What would Not So Big Society do without the Daily Mail? It’s the unfailing inspiration behind many articles as we take to our keyboards in umbrage at the latest affront perpetrated on our profession and especially on the vulnerable people we in our different fields all work with.
Last week they published a piece by a columnist with a long history of antagonism towards social services. It trumpeted the scandal that children are being needlessly removed from their families. It’s familiar fare but not without its dark humour. Googleads’ faithful algorithm pops up at the bottom with two ads for companies offering child protection training. This time, though, there’s one difference: the author may have a point.
It’s made with a numbing, naive disregard for the reality not only of professionals but also for the children and young people who desperately need help before their lives are scarred permanently and who need the best possible services. Social workers first round up children who are then corralled into care by a legion of staunch experts (sorry, that should read “experts”). The middle-classes are now being targeted by a new weapon of unsubstantiated non-scientific jargon. You would call it neglect. Minister Tim Loughton was moved to publicly discredit the piece.
Remove the bile, invective and unsubstantiated assertions (there won’t be much left) and a key question remains: are too many children being taken into care? There is no denying the large increase in care admissions, well-documented since the tremors of the baby Peter effect caused an upsurge in care proceedings. The aftershocks are still being felt and I’m not sure this is necessarily a good thing.
At least the growing debate is breaking out of the confines of the sector into the mainstream, including the political arena. In 2010 Barnardos commissioned a report from the thinktank Demos that concluded more children should be taken into care and at an earlier age. Their CEO at the time, Martin Narey, is now the adoption czar. The influential head of Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidjh feels the state should step in. In another piece from last week, Anthony Douglas, head of CAFCASS the over-worked court social work and mediation service, argues that taking more children into care can be beneficial.
Whichever viewpoint you take, it’s imperative that this is talked about as widely as possible. As Douglas says, “These children need as strong a light as possible shone on their lives.” Yet the context of this debate has still to be established and without it, we can’t progress. The balance between the intervention of the state and the freedom of the individual in regard to child care is fundamental to every household with children. Until this is clarified, social work will flounder at the mercy of shifting tides of opinion and will not be able to protect the children who need to be safe. Never mind the controversy in the Mail or elsewhere about where the threshold lies, we need to know that a threshold exists.
The boundaries are being established not by evidence, policy or government initiative but by the reactions of local authorities to two developments: baby Peter and the cuts. As a professional this makes me profoundly uneasy. I want to know what to do, how to apply the law together with my training and expertise. This has diminished value if the threshold for care is dictated primarily by factors that have nothing to do with these fundamentals, let alone the actual level of need.
Good social work with children and families depends upon the practitioner having a variety of solutions available in any given situation. These resources range from preventive provision in the community through to the intervention skills of the worker and different types of placement. Hold on to your hats for the revelation that every child, every family, each situation is different so the professional needs to be able to choose what method works for this child, this family at this time. Steady yourselves, there’s more. Things change over time, so different resources might be needed further own the road.
The basic premise, as with so much of good care, is obvious. The problem is, those resources at one end of the spectrum have crumbled under a quake of a different kind, the spending review. Preventative services for children and families are fast disappearing as local authorities consolidate their precious scant resources around statutory duties. Surestart, parenting groups, family centres, section 17 money, therapy – slipping through the cracks into bottomless chasms of oblivion.
Fewer resources mean that children come into care later therefore their problems are more entrenched. Also, there’s more weight given to the option of care because there are fewer alternatives. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Then, once in care, we come across another element of the debate, the crisis in foster care as we struggle to find enough high quality placements to address complex need. To borrow Ermintrude’s recent remarks in regard to adult care, there isn’t a crisis in foster care. Rather, “there is a well foreseen and ignored gap in the funding and provisioning of needs in the sector.” And so care doesn’t work,. the system is failing children and we are trapped in a cycle of failure of our own making.
The Mail is the amongst the first to criticise social workers for not acting when children have been abused but this is more than the classic ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ bind that blights our profession. Social workers act on behalf of our society. We are public servants. If society isn’t sure what we should be doing, then neither are we and that is no good to anyone.