Few families will ever interact with a child protection social worker. A small number will consent to being assessed and may receive support or assistance. Fewer still will face a statutory investigation, let alone court proceedings. For entirely positive reasons, most parents’ care of their children will never be scrutinised by the state.
This lack of exposure to the profession – unmatched in other services, such as healthcare, education or the police, of which most people have some experience – means that the work of social workers is frequently misunderstood. Recent media coverage of our work has gone further: it has misrepresented the system that seeks to protect children.
This includes the Economist making the mistake of assuming that a child becoming “looked after” by the state means them being removed from their family. It may not: a child can be made subject to a care order while continuing to reside at home in their parents’ care. Its analysis also failed to incorporate the indications that the care system has, for the last few years, been moving away from a focus on adoption and towards placing children with relatives or other members of their community.
Occasionally this kind of misrepresentation is not just damaging, it is dangerous. The accusation made earlier this month about “kidnappings” by social workers in this country falls into the latter category. Not because there is no evidence that some social workers have misapplied the law – of that there is no question – but because it trivialises a range of complex, challenging issues and is used as justification to condemn the whole profession.
It makes a good headline, no doubt. But it is an unfair, and unhelpful, portrayal of a profession so often denigrated in the press. It feeds into the well-established narrative that social work is a sinister arm of the state, focused on the systematic removal of children above all else. It ignores the sheer complexity of the decisions social workers make day-to-day and undermines the work we do to help children and families in crisis.
There is little appreciation of the nature of the problems social workers face, or the risks we are asked to manage
Indeed, because so few people have any experience of the child protection system, there is little appreciation of either the nature of problems social workers face, or the risks we are asked to manage. Social workers are required to engage with individuals who are dangerous. We often work alone and there is an expectation that we will experience hostility, aggression and abuse.
Social work is also emotionally demanding and we are often asked to make precise recommendations about children’s futures on the basis of scant information in cases where the easiest conclusion is usually equivocal. Allowing journalists to report on these cases when they are heard in the family courts may raise awareness of these challenges. But, given that reporting of the basics of the child protection system is so often seriously flawed, that seems unlikely. More importantly, the risk is that reporting will negatively affect the children at the centre of proceedings – children who have no control over court proceedings and who are likely to have experienced significant trauma.
Reporting restrictions, like those in the youth court, would reduce some of the chance of those children being identified in public. But it would remain possible that the children themselves would be aware that their lives had become news stories, either at the time or later. It is hard to imagine that many children would voluntarily accept their lives, and their parents’ difficulties, being debated in the media, particularly where the central issue would be their experience of abuse or neglect. Furthermore, in practice it is extremely difficult to entirely anonymise details of cases. A handful of factors essential to the case may inadvertently identify the individuals involved, at least to some readers.
These risks should not be ignored. While good arguments have been made for the benefits of adding a layer of scrutiny to the system, the critical element is missed: the impact on the child of their life being reported in the press. If reporters are willing to describe a child as having been “kidnapped” by the state, it is understandable that those involved in the family courts are wary of allowing further coverage. The concern about inviting journalists into the courts is not primarily about the ways they may portray social workers, it is primarily about how their reporting might affect the children at the centre of those proceedings.
The Times’s misleading story last summer about a child being placed with a Muslim foster carer in Tower Hamlets illustrates the damage that poor reporting can cause to the people involved in the child protection system. The foster carers were said to be left “distraught” by the story and it seems unlikely the child involved was pleased by this invasion of her privacy.
If the media is unable to accurately represent social work and the child protection system, the risk is that its reporting of care proceedings would be no different. The crucial difference would be that its stories would be about some of the most vulnerable children in society. Those involved in the system are right to be cautious.
- Stanley Mason is a pseudonym. The author is a child protection social worker in the north-west of England
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