Protecting Our Children: Will It Change Attitudes To Social Work?

The excellent Protecting Our Children concluded on Monday evening. The practitioners and programme-makers deserve congratulations for an absorbing, honest and above all human depiction of contemporary social work to sit alongside the two Panorama programmes looking at children in care.


In all the meetings I’ve attended over the past three weeks, conversation has turned to the latest programme as soon as a lull in proceedings appeared and often when it didn’t. Generally it’s gone down very well, in sharp contrast to the scant few past series covering our world. I remember one dire effort that I think looked at a social work team in the north. Eminently forgettable, I nevertheless recall it began with a social worker guiltily shovelling down a giant doner kebab whilst at his desk then playing up to the camera in a manner that would have embarrassed David Brent. Gloomily we watched well-intentioned but ill-conceived and executed direct work with a young child and a succession of families unsure about what was happening.


Outside the profession I’m not sure what the impact has been. Ashamedly unscientific, but no one I know who is not a social worker has mentioned it to me. The one time when people have an opportunity to chat about my work, and nothing.


We’re all familiar with the ‘social worker at a party syndrome’. The dreaded, ‘and what do you do?’ followed by hesitation and a vacant look as the reply is digested. Best to move on. People at least take more time to consider their response these days, which is progress of a kind. When social work was getting an even worse press than it does now, I used to say I worked for the council. Safer that way.


Being a social worker is very handy if approached by a comedian, by the way. At a recent gig, lumbered in the front row, Rich Hall came my way looking for some sport. I told him that I worked with children in care who were fostered. He was visibly stunned, acknowledged how worthwhile that was and moved on. The perfect protection – no gags there. Try it next time you’re in a comedy club, works wonders. Unlike the guy at the other end of the row who told Rich he was ‘an independent social worker’. Two social workers, same gig, same  row, what are the chances? Hall thought this a crazy concept and conjured up visions of this man approaching anyone he saw and counselling them or removing their children.


It’s hard to draw conclusions about the impact of Protecting Our Children on the perception of social work in society on the basis of my friends and family. In the Guardian last week, Terry Philpot persuasively argued that it cannot alter the public view of social work because the profession has no deep roots in society or in popular culture. There’s another related question – why don’t the public know in the first place?


One reason is that social work in general does media and PR appallingly badly. Also, we don’t have an organisation and/or figurehead that consistently speaks up for us and gets air-time. Then there’s fiction. We don’t have a cuddly TV series to soften the hard edges and provide a stream of gritty realism with happy endings. I’ve seen one or two draft scripts for popular dramas that include a social worker in an episode: the characters are laughable stereotypes, their actions far from good practice.


Another reason is that people think they know. They have a vague but laudable notion of social workers visiting, talking and, dare I say it, helping the vulnerable and sick. This is of course true, but there are other truths too. Even those who recognise the different role of taking children into care tend to have  a similar core view – I could do that. The reason that people say they would prefer not to relates to the emotional level (“I couldn’t possibly do what you do, I’d get too upset”) rather than the skills required. The vast majority do not realise even the basic point that our role with children and adults is framed by legislation.


Because they think they know, most people don’t wish to find out more. Add this to the perception that anyone could do it and the profession is fatally undermined. The current government calls for more common sense in fostering and adoption assessments, not greater professionalism or expertise. We’re not far from Virginia Bottomley’s force of streetwise grannies.


The main reason however is that the public don’t want to know. Uniquely amongst the professions, social work exposes a side of society that is deeply embedded but which the public would prefer did not exist. Peter Connolly suffered in the midst of a community and there are other children suffering in a similar manner at this precise moment. Older people are dying lonely, forgotten and ill-cared for in the midst of plenty. Social work holds up a mirror to our society and most turn away. We, those in the profession, have no choice but to stand and stare.


What the public want are nice easy solutions. Even the profession itself buys into it. The highest profile long-running fundraising campaign in social care, the NSPCC’s ‘Full Stop’ to child abuse, perpetuates the myth that a solution exists to a problem that has been going on ever since there were children. Good tag line, simple hard-hitting message plus a dinky little green lapel badge, it’s a PR marketing dream. It’s one of the few campaigns recognised by the notoriously insular Premier League, whose players once a year dress up in t-shirts pre-match and the managers ruin their ludicrously expensive suits with the badge. The other one is ‘Kick Out Racism’, and look how well that’s gone lately. Won’t make a blind bit of difference. The public need to know that.


Protecting Our Children will at least be a reference point if we who value the significance of our role want to stand up for ourselves. However, the reality is that our job is getting tougher. Social workers are at the front end of the cuts. We have to explain to the public that the services they want and that we would wish to provide aren’t there any more. It will take some television programme to overcome that.

7 thoughts on “Protecting Our Children: Will It Change Attitudes To Social Work?

  1. Fantastic piece. And I agree. And those two comments are not necessarily connected 🙂 Seriously though, I think there are some great points made about people thinking they know what we do and yet also not wanting to know. I pondered aloud (well, on Twitter) as to whether a programme called ‘Protecting our Parents’ would ever be made – because as uncomfortable as child protection is, it is easier to relate to it as the ‘other’ meaning other people’s children whereas when it relates to our parents or grandparents, or our own visions of growing old, people ‘like us’ it is much more chilling.
    When I tell people I do social work with adults, I sometimes get bemused responses.
    As regards a media image, I do both wonder and not wonder about the leadership in the profession which often seems more about self aggrandisement for those at the top as opposed to positive change for the profession as a whole.
    I’ve been pondering fiction writing as an outlet – in some ways I’m a lot more comfortable with it as a way to present the reality of social work rather than fly on the wall where I have some discomfort about people’s lives being laid open – need to get back to the writing!

  2. While I agree with much of what you said I have had a very different response from non-social workers. Many friends/family text me to tell me it was on, or text afterwards to say what they thought of it. I feel like every conversation at work or outside work has touched on it at some point! Most of all the feedback I had was that it was great to see the decision making process itself, rather than just seeing someone remove a child. Im also a little sad that you have such negative reactions when you say you’re a social worker – I’ve found people respect the difficult job it is and are supportive.
    Great program and very thought provoking blog 🙂

  3. The challenge for good public understanding of social work and probation practice is profound. Protecting Our Children provided a rare and genuine insight into the complexity of working with some of the most difficult issues in our community, the problem is that much of the public would simply prefer ‘not to think about them’.As I watched the series I kept wondering how many would continue to watch, it raised heart wrenching decisions which left pain and sadness with every outcome. The staff were mindful, reflective, professional and considered but still left with managing long term entrenched behaviours that simply cannot be resolved overnight.
    For the public I wonder if it is a bit like my approach to my car, I just want it to work and if it does not I want the professional to ‘sort it out’ but I have little interest in what needs to be done, other than I hope it will not cost too much or take too long. A mechanic may wish to share with great pride their handiwork, but the reality is that I am only likely to get animated if it fails to work, after they have told me that they have fixed it, or I think it costs too much.But just think where would we all be if there were no car mechanics? Some jobs are simply essential and it is good to know there are people who will do them with skill and passion.

  4. I thought social workers would help me,they’ve lied,NOT helped in anyway for my family to stay be put on a protection plan due to domestic violence that I’d stopped from happenin to myself,leaflets in every public toilet say tell someone,report it,don’t be isolated.I never was isolated during the time violence was happening. The only people who have ever made me feel isolated are social services setting me hurdle after hurdle,and when I did that correctly they falsley claimed my little girl needed to be dressed appropriatly! My little girl was never not dresses unless she had a bath,she doesn’t like to be undressed or dirty,yet this requirment was put in an unmet box! To work with these people,which is expected of parents,you’d think their training is based on people skills to able a family to have a good rappor to prevent being labled as “not working with agencys”! So explain why a family support worker who’s also a phychologist would not even try to build a good rapport despite the fact I ‘engaged’ honestly and appeald for help,shed know how to talk back in a way that genuinly gives the impression of trust,yet she only came round with ‘concerns’ she d not corrected the last ones,that I discussd till I was blue in the face! Instead she antagonised the situation everytime,till I got the shakes through anxiety from even being in the same room! I’d ask them to leave as it was going round in circles in front of my children! They should all be so ashamed of themselves,I will expose them all,I won’t stop till my children are back where they belong,protected under their mothers wing,its my job to look after their best intrests for the rest of my life,these people make me sick,with their lack of info,and coniving shoddy ways,hiding behind their job titles,n sick speach of “its for the children”??what?! None of what’s happend has benifited my kids! We’ve all been isolated from one another,the promises of family workin as a team,us against the world bond,has been shatterd! Kids don’t understand,they and we thought if we stuck to all the rules we d be together! Those poor children miss each other,and messed up their stable routine that we all worked hard as a family to achieve! These worker don’t care they trample and actually believe in themselves because they’re untouchable,not for long,they will be judged by God! Familys need protection from this so called service that’s a complete,grasping at straws!

  5. I think the comment before this one should be read by all involved in the protection of children.

  6. It speaks for itself.

  7. Hi! Interesting stuff and thanks for writing it. Would like to take slight issue re no-one speaking up for social work and we’re bad with the media. I work for BASW and last week we were on both This Morning on TV and the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 (about different issues) as well as in other papers and radio stations. Most SWs will not speak to the media who are hungry for real SWs to talk to for fear of getting into trouble, and local authorities are so mistrustful of the media that they willl not even share social work and social care good news stories, so it’s an uphill battle at times. The appointment of a Chief Social Worker at Government level (put forward by BASW and picked up by SW Reform Board and Munro and supported by Govt) may help.

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