Social work – what went wrong?

Bill Utting

The Eighties are commonly seen as a decade of disaster for social work. They began, in the aftermath of strikes in a number of local authorities, with a committee of inquiry into the role and tasks of social workers. There followed a litany of the names of dead children which burned themselves into the public’s memory and the professional conscience: Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile, Tyra Henry. Criticism of the practice of individuals was succeeded by condemnation of whole departments, in Cleveland and Rochdale, for their management of allegations of widespread sexual abuse. Social workers were also accused of ideological rigidity in their approach to ‘same race’ fostering and to intercountry adoption. The decade drew to a dismal end with the exposure in Staffordshire of methods of control in children’s homes that were themselves abusive, and the imposition of a life sentence on a child-care manager for persistent sexual abuse of children in the care of Leicestershire County Council. Critical comment may properly be made in these cases – and in others – about the role and functioning of social workers, their education and training, their competence and the values they express in their work. But wider, graver and sometimes sinister factors were also in operation.

Social workers were acting in these cases as employees of local government, discharging the local authority’s legal responsibilities for protecting children at risk and for acting as parent to children in its care. Social work in voluntary organisations is rarely the object of public criticism, and social work methods are extensively used in such popular activities as counselling: what is there in its association with local government that makes it so vulnerable to criticism? The role of agent of the state is itself significant. Social workers are drawn as a result into areas of family life and human conduct about which contemporary values are divided and public responses unpredictable. The statutory duties which they perform include strong elements of control and of unsolicited intervention in other people’s lives. These attributes were widely unpopular in a decade when the rights of the individual and of the family were increasingly championed, formal authority of all kinds was challenged, antiprofessionalism became endemic and any association with welfare was evidence of guilt to the meaner spirits in the media. Social work’s association with a local government tarnished by accusations of extremism, profligacy and incompetence further dimmed its reputation. Social workers were blamed for the allegedly perverse policies adopted by some authorities, and the rapid politicisation of local government handicapped the practice of essentially professional work.

I don’t assert that the experience of social work in local government is wholly negative. Far from it. A base in government offers social work an important role in protecting vulnerable people and in providing or securing valuable services for them. It also offers direct access to the considerable resources of a local authority. Adequately resourced, and with sensible political leadership and effective management, social work in local government can be rewarding both in professional terms and in achievement. The fortunately rare combination of eccentric politicians, ineffective managers and incompetent professional supervisors, however, produces a context for social work in which ‘it was not done well, but you were surprised to find it done at all.’

It was in child protection work, above all, that the practice of social work in local government attracted criticism. Some children and families have been gravely harmed through the malfunctioning of a system intended to protect and support them. Deaths have occurred that were preventable. Convicting and punishing people who have killed and injured children may not be enough to purge the guilt, grief and anger that afflicts the rest of us. Social workers were sacked in Brent after the death of Jasmine Beckford, but the inquiry led by Louis Blom-Cooper identified an accumulation of errors by people and institutions. The report of the inquiry, ‘A Child in Trust’, demonstrated the failure of the welfare system to protect a child who was actually in the care of the local authority.

Other cases turned, not on failures to act to protect children, but on allegations of overzealous intervention by social workers when children were not being harmed. The most spectacular examples in England occurred in Cleveland and Rochdale. Some children were unjustifiably separated from their parents, and some fathers from their families, in the wake of investigations that were initially justified and protected other children who were at risk. The scale of the problem in Cleveland, the unsettling association of children and illicit sexual behaviour, and the misleading whiff of Satanism in Rochdale, guaranteed persisting public and media interest.

Numerous factors contributed to these disasters. Social workers must spearhead state intervention to protect children, but often depend upon the efficiency of other professionals and institutions, and are always required to act within the policies and under the management of their local authority. Evidence by social workers to the Cleveland inquiry disclosed distress at the way they were required to respond to the difficult situation that confronted their authority. The report of the inquiry commented that, after receiving instructions from the Director of Social Services, ‘social workers had no real opportunity to exercise their own individual professional judgment and responsibility.’ That report comprehensively documents the shared responsibilities of the various professions and agencies for what went wrong. Similar reports identified failings at political and senior management levels in social services departments, and mistakes by other professionals and by other agencies, particularly in collaborative work. What looked at first like simple errors by individual social workers emerged as widespread failures within agencies, between agencies and from top to bottom in agencies.

Nevertheless, the record of child protection work in the Eighties exposed some basic deficiencies in social work practice. Even experienced and qualified workers showed difficulties in such fundamental activities as taking a life-history, interviewing and recording. The anti-professional and anti-intellectual outlook of some authorities, and a management that did not understand the nature of its business, led to a neglect of professional supervision. The outcome was that deficiencies in social work practice were often not even remarked on, let alone corrected.

At the same time, knowledge about the incidence and nature of child abuse, particularly of sexual abuse, was growing faster than the capacity of the professions involved to develop new methods of investigation and treatment. People in such situations grasp eagerly at theories of explanation, and untested ‘solutions’ may be offered as universal remedies. Cleveland and Rochdale offered free ammunition to people who believed that professionals investigating such allegations were disingenuously advancing their own interests or conspiring to destroy family life.

‘Pindown’ in Staffordshire and the Beck case in Leicestershire exposed even more flaws in the system. Both concerned children already in care, who were harmed by social workers employed to discharge their authorities’ responsibilities as good parents. Neither authority appears to have possessed a professional or managerial culture capable of preventing or detecting the events that became the subject of inquiry in one and of criminal prosecution in the other.

The fundamental flaw is a local authority’s failure to understand, and therefore to discharge, the full weight of its responsibility to act as a parent towards children in its care. This task must be grasped by the authority as a whole, involving all its committees and services. It must be experienced from top to bottom in a social services department, by elected members through senior managers to staff providing practical care. If it is not, then the welfare of the children rests upon their random interaction with adults who pass into and out of their lives. Many of these adults are able, experienced and highly motivated, but the neglect of residential child care in local government has caused chronic problems in recruiting and in retaining suitably qualified and experienced staff. The events in Staffordshire and Leicestershire exposed as uncaring a system of child welfare which relies absolutely upon the character and ability of employees who are undervalued, and may therefore be both poorly resourced and ineffectively led.

Events in fostering and adoption also provoked vigorous debate – in particular about the effect of the politics of race and sexual orientation upon current assumptions about family life. Periodic grumbles about the way in which equal opportunities policies were put into practice by so-called ‘loony left’ authorities exploded into public controversy over decisions about individual placements. Placing a child with a lesbian couple or a gay man so affronted conventional values as to disable discussion of the merits of the case.

Policy and practice were difficult to separate in such situations. Policy statements by some local authorities about equal opportunities appeared to promote the rights of gay and lesbian people to adopt, and to subordinate what should have been the primary consideration, the welfare of the child. The conservative nature of much social work practice, however, meant that priority continued to be given to the needs of the child in the great majority of cases. Where wrong decisions were made it was usually because the relevant panel or social worker was led away from concentration on the needs of the child by the hypnotic issue of sexual politics.

The policy of some local authorities that black children (including children of mixed race) should be placed for fostering or adoption with black families generated similar heat. What might be just and justifiable in most cases seemed in some to operate against the interests of children, by limiting the range, nature, quality and location of the placements that should have been considered. The commitment of most social workers to anti-discriminatory policies motivates them to give effect to ‘same race’ placements, and the Children Act now requires local authorities, in reaching decisions about children in their care, to consider not only religious persuasion but also racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. The overriding objective, the welfare of the individual child, can only be achieved, however, if all relevant factors are evaluated and none are excluded by arbitrary local policies.

‘Same race’ thinking also influenced attitudes towards the adoption of children from other countries. Adoption is an even tougher proposition than natural parenthood often is and should not be embarked on for the proud pleasure of ownership. People who are driven to look abroad for what has been denied them at home encounter complex attitudes in both quarters. Their simmering discontent boiled over in the aftermath of the revolution in Romania, when the numbers of children living in orphanages and apparently accessible to adoption became visible. Bureaucratic and professional practice based on English law and custom struggled, in the absence of legally-binding international agreement, to cope with the flash flood of applications to import children for adoption. Some local authorities and social workers responded slowly because staff had to be diverted from urgent tasks. Others were more obviously reluctant, disapproving of inter-country adoptions on political grounds or believing that ‘hard to place’ children in this country should come first. Some confronted applicants whom they had already considered and rejected as potential adopters. Others were presented with a fait accompli by people who had disregarded the law and the formal processes for safeguarding children. Human interest stories in the media focused on orphans in danger of losing adoptive homes through the procrastination and rigidity of an insensitive bureaucracy and its opinionated employees. The public pressure generated was important in speeding up decisions at both individual and policy levels.

Barbara Wootton permanently deflated the pretensions of social work over thirty years ago, in Social Science and Social Pathology. More recent criticism rests upon its performance of the role prescribed for it by the state. Judgment is passed on anecdotal evidence and the experience of a handful of spectacular failures, not upon overall performance in monitoring the 40,000 children on child protection registers. It is right to ask whether the disasters are an iceberg-tip or one extreme of a range of performance encountered in similar occupations. My experience and perspective suggest the latter, but I do not discount the gravity of the disasters or a lack of competence in less dramatic situations.

The proper performance of statutory duties depends upon the ability and character of individual social workers and their supervisors, the effectiveness of the legal framework, the policies and management of employers and the commitment of allied professions and agencies. One of these requirements, at least, is now firmly in place: the Children Act 1989 simplifies and clarifies the basis for state intervention in family life and strengthens the position of children and families. A distinction may be made between individual competence and organisational effectiveness. Good social work is possible in poor organisations and bad social work may occur in the best. In general, however, the quality of social work is heavily influenced by the quality of its environment, which includes both the attributes of the agency and the performance of allied professions and agencies.

Questions about competence and conduct remain. Individual practice is the product of personality, training and experience. Selection for training virtually guarantees employment as a social worker. The great majority of social workers in the community have completed an approved course of qualifying training, but 70 per cent of the staff in residential child care lack any relevant qualification. Arguments are revived from time to time about the merits of training compared with experience in the hard school of life, but those who believe that social work requires no more than common sense dangerously underestimate its difficulties. Social work deals largely in uncommon situations, and its practitioners need the uncommon sense that training and experience add to natural ability.

Social work as an occupation is not regulated by an independent statutory body. Anyone can practise as a social worker – minimum qualifications are not prescribed. The appointment and discipline of social workers are matters for their employers alone. The absence of regulation is shocking in view of the extent to which the statutory duties undertaken by social workers have developed in the last twenty years. Social work engages in important, sensitive and private areas in the lives of individuals and families. It exercises direct influence over the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and adults to whom the local authority has duties of care and service. The public interest case for a degree of independent regulation seems overwhelming, provided the public interest predominates. Resentment of publicly-funded services operating in areas of family life about which society is ambivalent has created a situation for social work in which failures are emphasised and achievement discounted. The bias in social work towards important statutory work has also sharply limited the role it might have played in coping with the social consequences of the three great evils of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Nevertheless, the present decade promises better things for social work and for those who use it. Adequately resourced, the Children Act and community care policies together offer the fairest and most practical answers we are likely to be able to devise for people who need help in living independently in the community. They offer social workers, moreover, a further opportunity to put the people who need and use their services back in control of their own lives. The arrival of the millennium should see social work established as an occupation regulated by the public in the interests of the public.