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This Morning does social work: ‘A good social worker should be prized above rubies’

New statistics from Cafcass reporting record numbers of children being referred to social services have sparked widespread debate in the media, even drawing in ITV’s flagship daytime show, This Morning.

Usually more comfortable with makeovers, TV actors and new recipes, the programme today offered a prominent slot to a discussion about how and why rising numbers of children are entering the care system, and invited BASW’s own Nushra Mansuri to offer the expert social work view.

The Cafcass numbers emerged in the same week the BBC broadcast the second in its three part series, Protecting Our Children, and coincided too with This Morning’s resident agony aunt Denise Robertson’s determination to give the subject an airing – she says she regularly receives letters from families who feel they have been ‘victims of injustice’ at the hands of ‘social services’.

BASW professional officer Nushra Mansuri bravely sat alongside Denise and directly opposite the show’s Friday anchors, husband and wife presenting duo Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes, to face a barrage of questions on a broad range of related topics during the 13 minute slot.

The interview, billed as ‘Denise Vs Social Services’ and Social Services Question Time, started with screen shots of recent stories:

Baby P effect: Record toll of children being taken into care as figure hits 10,000 in a year – Daily Mail
Baby P council fail 10 starving kids and try to keep it secret – The Sun
‘Record numbers of children being taken in to care’ – Daily Telegraph

Denise Robertson set out her stall straight away, focusing her criticism on “the system” in which social workers operate: “Social workers, like any other profession, there are good ones and bad ones, but they take an unfair share of the blame, because they are in the forefront. They remove the children, but in fact it is the system that I believe is badly flawed and getting worse, in that we are taking children we shouldn’t be taking, and leaving children, as in today’s headlines, where we should be removing them.”

Presenter Ruth Langsford began the interview by helpfully saying that there were lots of things that social workers might like to do, but that they just don’t have the funds, an issue that Nushra picked up on by referencing the Baby Peter case and the resulting Social Work Reform Board, pointing out that even in 2008 “we knew we had a chronic shortage of experienced social workers working in child protection, and that is very serious”.

When Eamonn Holmes questioned whether referral rates are going up because social workers are rushing to take children into care out of fear of media criticism, Nushra emphasised that any response involves multiple agencies working together.

She said: “I talk to so many people, social workers, health professionals, teachers – all of the people involved in looking at children and risk issues – and we’re all very clear that the threshold is that a child needs to be at risk of ‘significant harm’ [in order to be removed from parental care]. That is the legislation, and that is what we look at, is a child at risk of significant harm?”

In a series of sharp questions, less than keen on encouraging full, detailed answers, Eamonn followed up: “Are we getting more wicked as a society or are you under political pressure to get it right?”

Nushra replied: “I think it’s good that after a child abuse tragedy more people are aware of children at risk and, in a way, that has increased the number of referrals.”

Denise endorsed this with “I fully agree, that if you have any doubt that a child is at risk of harm, you remove it”, before adding “it’s what happens after it that I think goes severely wrong”.

Denise’s main bugbear was with the issue of confidentiality, claiming that people personally involved in cases, or campaigners like herself or the Telegraph’s Christopher Booker, are prevented from discussing the details of family law cases, yet “when social workers want to make a film that shows them in a good light”, every detail is aired.

The film she felt was offering social work this positive “light”, despite the fact social workers didn’t actually make the programme, was the BBC’s Protecting our Children, which follows social workers employed by Bristol City Council’s Children’s Services Department. This Morning’s stalwart agony aunt said she was particularly disturbed by the consent issues it raised, saying of the families involved, “if they ‘re not capable of making a decision about their children, are they capable of making a decision (giving consent to be filmed) like that?” She went so far as to say that the programme made her cringe.

Nushra commented that many social workers had also had similar debates among themselves following the programme, but went on to defend the separate need for the details of specific cases to be held back from public consumption – she said that children in such cases do not want all of their personal information out there for the world to see; that it is “highly stigmatising” for them.

She then cited examples of media misrepresenting cases as another key reason to restrict the media’s right to report all the details of a case. She pointed to an instance where a judge had ordered his findings to be posted on the internet, yet there was still a vast discrepancy between his judgement and between the media reports of the case – no apology was given.

Denise then turned her sights on the legal profession, bemoaning the absence of a good appeals process and explaining how many people contact her because they’ve been “badly represented by many members of the legal profession”. She cited one case where the mother was scared to complain about a solicitor who had cancelled an appointment three times, as “social services will punish me if I change my solicitor”.

Nushra said that if parents were unhappy with their legal representation, they had the right to go elsewhere.

Denise then said that parents are often not allowed to bring in alternative expert medical opinion, where it is the case that a member of the medical profession is in dispute with parents over the cause of a child’s injuries, including a current media case where a child may have rickets: “The medical expert for social services says rickets doesn’t exist in white skinned children”, she despaired.

With the discussion now becoming painfully divergent, Nushra explained that it is always a judge who makes decisions in family courts about whether additional expert independent reports need to be done.

This Morning’s ‘Hub’ – otherwise known as a man with a screen on which the views of the programme’s audience are filtered through – featured a host of quickfire comments from viewers, some interesting, others a little odd. Among the former camp was viewer Lucy Turner who said: “I think people give social workers a hard time – understaffed, underpaid, and with thousands of people asking for help”.

Somewhat confusingly, viewer Vicky Green, a determined member of the latter camp, claimed: “Social services have done nothing to help me”, before going on to say that they did a brilliant job in the support they gave her during her first pregnancy, and then afterwards too.

The Hub (man with screen) also heard from one social work support worker who Tweeted: “My colleagues are fantastic and need praising for their work, time, effort, and care, and the pride that goes into their work.”

Back on the sofa Eamonn wondered aloud whether people like to think of social services as the “Nasty Branch”, asking Nushra, “do people dare to pick up the phone and say can you help us, or will they be penalised for doing that?”

Nushra confirmed that people would never be penalised, saying: “My absolute ideal would be that we can reach so many families a lot earlier than we are right now; we don’t have the resources to do it, but I think it’s really sad that families have to get into crisis (before they can access support).”

Pursuing the theme, Eamonn, more obliging as the clock wound down, summed up with: “So, we don’t hear the aspect that it is ‘caring services’ rather than ‘social services’?”

The now more gentle questioning allowed Nushra the chance to explain an aspect of the work with which few viewers would be familiar: “So much of it is about family support, a lot of what we do.”

The final word went to Denise, as is appropriate for someone in and out of the studio for the past two decades: “A good social worker should be prized above rubies, but the system is deeply flawed, and if the numbers of children are doubling, and we are not putting in extra resources, we are creating a timebomb”.

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Twitter comments:

JaseR32 Jason
@itvthismorning give the poor lady a break! Gosh! Seeing a different side to #Denise social workers are good people who are only helping

JaseR32 Jason
@itvthismorning we were brought up with social workers around us and it was a really positive experience as my mother couldn’t cope.

greene1205 Jack Greene
My girlf is a social worker and the best in her region. Over worked, underpaid but 100% committed and doin a brilliant job.#thismorning

charlihumm Charli Humm
Oh Eamonn Holmes. Oh Denise Robertson. Reinforcing stigmas around social workers. #thismorning