It’s been a year since the ‘Baby P’ story broke about Peter Connolly and his tragic death following a litany of appalling abuse by his carers. As he was on the child protection register and known to Haringey Social Services and had contact with primary and secondary health care services, the fallout concentrated on what went wrong with ‘the system’ that is supposed to protect children and how the support could have got things so badly wrong. This, combined with the whipping up of a media frenzy which put social workers in the line of fire, is reflected on in a number of news sources today which look at the impact of that case on the profession today.
The BBC reports on a Local Government Association findings six out of 10 councils in England have reported problems retaining staff – a 50% rise on the year before.
While the six out of ten part doesn’t surprise me, the 50% year on year rise is very significant. Social Work as a profession has felt the pressure of being highlighted as the responsible agency and the government has happily allowed individuals to be hung out to dry and has just responded with wonderful new initiatives for shoring up graduate recruitment and making wild and vague gestures that seem to wish to pander to the tabloid crowd like the appointment of an agony aunt to the Social Work Task Force.
The Guardian takes a more thorough approach looking at some of the causes of the initial difficulties in the first place. Ray Jones, I think, hits on some significant points during his look through the pattern and history of legislation which has affected Childrens Services over the last couple of decades.
I was at school in 1989 so the implications of the Children Act of that year would have floated above my head as I concentrated other matters, I remember the implications of the 2004 legislation and the split of adult and children services in local authorities. I remain to be convinced about the wisdom of that decision however there is no going back. Children’s social services joined with Education and Adults, in our local area anyway, joined with Housing in one of those awkward convenience marriages in which there is little love lost. Jones explains the problems that these liaisons created
At a stroke, the top management competence in child protection and care services was largely lost, with 80% of councils appointing former teachers and education managers as children’s directors. So, whereas the 1989 act led to greater specialisation and competence in the care and protection of children, the 2004 act has undermined the experience and expertise that has been developed. As a result, in too many areas child protection and care services are now in chaos.
Jones sees possibilities and makes his own suggestions for change. Personally, I see it as evidence of a lack of knowledge and understanding of social care on a broader scale in the government both local and national. There is little will to change a social care system to make a significant positive difference as firstly it will be costly and secondly in this ‘blame culture’ era where the poor are targeted by those in government as scapegoats for various policies over the decades, I can’t see a way out without it being fought for.
Patrick Butler, also in the Guardian, pulls together some of the positive aspects of the tumultuous year in social care and the movements towards change and improvement in part due to the spotlight that has been placed on the systems in child protection but he asks the crucial question of why it took one child dying in one London borough to draw attention to facts that could have been picked up way earlier. As he says
The emails uncovered in the Shoesmith judicial review reveal arse-covering on a grand scale. They suggest an establishment anxious to defend policy at all costs and deflect blame, not one particularly keen to learn – let alone admit it had taken its eye off the ball. The other part of the answer is that no one was really kicking up a fuss.
Anyone who has spent more than a little time in the public sector can probably recognise the self-preservation instinct. I have two stories of two different managers though and for me, it was the difference between staying in a position and leaving it.
In my first post-qualifying job, I got on quite well. It was a pleasant team with helpful colleagues and a good and varied workload – it was hard work though. I got on well with my manager and did what I was told. I saw colleagues though, being targeted by her and I’d verge on the word ‘bullying’. That was a part of the culture of the workplace. I escaped it – I was the most junior member of staff in a large team. I was also an agency member of staff and I did what I was told but I saw some of the more experienced staff suffer – people that I had an enormous amount of respect for. I was worried. I went to a meeting once with one of the more senior managers to try and thrash out a case I was working on. He asked me and my immediate manager to do various tasks and the moment he was out the door, my manager turned to me and asked me to do all the tasks she had been asked to do. Some of which were enormously inappropriate for me – with my level of seniority (i.e. none) and experience (very little).
I left within months.
When I went back to social work a few years later, I took a job another team – again as an agency worker. A couple of weeks in, I made an error. It related purely to agreeing a cost which was far higher than should have been allowed by our service so it wasn’t something that led to significant harm or risk just more cost to the local authority. I realised my error (which had been genuine) and spoke to my manager. She immediately called her manager and took responsibility for it explaining that it was her fault and nothing to do with me as she had not told me what to do.
And 6 years later, I am still in the same authority.
There needs to be support in place and rather than adjustments at the most senior levels – which might well be needed, there also needs to be a much more robust supervision structure from the outset. I know there are attempts to shore this up through the relatively recent supports for newly qualified workers – and quite right they are too – but it is not just a year out of qualifying that additional support is required. This is a profession which constantly teaches the importance of reflection, power and discrimination and yet we see in our own services that the power imbalances can be enormous and discrimination and victimisation can occur.
Hopefully the focus on social work will lead to positive outcomes but it is clear the government cannot be trusted to take the lead on it. I’ve been heartened by the more obvious role that BASW is taking in campaigning and fighting for the profession but it also comes down to each and every social worker remembering that there is a wider picture than the individual and the purpose of social work is much wider than the day to day. We could be a good position to advocate on general social issues but sometimes the work levels are so high that there is no time left to speak up.
My hope is that the last year has created a stronger impetus to create a movement for change in social work that has a wider remit than just social workers but also shifts across into wider social justice.