Jubilee approaches…

I am in a strange place at the moment- all about transition. The ending of one thing and the step into an uncertain other. It is on the whole a good place, but not without it’s physical and psychological challenge. I have less than two weeks left in my current job (perhaps even my current career) and then I plunge into a time of relative free fall.

There is a plan of sorts- I will have some redundancy money that will keep us going for a little while and allow me to invest in alterations to the house. We hope to have two double rooms available for holiday letting/bed and breakfast by the end of the summer, which (along with our self catering accommodation) will allow us to make some kind of a living through hospitality. Our real hope is that we can start to offer a combination of activities around the old house- retreat weekends, pottery courses, outdoor activities etc. (We have a FB page and a website if you are interested to see where things are up to at present.)

I also hope that I get some time to spend writing. It is perhaps what I love to do most- a private secret thing that may well have no external application, but if I do not give some serious effort towards, will be a source of regret.

Then there is social work- I am not entirely sure I am done with it. I hope that in the process of stepping off the tread mill I might rediscover some of the passion and idealism that made me a social worker in the first place. I will probably need to do some part time work too.

On Sunday, during our Aoradh family worship day, Andy spoke about slavery. He described the context of slavery in the time of Jesus- people born into slavery, captured there in war, or selling themselves into slavery in order to cope with life or debt. Andy made the comparison with our relationship to money in our age- which (given what I have said above) clearly resonated with me.

We are all caught up in things that hold us, for good or ill. Some of this we fell into out of the womb, some caught us through circumstance, yet others we willingly tie ourselves to. Often it seems that these things become bigger than us- they offer us no choices, no release; we become slaves.

There is this other word however, which we have heard rather a lot of over this year in the UK- Jubilee.

I am not talking about elaborate celebrations of the anniversaries of monarchs, but as Wikipedia puts it;

The Jubilee (Hebrew yovel יובל) year is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), and according to Biblical regulations had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the Land of Israel; there is some debate whether it was the 49th year (the last year of seven sabbatical cycles, referred to as the Sabbath’s Sabbath), or whether it was the following (50th) year.

“This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families. “
My Jubilee is not a release from bondage into some kind of utopian ideal- and I am sure it never was for the Hebrews. It just signifies for me the simple fact that making risky shifts in the fabric of our lives is a rare privilege.

Child protection- are you happy with what we do in your name?

This will be of little interest to most people. Children in care are not our business- someone else will deal with it. Bloody social workers probably.

I have written a lot about the terrible scandal over the death of Peter Connelly. Anyone who works within social work, even people like me who work with adults, is likely to have been profoundly affected by what happened to this 17 month old toddler, and the media/political witch hunt that followed.

A new study by CAFCASS has been published today suggesting that Local Authorities are now reacting more quickly and appropriately as they intervene into the lives of our most vulnerable children. Good news then?

Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive said, “After the panic that came with the Baby Peter media storm, the intensive reviewing by local authorities of cases has paid off for children: the intervention they need is coming earlier and cases are drifting less. Local authority staff are to be praised for this improved performance and local authority members should be praised for their political bravery in supporting these vital but not always locally popular services.

I think it is worth digging a little bit deeper into this issue.

Firstly- the numbers. The removal of children from their families under protection orders is at an all time high- it rocketed following the Baby Peter scandal, and remains around 62% higher than before 2007/8. This amounts to 9.2 care applications per 10,000 kids in our country- although in some parts it is much higher- 30.1/10,000 in South Tyneside for example. Over 10,000 children were removed from their homes under protection orders in 2011/2012 for the first time.

Perhaps this is the right number of orders- what should have been happening previously to prevent the deaths of children like Peter Connelly. The report appears to believe so;

In the vast majority of cases (85.4%), Guardians believed that the local authority’s care application was the only viable action to keep children safe and that there was no other alternative to court proceedings.

Leaving aside the dubiety over the 15% (around 1500) these figures really require deeper enquiry, and a much greater public debate about what they might mean.

Firstly, we need to stop pretending that this a simple issue- that if one profession (social work) do their job properly then the ragged edges of our society will be all neat and tidy and out of sight. It is significant the one of the notoriously difficult categories of concern being applied to orders is on the increase- that of neglect. I have been in and around the homes of enough kids from troubled family backgrounds to know that emotional or even physical neglect is a fluctuating and complicated picture, often very difficult to define and understand. 50% of parents in these situations have mental health problems, 60% will have problems with addictions.

We also need to stop making this about the ‘other’. Think about your own background. There is no doubt in my mind that my sister and I would have been the subject of great concern. Would I wish to have been removed from home, or would I wish that efforts could have been made, no matter how difficult this might have been, to improve things within my home?

This is the real crux of the issue. We seem to live in a culture that wants to divide a problem into victim and evil perpetrator. So our assets go into intervention, not prevention, support or long term partnership.

The machinery and administration of child protection sucks in the time of social workers like a massive bureaucratic sponge. Back to the study again;

Douglas said councils with effective early intervention programmes designed to help struggling families before their problems reached crisis point were more likely to take fewer children into care. Some guardians who responded to the survey said they felt a lack of early intervention, resources, respite care and family support contributed to the higher numbers of care applications.

Many councils, including my own, have fought hard to preserve child care budgets. However, in a time of austerity, when millions are being cut from local authority spending capacity, this does not convert to more resources to prevent family breakdown or to monitor and support families in need. What it amount to is that the same pot of social workers do almost solely crisis driven child protection work. Any family support is a side show, usually staffed by unqualified workers or run by voluntary agencies.

We have had our own recent high profile enquiry after all. It is perhaps significant that this enquiry did not hit the national consciousness like the Baby Peter one did. These girls were already in care. 

What happens to kids who come through the care system in the UK? By any measure, it is almost universally bad. Educational attainment? This from the BBC;

A third of looked after children reached age 16 in 2006 without any qualifications compared to only 2% of all children that age.

Not to mention the huge increase in likelihood of problems in later life- suicide, mental illness, poverty, homelessness etc.

The fact is, it is easy to provide ‘rescued’ kids with warmth, shelter, food and basic care. What is far more difficult is to create an environment in which they might thrive. In some case this is about the lack of specialist services- counselling, or highly skilled behaviour modification – but more often it is simply that services are under resourced, under valued and  out of sight.

The fact is, this is not inevitable. Despite the likely damage inflicted of kids removed from familiar home and environment because of sometimes traumatic experiences, these kids are not irreparably damaged. They should not be written off as economically lacking viability.

Amelia Gentleman, writing in the Guardian, gave voice to what those of us who have worked in the system already know;

“There is a desire in the UK to keep children out of care at all costs. Care is seen as something that you turn to when all else fails,” he said. “In Europe, they take more children into care, at a younger age, and do more with them.”

“There was increased regulation in the wake of several years of abuse scandals related to children’s homes,” she said. “People were very concerned that allegations could be made about staff’s conduct.

“Somehow that translated into … keeping a distance between young people and their carers, as a way of keeping them safe. We lost the focus on emotional warmth. It went so far as to stop staff giving children hugs when they actually need them.”

Let us not pretend that changing this will be cheap. In Germany, where outcomes for kids in care are MUCH better than ours, they spend roughly 4 times per child what we do on their care. From the Guardian article again;

“We need highly qualified people to look after these children to help them overcome whatever has happened to them in their life before care – neglect, abuse. There is a need to ringfence the sorts of resources you need to get it right,” said John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice, an advocacy organisation for looked-after children. “We have to invest more money in the system.”


So, this is being done to and with our children on behalf of you and me;

  • More children in care
  • Less focus on prevention and family support
  • A child care system that is not working

There are signs of change- but until the national debate changes, little else will I am afraid. Time to shake the tree.


I’ll not miss your snarling e mail

Or your apparent hysteria over things instantly forgotten

The ever worming mobile phone can canker itself

Into your flesh now-

For I am leaving


Neither will I miss those meetings around a table

Shadowed by glooming suits where

Words land like shot partridges

The elephant can trumpet in your ear now-

For I am leaving


I’ll not miss those twin pincers

Of guilt and responsibility

That claw me just before dawn

My pulsing vein has a fitted valve-

Now that I am leaving


Yesterday I received my redundancy letter. It was not a surprise- it has been two years plus in the writing. Neither was it entirely without choice, I have decided not to accept offers of alternative employment within the social work department.

Which brings me to this word-vocation, defined in the dictionary as


[voh-key-shuhn]  Show IPA



a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling.

a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activityor career.

a divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life.

a function or station in life to which one is called by God: thereligious vocation; the vocation of marriage.

But also defined here like this;

The idea of vocation is central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. In the broadest sense, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC 2392). More specifically, in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, this idea of vocation is especially associated with a divine call to service to the Church and humanity through particular vocational life commitments such as marriage to a particular person, consecration as a religious, ordination to priestly ministry in the Church and even a holy life as a single person. In the broader sense, Christian vocation includes the use of one’s gifts in their profession, family life, church and civic commitments for the sake of the greater common good.

I entered social work as a vocation. It was almost a priestly thing for me. This might be difficult for others to understand-it is not as though social work has a status that might be seen to deserve respect. But there are lots of parallels- both are concerned with pastoral care, both are (or were) driven by higher ideas and ideology, both are embedded in institutions in the main.

To leave a vocation is no easy matter.

Reading through the second definition of the word (above) I wonder about this suggestion that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. This reminds me too much of old conversations about some kind of plan that God has written for each of us in some kind of massive ledger, and woe betide us if, like Christian in Pilgrims progress, we step off the golden path into some kind of career apostasy.

Such determinism has little place in my understanding of our pilgrim journeys, but we all make choices, even if the choice is to not change a thing. I do not know clearly what my vocation is at the moment. I have some clues of course- if I was to get to the very heart of things, it would be to create- to write words that inspire and shape the thinking of others. Whether this is a realistic vocation now has to be tested!

But this bit of the definition above I can stand on firmly;

Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being”

And the application of this in the ways that we come to live, this is the long road that we Christian pilgrims have to travel.

Travel well…

Listening to one of my social work heroes…

There is lots of good stuff on the new Greenbelt Website, including a new GTV section, full of short film clips with some of the speakers/performers at the festival.

One of them was Bob Holman. I was there to see him filmed- you can see me in the second row if you click on this link;

Bob Holman on GTV

Bob was one of the men who inspired me to believe that community activism and social work in particular could make a difference. As a young man, when I heard that friends were planning to be accountants, or hairdressers, or mechanics (but particularly accounts to be honest) I would shake my head slowly at the waste of a life. I believed passionately that life ought to be about helping others- connecting with people who were caught up in poverty or addiction and seeking to bring them to freedom.

There were of course lots of reasons for this- my own troubled and difficult childhood, and also my understanding of what Jesus was all about. These things met in the person of Bob- who because of his Christian faith, gave up a well paid job in a university and moved his family to a council estate, later moving to the still notorious Easterhouse in Glasgow. I do not know Bob, nor the detail of what he achieved, but what he did represented something noble and authentic at a time when Christianity appeared to have little to say about social action, and lots about saving people from hell.

The fact that I watched this video clip again (it is only short- 8 mins or so) at this point of my career is really poignant. All that naive but still cherished idealism about social work as a means to change society for the better, and to be the bridge for grace in the lives of the people I work with- this is all 21 years behind me. I now find myself on a trajectory out of social work all together.

As I reflect, the process of social work has taken a lot from me. After meeting so many people at their lowest ebb, or at their worst behaviour, my compassion and tolerance is blunted. But it has not gone altogether. After feeling the responsibility of managing situation that simply can not be managed, and seeking to help people who will not help themselves my motivation to keep standing in those difficult places has been eroded. But this too remains in part.

Above all, I am tired. I want a cave for a while where I will live out gentle days in the throwing of stones and the lighting of fires.

Then perhaps there might be a rekindling of the old part of me that was so excited by the story old Bob told.

I hope so…

Finally- choices…

I have hinted a few times here that we are facing a major life change. At last, I have come to the point of having to actually make some choices. They amount to one of the following;

  1. An application for a new social work management job, managing all adult care (currently I manage Mental Health services.)
  2. A demotion to a team leaders job.
  3. Redundancy.

I also have, for the first time after 2 years a date – the 27th of July – by which everything will be concluded (although I have learnt to distrust any deadline made in this process!) I need to make my choice by the end of next week.

In many ways however it was a choice I made some time ago because I am just about at the end of my coping skills with my current job.

This is in part because of the natural process of working on the very edges of society for nearly 22 years, attempting to balance what often seem like mutually incompatible priorities- the (still mostly primary) hope that social workers have of really helping people/making a difference, and the agency responsibility to manage budgets and police the welfare state.

It is also because of the total lack of respect that wider society has for the things that social workers do- despite the fact that we have yet to find any other profession or any other mechanism that will do the things that we do. And some of the things that I have done and people I have met along the way you would not believe…

Then there is the increasing grinding pressure of regulation, scrutiny and performance management. The things that are quantifiable and therefore to the interest of the system are often the things that I have very little interest in. It is almost impossible to measure things like improvement in wellbeing, lives subtly changed because of the chemistry of kindness and respect. Social workers now spend 80% of their working lives in front of computer screens. Tell me where and how this makes sense?

Then there are the senior managers. Some appear to be suffering from some kind of psychopathy- I can never work out whether the job did this to them, or they rose so high because of (a.) their inability to see any colours other than black and white, and (b.) their utter lack of interest in anyone who did not directly enhance or threaten their careers. (The former are courted, the latter ruthlessly destroyed.) The end result is toxicity in the heart of a profession that is supposed to be all about caring.

Finally there are the suits. It probably says something about my career that I have always refused to work in a suit. I often feel slightly self conscious about this as I am frequently the only man in a room that is not wearing one. But the suit has come to represent something to me of what I am NOT. That is not to say that every person dressed in smart business wear in councils is somehow suspect, sold out- I have met many lovely suit wearers. It is just that suits are power statements, and I am much more interested in making real connections with people. It has become something of an overvalued issue for me, so much so that I am considering renting a tuxedo for my last day in work- catharsis by cummerbund.

The choice to leave will mean large amounts of uncertainty for both me and my family. But right now it feels like the only choice possible, and this is both tantalising and terrifying in equal measure.

Return to the story of baby Peter…

I keep finding myself returning to this story- as much because the events following the terrible death of this little boy have created huge changes to how we as a society approach the care and protection of our most vulnerable children. Some of this might be a good thing- but I have to tell you also that much of it is not. It is policy pushed by tabloid journalism- and lets face it- the red tops are not exactly flavour of the month at the moment are they?

I return to the story today because I read that the social worker who was the case worker for Peter today won damages from The Sun (Murdoch again- for those outside the UK, this paper is about as bad as you can imagine a ‘news’ paper can get.) Sylvia Henry had tried hard to remove Peter from his mothers care- but was pilloried by The Sun as ‘Showing no remorse’ and having ‘ducked responsibility for his death’.

It may be of interest to readers that the same place I read this story also carried news of a Serious Case Review into the death of another child- Ryan Lovell-Hancox, who died in the care of people paid to look after him in Wolverhampton. The review highlighted familiar issues- 14 failed opportunities to save him by social work, health and police. The sad truth is that the deaths of children at the hands of adult care givers are not rare events.

However, since the death of Peter, referral rates to children’s social care departments in the UK have reached unprecedented rates. There has been no increase in resources, or numbers of social workers to deal with the demands of this difficult and sometimes traumatic work.

Most social workers ask themselves fairly frequently whether we too could make a mistake, or just find ourselves in the middle of a media storm because of a tragic death. Most of us have to conclude that it could happen to any of us, at almost any time. There was an interesting article in BASW’s ‘Professional Social Work’ Magazine today by Colin Mabbut, a senior child care practitioner, asking himself what he would have done, faced with the circumstances that the social worker encountered around the death of baby Peter. I wonder if this might be of interest to people outside social work- as it must be really hard to understand how people even begin to approach the task of monitoring children at risk.

Would I have picked baby Peter up on my last visit, thereby revealing that he had a broken back and other injuries of torture?

Colin points us to the criticism leveled against the fact that this did not happen, and the final chance to save this boy was lost.

What was not widely reported at the time however was that Peter was not an only child- rather he was one of eight resident in the household- of which only three (including Peter) were on a child protection plan. Imagine being in a house like this- all the mess and chaos of it. In this instance, Peter was in his pushchair, with a face smeared with chocolate (covering facial injuries) he was initially asleep, and when he woke he smiled at the social worker, who took the fateful decision not to disturb him by picking him out of his chair so soon after he had woken.

Would I have done differently? Probably not.

Would I have wiped the chocolate from his face to check for injuries?

With hindsight, yes. But in the press of a busy day? Perhaps not.

Would I have been sufficiently suspicious to have discovered that Peter’s mother had a male living in the house that I was unaware of?

How do you sift the mess of human emotions and motivations to always see the bigger picture? Anyone who has a child will know how difficult it is to always know the truth of what you are told- how much more difficult is this when dealing with adults who are setting out to confuse- who may appear compliant, even eager to please, whilst actually being manipulative and evasive.

My social work career (working with adults with mental health problems) has meant that my default position is to accept as truth what I am told. Sure I seek to understand the story behind the story, but I am not often in the position of having to forensically deconstruct the words given to me in order to shake out every evasion, every deceit. My childcare colleagues do this every day- I used to joke with my old child care team leader room mate that she was bad cop to my good cop.

But even with the best of intentions, bad cop has to form a working relationship with parents- otherwise no any protection plan is difficult to achieve. This means that there are times to be assertive and authoritative, and times to work collaboratively and in partnership. Peter’s mother was on the face of things being compliant.

Would I have known that there was another malevolent presence in the house that increased the risk to Peter considerably? Again the answer has to be- probably not.

I would not like to give the idea that this job is impossible- it is not. Children at risk are protected daily- as a matter of routine- from situations every bit as appalling as that faced by Peter.

There is still a debate about OUTCOMES for children in our under resourced system however- this is the real scandal I am afraid…

Two screens…

Today I worked from home. There is sickness in the house- M and I seem to have picked up some bug or other, and as a result, sleep was largely absent last night.

So I toiled most of the day on some reports- including ‘equality impact assessments’ relating to proposed service redesigns. If that sounds boring- well perhaps, but it actually relates to the need to save money from already overstretched budgets so actually, it is an ominous kind of boredom. It relates to an activity that will potentially have impact on lives and livelihoods. So forgive me- this post is a wee bit of therapy for my soul.

Open all along the bottom of my screen however, mixed in with various documents I am trying to make sense of, are other kinds of writing.

I found myself flicking between two screens-

One contained a file into which I am typing dead, anodyne yet scary words into an predetermined format.

The other contained a poem I am working on.

The contrast is palpable, and painful at the same time. Like being caught between the body and the soul. This dual life that modernity has condemned us to.

Not that we have any kind of right to an easy life, full of creative choices and mystical mountaintops to be conjured at our own choosing. This kind of self-activating-self-fulfillment-self-absorption is equally repellant.

But how we all long for a life of simple integrity, where what we have is enough, and all the more so shared.

And how (today at least) I hate bureaucratic solutions to human problems- no matter how necessary.

Time for a poem I think. An old one, from ‘Listing’

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…

Blessed are they in failure
Blessed are they in repeated defeat

And blessed are they in
Every empty success

Blessed are they when plans, laid out-
Are stolen

And dreams are drained by

Middle age

Blessed are the wage slaves
And the mortgage makers
Blessed are those who keep on treading

This treadmill

Blessed are they who have no hope
And for whom life is
Grey and formless

Blessed are the B-list
And the has-been’s

Blessed are they at the end
Of all their coping

For here I am

And here I am building

My Kingdom

Lessons from Winterbourne hospital…

I have just watched last night’s Panorama programme on the i player.

The story is splashed across the news- a private hospital, run by Castlebeck (an organisation I know reasonably well) was visited by an undercover reporter, and in 5 weeks, abuse was captured on film that beggars belief.

Support workers behaving like a mob, led by a tattooed gang leader, using casual violence to whip up incidents to relieve boredom.

Vulnerable people treated like cattle. Punishment masquerading as restraint. Cold showers, dangerous physical restraint, a total lack of meaningful activities.

Anyone watching this who has not spent time in institutional care will wonder how on earth something like this could happen. Anyone who has will feel both sickened and yet unsurprised.

The culture of any institution can easily skew towards the darker sides of humanity- as demonstrated so notoriously by Zimbardo’s Stamford prison experiment. Some things will make this more likely-

  1. Poor leadership- in this case the senior nurses appeared passive, weak and complicit with the worst abuses, even if not active participants. Leadership in this case needs to set deliberate agendas of care and kindness- as well as deliberately placing the people cared for at the centre of everything that happens.
  2. Poor recruitment/retention of staff- in this case, Castlebeck pay support workers paltry £16K a year, and I suspect had a very high turn over. Those that stayed became affected by the toxic culture. The best would not stay.
  3. Poor model of care- why on earth we still need places like this is beyond me. I have made some placements to other Castlebeck institutions- they are incredibly expensive (around £3000-£5000 a week) and are often a placement of last resort for people who we have no other way of keeping safe. When things get this far it simply means that we have failed. Castlebeck and other organisations like them are care factories, with profit margins carefully squeezed. They have high sounding mission statements, but little incentive to invest in real change for people they care for.
  4. Poor alternatives- the cost of care is so high, and every where local authorities are being forced to cut budgets. Because of this, community based options are hard to find, harder to finance and tend to be oversubscribed. So we are forced to consider Castlebeck- often because other options have failed, and we have no choices left.
  5. Poor regulation- I have seen inspection reports and care commission reports describing in glowing terms establishments I would not send a dog to. Reports that focus on trivial matters such as the condition of curtains rather than the more difficult to measure atmosphere of warmth and cheerfulness that the best places exude. In Scotland, the care commission has been reduced- in size and effectiveness.
I have had my own experience of working in toxic situations. They are not so uncommon really- for all of the above reasons. Here are two examples-
My first job was in a Childrens Home in Nottinghamshire- since demolished. It was a violent, scary place- with riots, abuse and physical restraint commonplace. The Officer in Charge was a powerful woman who ruled the place (staff and residents) with her fists. I was 21 years old, fresh from studies and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I vividly remember carrying a screaming, biting swearing scratching 10 year old boy to his bedroom in an attempt to calm him down, and throwing him onto his bed. He was not hurt in any way (whilst I was covered in scratches and bruises) but I was mortified at my lack of control, and how acceptable such things could become in environments like this. It was time to get out- which I did as soon as possible. I was very relieved when the home closed shortly after I left.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I am now a social work manager, visiting a resources allocation meeting in another area in order to try to gain access to some funds for a service user we are working with. The room was full of about 7 other people- senior member of health and social work, who have the responsibility for making decisions about how to allocate funds. The atmosphere was sneering, cynical and disrespectful of ever person discussed- each of whom appeared to be regarded as a scrounger who was trying to pull a fast one. I was so appalled that I raised the issue with my line manager in supervision- a mistake as it turned out, as he ignored the supposed confidentiality of this discussion and used it to fight his own political battles, leaving me to deal with the damage to professional relationships. And nothing was changed.
When we are paid to care for other people, we can easily lose sight of the fact that people are beloved, beautiful and made in the image of God. It becomes hard to hold on to our values and our passion.
It becomes hard to remember that the greatest we can aspire to is to love. Particularly in the drudgery of it all. But without this, we are lost.
Perhaps the greatest problem with Winterbourne and places like it, is the fact that wider society places such little value on the care that is provided, and on the individuals it is provided to.
So- well done BBC. May this bring about some real changes.

Sharon Shoesmith wins her appeal…

I do not often write about my day job on this blog. You could say that I am usually keen to leave it behind and think about other things. But I have been a social worker for over 20 years now- during a time when social work in the UK has changed dramatically.

One thing that has remained rather constant however has been the fact that the profession of social work is an easy target for media witch hunts- who portray us as a bunch of vegetarian, liberal, arty-farty, moralising layabouts who interfere in peoples lives for fun. They damn us if we do interfere and lynch us when the view is that we do not interfere enough. It is a familiar whinge in any staff room.

And in response to this kind of pressure, politicians have increasingly turned to regulation as a means of dealing with all aspects of social care. Regulation and performance targets have crept into everything that we do- supported by all sorts of recording systems.

I have always worked within mental health services, and increasingly, my staff have little time to put to what we used call ‘social work’- the soft therapeutic activities, community work and capacity building that we valued so highly. These things simply do not give outcomes that are measurable and so justifiable in the current climate.

At times, the pressure to cope with both the demands of the system, and the pain and distress of real people in crisis can be overwhelming. This might be a difficult thing for people outside the system doing other kinds of work to understand- but on a personal basis I have known countless colleagues suffer different kinds of emotional and physical breakdowns- few people manage to sustain front line social work beyond their 40’s, and in America, CNN announced that social work was about the most stress full job you can do.

Here are a couple of quotes I have used before. They date from 1998, but believe me, nothing has changed- and the current financial crisis in Local Authorities has made things worse.

“Modern social work is in a state of crisis. It has always been a profession towards which society has displayed ambivalence and it is now grossly underfunded and understaffed. Tragedies and subsequent vilification of social workers and their managers are reported with increasing frequency. The profession attempts to function in an environment of obstructive administrative ‘systems’, … severe financial restrictions and conflicting demands …” –Davies, p. 9, Stress in Social Work (1998, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

“Because they deal in actual and emotional injustice, and actual and psychic injury, the reality for social workers much of the time is that while they may bring about some relief or improvement, the most that they may hope for is some damage limitation, particularly in areas such as child abuse and criminality.” –Davies, p. 19, Stress in Social Work (1998, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

One thing that highlights the state of the profession as much as anything are the fairly frequent media outcries that surround tragic events involving the death of children or vulnerable people who are known to social work. The most infamous one in recent years has been the death of baby Peter Connolley at the hands of his mother and mothers boyfriend. It is a dreadful story that breaks your heart- a tiny boy whose whole life was characterised by pain and neglect, leading to his eventual death before his second birthday.

Inquiries revealed systematic failures on the part of social work, health and police. I wrote a lot about this at the time- see here and here for example.

Very quickly the story centred on the head of social work for the council responsible for Peter’s care- Sharon Shoesmith. She was previously regarded as an extremely competent and committed leader, praised by regulatory bodies, but now she had no chance. Trial first by media, then subjected to a shameful personal attack by government minister Ed Balls, and finally sacked by the council with next to no chance to defend herself. There were several other dismissals of workers after this event. Interestingly enough, despite all these contacts-

78 contacts with health workers, doctors, social workers and police
2 health visitors
3 doctors
1 mental health worker
1 policewoman
4 social workers
1 family friend;
1 childminder
10 hospital visits (to at least 3 hospitals)
4 visits to clinic
5 parenting classes (the last two weeks before his death)
Seen by GP 14 times
Seen by health visitor 7 times
Mother seen by mental health worker 4 times

…despite all these other agencies being actively involved and in a position to raise concerns that might have saved the life of this child, not one single worker from the other professions has been dismissed. The report was equally critical of both the health department and police- who had a joint responsibility to protect.

Perhaps this is for good reasons- I am not party to the facts of how individual workers performed their roles, but I do know a lot about how these large bureaucratic institutions work- how there are always a hundred demands for your attention, and how responsibility easily becomes diluted in the mess and pressure of it all.

I wrote a lot about my feelings about this at the time- here and here.

Since this event, the numbers of children removed from the care of their parents and injected into the all ready over pressured  child care system have doubled. There has been no public debate about this- in terms of whether this is desirable, whether the outcomes for our children are better, and whether the resources needed to achieve good outcomes are readily available (they are not.)

Well, today Sharon Shoesmith won her case in the Court of Appeal against her dismissal. I am not all surprised- I predicted she would win in my earlier post. The BBC’s account of how the case was won is here- it makes devastating reading.

In parliament, David Cameron launched a surprise attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who some say had not been well enough briefed.

Within minutes of their exchanges, a government minister was on the phone to the leader of Haringey Council George Meehan asking if he was going to suspend Ms Shoesmith. He refused.

Ed Balls had a completed serious case review on his desk, outlining the many mistakes and problems involved in the care of Peter Connelly.

But, apparently to head off a growing storm, he ordered another review led by Ofsted to look at safeguarding practice across the health agencies, police and children’s services in Haringey.

He demanded its inspection and report be completed in three weeks, an unprecedentedly short time for a process usually taking four months.

Normal procedures were dispensed with including the opportunity, usually given, for children’s services departments and their senior officials to read a draft report and challenge provisional findings.

During the inspection, the Sun newspaper delivered a petition and tens of thousands of letters to Downing Street, demanding Ms Shoesmith’s removal, with Mr Balls agreeing to be photographed receiving them gratefully.

Ed Balls has defended himself (here) and the government intend to challenge the decision. Balls seems to be saying that he (as minister) should be able to act as he thinks fit- in this instance, this amounts to ignoring employment law.

But the bottom line is this- the mess of wonderful humanity that makes up our societies will always contain dark secrets. Bad things will be done to innocents by damaged and despotic people. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, these things will not be preventable.

Sometimes we will make mistakes. These will be both systemic, organisation mistakes, and by individual workers in all the different professions. We need to learn from these experiences- and recognise the resource implications- in terms of training, money, personnel. Increased regulation will not achieve improvements alone.

To blame one profession (and individuals within it) in a knee jerk and blind fashion will not in any way contribute to the protection of children- if anything, it will make things worse. It will reduce the pool of talented individuals who want to do the job, and populate the social care machine with risk averse automatons whose role is to meet narrow performance targets and to restrict liability wherever possible.

Sometimes I think we are there already- but then I see a moment of real grace and kindness involving one of my colleagues, and I hope again…