Lee Pollard: Social workers are scapegoated for failure

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WHEN 17-month old Peter Connelly was killed in 2007 at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and his brother in London, a witch hunt ensued against the team of social workers at Haringey Council. Their reputations were left in tatters as they were blamed for the failure to protect a vulnerable child.

However, after the tragic death, the accounts of the social workers involved were heard in a documentary for the first time. This shed new light on the case and showed that multi-agency failings by the Metropolitan Police, Ofsted, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the media, were to blame. Unfortunately this did not prove to be an isolated case. The personal and professional accounts of the individual social workers involved in fatal child abuse cases, as well as the emotional and psychological effects, are almost always ignored.

There is often a media-fuelled public clamour for “justice” and an inability or reluctance on behalf of the Government to acknowledge and address issues of underfunding and understaffing. Along with an alienating and stigmatising review process and insensitive management systems, these factors combine to either deliberately or inadvertently create a process where individual social workers are blamed and scapegoated in child abuse fatalities. As part of my research into the issue, I spoke to four social workers from across the country who’d been involved in a case of fatal child abuse. They told me that at all stages in each of the review processes the voice of the practitioners remained unheard.

One social worker I spoke to was involved in a case for a 17-year-old boy who died as a result of hypothermia and suspected drug misuse. The boy had been in the system for several years as a result of physical abuse and neglect by his parents. But he had been deemed as a “child in need” by agencies, downplaying the potential risk to his safety.

Thanks to the social worker’s good relationship with the boy, she was able to notice his deteriorating mental health and persistently but unsuccessfully argued for higher levels of support. The social worker believes that the boy’s “visibility” and regular contact with different agencies appeared to reduce the level of concern for the boy from others involved in his care.

Recalling the review, the social worker told me that, in their opinion, the process was more interested in blame and how to avoid being highlighted as a failing authority. But there was no thought for the wellbeing of the social worker who had to deal with this emotional trauma. There was no recognition that social workers are real people.

In another research interview, I found there were issues relating to both power and status that operate within child protection practice.

In this case a six-month old baby girl had been under the care of a social worker. On her first visit the social worker had noticed what she thought were burn marks on the baby’s feet and referred her to a paediatrician who concluded that the injuries were non-suspicious. These concerns for the baby were subsequently ignored and the baby died a month later as a result of physical abuse from the mother’s partner.

The social worker involved told me that she thought the death was preventable and more should have been done.

During the in-depth interviews afterwards, it seemed as though the voices of those individuals who are able to make the most telling insights and contributions, the social workers, were denied a voice. On top of that they also remain largely unprotected from public admonishment.

All of the social workers I spoke to during my research spoke of their frustrations at being unable to convince other professionals, most notably 
senior managers, of the need to take urgent and decisive action in each of the cases.

But what struck me most was the fact that none of the social workers involved in the study received any targeted supervision or counselling following the children’s deaths.

They were expected to continue in their roles, feeling blamed and vilified, in the full knowledge that the next tragedy may lurk just around the corner.

Social workers are expected to support and protect others, despite the fact that they are offered little support themselves. If we want to ensure that we have the best possible social work, we all need to work together to put this right.

Dr Lee Pollard is a senior lecturer in social work at Sheffield Hallam University.