours with heavy caseloads and sometimes, particularly when the brown stuff starts flying, a rather conspicuous lack of support from their seniors.

Why? Because, by and large, they want to add something to society. They are the original do-gooders, and that should be neither a term of abuse nor necessarily make them the first (and easiest) target of such hefty public opprobrium when something goes wrong.

We are not talking Sharon Shoesmith here. She was in charge of Haringey’s social services as the Baby P tragedy unfolded seven years ago. Though some of what she said was misrepresented in some sections of the media, she did herself – and her profession – few favours with crass victimhood remarks in the aftermath of her (unlawful) dismissal. And she was (eventually) awarded a £680,000 payout, which would be consolation enough for most people.

But I defy anyone to listen to Maria Ward, who was Baby P’s social worker, in a recent BBC interview and not feel sorry for her. In the black-and-white world of tabloid headlines, she’s guilty, and presumably  that’s why she endured death threats and had to leave home; in real-life grey, it’s just not so simple, with other agencies, notably the medical profession, culpable and the support network all wrong. Either way, what she has been through would be beyond most of us.

Or take an acquaintance of mine, a university lecturer who re-trained as a social worker after she had her children. She seemed surprisingly chipper the day before she started a new job in one of London’s toughest boroughs. Next time I saw her, a month or so later, this hitherto non-smoker was puffing away wildly, and had aged 10 years. She’s gone part-time now.

Social work is a noble calling, yet it seems like a no-win situation. Fail to intervene, and you’re sunk. Intervene, when the medical evidence demands that you do even if it is later discredited, and you are painted as something from Stalin’s Russia. Remember Cleveland, anyone?

So what would benefit children most in  all of this? And, let’s remember, that’s the only thing that’s important. Banging up the odd social worker? Or giving them the resources, support and, crucially, framework that allows them to perform the tough but public-minded service that they want to?

Just a thought.

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