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Don't blame social workers for child abuse

Since my long-listing for the Orange Prize, a number of colleagues have remarked how nice it is to see a social worker who is famous for something other than involvement in a high-profile child abuse inquiry. Certainly you will have had to look hard to find good publicity around social work, particularly in the past 12 months, when it seems as though the term “social worker” has become synonymous with “social pariah”. It is not a comfortable time to be in the profession, and in defending ourselves by suggesting that it is perhaps impossible always to get things right, it is easy to sound complacent.

Of course, unless we eradicate evil from the face of the Earth, child abuse and child murder will continue to happen. But no one is more horrified, shocked and saddened than social workers when we fail to prevent such tragedies. We are, believe it or not, good people. We have chosen a job that is stressful, underpaid and sometimes downright dangerous, to engage with those sections of society that most people like to put out of their minds.

I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me “I wouldn’t do your job”. No, you probably wouldn’t, I think. You wouldn’t want to be faced with the life-and-death decisions, the verbal abuse or the continual exhaustion of juggling several extreme situations at the same time. Most people are happy to pay their taxes for someone else to do the job. They don’t want to know. Except, of course, when things go wrong. Then press and public unite in an outbreak of national hysteria: what did they think they were doing? How could they have made such blunders? Why does it go on happening — and in the same way?

They are good questions, of course. And they absolutely should be asked. In fact, I ask them myself when I, along with everyone else, first see the horrific headlines over breakfast. My first thought is that I wouldn’t have made such disastrous mistakes as social worker A or manager B. But the truth is I might have; I know how complex these situations can be and how difficult it is to make such an important decision as separating a child and a parent. But once matters are in the public domain, everyone is an expert and we do our own version of back-seat driving.

So why is “the obvious” not so obvious at the time? How can social workers go into a house where abuse is suspected, time and again, and not see what is under their noses? How can meetings involving highly trained professionals from various agencies get the answers so wrong? I cannot comment on any particular case but I think there are several reasons why these tragedies occur. One is to do with the high levels of crisis intervention that social workers and managers have to engage with these days. I don’t think the public has any idea of this, or how it affects people’s health, judgment and ability to do the job.

Social workers don’t just have one case to deal with; they have perhaps 20 or 30 most of which are highly demanding. And because of the shortage of staff, caseloads can inflate even more. Children’s teams across the country now have a vacancy rate of between 20 and 30 per cent. As well as that, many people are off sick with stress-related illness, so inexperienced social workers are asked to take on serious and complex cases — and managers (often with relatively little experience themselves) are sitting with their metaphorical fingers in the dyke as the amount of work coming in grows and grows.

From May 8, 2009