Parenthood is an unending succession of anxiety provoking situations. Once, one of my offspring expressed an interest in becoming a social worker. I immediately had a pang of apprehension. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are social workers. I don’t mean that figuratively, they really are. I have social work colleagues who I hold in high regard. They have taught me a lot. Obviously, there have been some less impressive ones as well, but that’s life. Nothing from my experience leads me to suppose there is anything wrong with social workers as a body of professionals. So why would I be concerned about the idea of one of my family joining their ranks?
Both the left and the right of the political spectrum scapegoat social work. Psychiatrists are prone to feel sorry for themselves over their low standing, but this is nothing in comparison with attitudes to social work. They are accused of doing too much and too little, of being social fascists and of being bleeding-heart liberals. Nobody, it seems, likes social workers. Unpopularity may not trouble the supporters of Millwall Football Club, but bad attitudes to social work matter.
Back in the early years of Margaret Thatcher, Alan Bleasdale’s seminal TV series, ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’ captured all kinds of feelings about the new harshness in British life. Up until then these feelings had only been expressed as inchoate rage. Yosser Hughes was the embodiment of the disenfranchised and unemployed manual worker. In one episode, his children were taken into care. A female social worker lifted his young daughter into the back of the social services vehicle. The child smiled sweetly. In return, the social worker gave a brave smile. Then the little girl nutted her. It was a big laugh in a scene brimming with pathos. It spoke volumes about attitudes to social workers. Social workers are expected to protect children and the vulnerable, but when they do, they are despised. Just as Yosser was an archetype, so was his children’s social worker. She was the embodiment of the interfering do-gooder.
Not all social work stereotypes involve intrusive meddling. There is the social worker as neglectful public servant with a copper-bottomed pension, who allows children (or other vulnerable people) to suffer because of muddle-headed ideas from too much book learning. This was the predominant media angle on death of Baby P. When it emerged that the system failures in the case might have been more complex, it attracted little attention. The summary dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith (apparently at the instigation of Ed Balls) damaged child protection in the UK. At the time, it seemed to be an arbitrary and premature attribution of blame. Her dismissal was later judged unlawful. Ed Balls’ message to anyone considering social work as a profession was that child protection was not a sensible career choice.
It is hard to understand the purpose of current proposals to jail social workers who are seen to have failed. Such penalties will not make social workers work any harder. In my experience, most of them are working flat out already. It will simply worsen recruitment to a branch of the profession that has struggled to attract and retain social workers for years.
In the news last week we learned that the Government has allowed the College of Social Work to fail through lack of funds. The establishment of the College three years ago was a key measure intended to support and strengthen social work. Hot on the heels of that news, charities say that child poverty is increasing. Simultaneously, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are struggling with rising referrals. As always, politicians of all persuasions insist that they are committed to the welfare of children.
All major political parties support austerity in one form or another. The present Government has recently started to acknowledge that its policies are not solely driven by necessity, but also by a desire for a ‘high wage, low tax, low welfare’ society. So here are some consequences of austerity for children:
Pressure is exerted to make parents accept jobs for very low wages, or with zero hour contracts (much the same thing). Benefits are reduced for parents with long-term health problems. The bedroom tax forces some separated parents to choose between shared parenting and penury or financial survival and weakened parenting. Parents are stressed, and when that happens children suffer, because of the intrinsic nature of the relationship between parent and child.
Children in poverty suffer more physical and mental health problems than other children; the scientific evidence shows a clear relationship between child health and income. Childhood poverty isn’t just a question of unhealthy, unhappy children. Children who grow up in poverty, especially inner city poverty, have a far higher rate of serious mental illness as adults.
The twist of the knife is the systematic undermining of the profession that is expected to protect children at high risk. Rates of child abuse and neglect are likely to rise under the current circumstances. It isn’t that people who are poor are in general less able than the better off, or care about their children less. Seriously dysfunctional parents are found in all social strata but dysfunctional parents who are poor are more easily destabilised. Most dysfunctional parents have complex and multiple problems and they become more dysfunctional when economically stressed. This is predictable and when serious parental failure happens, children need skilled, confident professionals to intervene. Social workers.
No doubt, in due course, there will be another child protection disaster. Another attack on social care professionals will follow. In all probability, it will turn out that child protection services are under staffed and overwhelmed by caseload pressure. My instinct is that the tabloid press and our politicians will not accept any responsibility for the situation. Perhaps a social worker can be sent to prison instead.
None of this seems rational or decent to me. It doesn’t appear to me to reflect a set of values that places children’s interests above all other considerations.