Joan Smith: After Baby P – in defence of social workers

Some commentators have rounded on professionals in the Baby P case again, but it's the hardest job in the world

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A shocking revelation turned up in the Daily Mail last month. "Contrary to public perception, social workers appear, on the whole, remarkably good at safeguarding children – once they are on child protection registers," admitted one of the paper's star columnists. Around the country, social workers must have been at risk of cardiac arrest as one of their chief media tormentors (along with The Sun) acknowledged that they sometimes get something right.

In the popular press, the usual line is that social workers are useless individuals without a shred of common sense – "dozy", according to another Mail columnist who last week tore into the social work department which failed to notice Baby P's injuries. When the child and his killers were named last week, confronting us once again with the almost unimaginable horrors inflicted on the toddler, social workers featured as idiots who were taken in by his deceitful mother.

There's another, diametrically opposite view of social workers which appears in the very same newspaper. In this instance, they are interfering busybodies who snatch kids from their parents for no good reason and place them in unloving care homes. Such stories are usually accompanied by photographs of frightened families huddled together, their backs to the camera to protect their identity. And there's usually an MP on hand to denounce the hard-hearted (or, even worse, politically correct) social workers who have torn apart another innocent family.

The torture and murder of Peter Connelly in north London by his mother's lover and his brother rightly shocked the country, as did the staged disappearance of Shannon Matthews in Dewsbury last year. In both cases, the mothers have other children who had been taken into care, and have written letters from prison which display neither genuine remorse nor an acceptance of responsibility for their children's ordeals.

It's easy in such cases to portray the mothers as evil and blame social workers for not acting more quickly. The Mail is already comparing Peter's mother, Tracey Connelly, with the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and one of its columnists demanded last week that Connelly should not be allowed to have more children. Most of us would agree that women like Connelly and Karen Matthews are incapable of looking after children, but preventing them from having more is not an easy matter, unless the Mail is contemplating forced sterilisation.

The commentators who advocate crowd-pleasing solutions have never faced the complex decisions which crop up every day for professionals involved in child protection. Social workers are reluctant to take children into care because they know the likely outcomes – poor exam results, low expectations, vulnerability to abuse. So they try to support parents and step-parents in the hope that they're incompetent rather than vindictive, putting children on the child protection register and, in some cases, successfully preventing further abuse.

But, as the Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, pointed out last month, social workers only make headlines when things go wrong. "The very nature of their work – preventing harm and helping families through hard times – means that social work is a profession in which all the successes go unnoticed," he wrote in Tribune. Balls has been wearing a badge with the slogan "Thank God for social workers", in an attempt to show his support for one of the most denigrated professions in the country.

Connelly gushed over her little boy. She described him as the coolest person and said that the best thing to happen to her was "becoming a mum". At the same time, she was drinking heavily, watching pornographic films, concealing his injuries and misleading social workers about how many adults were living in the house. They failed to recognise what was going on, but I can't help wondering whether their critics in the media would have done any better. Some papers were taken in by Karen Matthews, offering rewards for the return of her daughter and leaving it to neighbours on her council estate to ask questions about her suspicious behaviour.

The point about these rows over abused and murdered children is that they're highly emotional – and highly political. For the popular press, social workers represent the left-wing ideology of the Sixties, when cherished ideas about wealth, privilege and the role of the family came under attack. Tory MPs have had to recognise "alternative" lifestyles now that some of their colleagues have declared themselves gay and entered civil partnerships, but they're convinced that the unpopularity of marriage has brought about a "broken society". From this standpoint, social workers are in the vanguard of a ghastly social-engineering project which refuses to criticise individual lifestyles and is guilty of enabling abuse.

Social workers may sometimes be slow to recognise what is happening within a family, especially if the adults go out of their way to hide it. But they understand only too well the causes of abuse and the way it repeats itself from one generation to another. Tracey Connelly's father was a sex offender, she was neglected at home and removed by social services, and she had a relative who was lured into a paedophile ring in one of the biggest children's home scandals of the last century. Unsurprisingly, she grew up to neglect herself and her children – the house where Peter died was infested with fleas – and displayed classic addictions. It's a trait she shares with Karen Matthews; for such women, novelty often comes in the form of a series of short-lived "romances", and babies – and the results are horrific.

It's easy to write sensational headlines and mawkish copy about such cases. It's much harder to make fine judgements, with limited time and money, about what's best for individual children. That's what social workers do, and they deserve our support, not a barrage of mindless criticism.

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