Social Workers: On the frontline

On one side, drug-addicted mothers and feral men; on the other, an obsession with targets. Nina Lakhani hears what child protection today is really like

Sunday 16 November 2008 01:00

Rachel, 31 a social worker living in the east of England

I insist on spending lots of time with my [casework] families and I won't put paperwork ahead of that. This means I stay late three evenings out of five, I work through lunch everyday and come in early regularly. I am a senior social worker, on the management pay structure and I am now on £30,000 – it's farcical.

Last week I had a particularly hard time with one case, and on the Tuesday I spent six hours in meetings about this one family and then stayed late to write it all up. A whole day was spent with extended family members and other agencies trying to make sure this child was safe. Then I heard about Baby P and I knew all social workers would be on trial again.

I've been qualified for five years and have worked in three different child protection teams, none of which has been fully staffed. I want to make sure children are safe in their own home and, if not, then help them to go on and have their needs and rights met by another family. This involves balancing risks and making emotive decisions every day. Having a good manager is vital: some have an open- door policy while others are more hands off and manage from the office. I'd like to know whether the team manager met Baby P and his mother and, if so, how often? It's very difficult for a manager to know what's going on from the office.

The amount of admin that has fallen into our laps has been incredible; 70 per cent of our week is paperwork. When I think about all the visits to Baby P, I wonder how many were actually done by a qualified social worker. My case load is so complex I have to ask support workers to see families, which means I have to rely on them to ask the right questions and observe the family as I would. So, even though so many visits were done, were they done by the right person who knew what questions to ask?

Haringey say they are meeting their performance targets but anyone can churn out poor family assessments. Government targets have lost focus on quality so I dare say people were going out, but what information were they coming back with?

Where I worked previously, high achievers were publicly recognised and rewarded, but this was purely based on them hitting performance targets. Quality didn't matter; it was all about bar charts.

The calibre of some social workers is questionable but incompetence is hugely difficult to challenge. And not just newly qualified social workers; some have been in the job for a long time. Once I did speak out but I was so badly treated that I ended up leaving. Now I keep my head down unless a child is at immediate risk because of another worker's incompetence.

The threshold for removing a child in legal proceedings has rightly risen and parents must get every opportunity. But it feels like the courts are too pro-parent – they've lost sight of the child. Removing a child is a draconian measure but it's not something I take lightly. I had a case where a baby was born addicted to heroin and the chaotic parents refused to engage with anyone. I spent a whole day in court giving evidence and was repeatedly challenged.

You start thinking how many chances do these parents get? It feels like we can't win.

The work is relentless. A lot of families don't want you there and don't feel they need you. I have seriously thought about training as a family lawyer or going into policy work. Very occasionally, something you've done will be acknowledged but praise is not given freely; it does feel like a thankless task and when a tragedy like Baby P happens, it is really tough.

Sarah, 45 a senior social work manager in London

The first question that struck me when I heard about Baby P was: how assertive had the social workers been? I used to make agreements with mothers if I was worried about a dangerous man. So, as a condition of the child remaining with her, I could visit unannounced at any time: look in the bathroom for an extra toothbrush and under the bed for men's shoes. This kind of investigative stuff would be central. But in my experience too many workers do not look beyond what they are told. They are too polite and don't do the nitty-gritty in case they are seen as intrusive in the culture of complaints we now work in. Did Baby P's social workers investigate properly? Did they have the right skills?

I have been a social worker in children and families since 1993. I learnt how to be assertive from my early visits with the police. It's not something you learn at university. We've all had cases where an abuser has been concealed, it's not easy but that doesn't mean we should accept low standards.

It can be scary at times. There have been occasions when I've left a house and called the police – I knew there was someone hiding and it wasn't safe. The police turned up in bulletproof vests and then there was me! The worst situation involved a house where we suspected a paedophile ring was operating and several men turned up and tried to distract us. Leaving a child in that situation when I could feel fear so strongly was extremely difficult but I called the police and we removed the child. If I felt fear, imagine how the child felt? I've come across too many social workers who aren't skilled enough to recognise fear and just accept what they're told.

There has been a dumbing down in the quality of people coming in, and training is not up to much. It is so difficult to fail a student, even when they are unable to make a reasoned argument or speak English adequately. I've fired more social workers than most managers but while it's not difficult to identify bad practice, it is damned difficult to take action on it. The HR processes, unions and tribunals treat us like any other council worker and don't make concessions for the fact these are children's lives. I wouldn't let a lawyer tell me if a case could go to court. I instruct them, not the other way round. But a lack of skills and confidence means managers increasingly rely on lawyers to manage cases.

Too much lone working can be dangerous because you need different opinions. There is scope for joint working but the worst ones never ask. So you have to go out with them on visits, and model what you expect them to do: look under beds, be assertive, be challenging; they then know what you expect.

We never believe mothers are capable of bad things, so people, like with Baby P's mother, believe everything they say. I've known mothers who will sell their kids for a man, but there are a lot of social workers who don't believe dangerous mothers exist. I had a social worker once who didn't believe it was possible for small children to be sexually abused; how was she allowed to even get through the door?

There is much more emphasis on support for the parent and in Haringey they referred to a child minder, support worker, all sorts of things. But we are using a lot of outside agencies and they are often unqualified staff. Poor quality foster carers are not unusual either. I've had to leave children with awful foster carers and then pray they don't do something wrong.

The number of visits is irrelevant, what's important is the reason for them and what you observe. Going back to check no one's in the house, that the child has no injuries, is clean: these are all reasons for going. I'm guessing in Baby P's case they kept going round without a clear idea about what they were looking for. If Baby P had been removed, we would have never known whether it was in his best interest, as you can never prove a negative, that's the catch-22. If he'd been saved no one would ever know about it.

In the end, British society needs to decide whether it wants children protected or not. If it does, then we need to invest properly and raise the standards. We also need to look at the way the legal system, the media, everyone, jumps to the defence of parents all the time. And we have to accept that there will always be deaths.

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