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Protecting our children but what about our adults?

BASW professional officer Sue Kent shares her perspective on the second of the three Protecting our Children documentaries on BBC2, shown last night, which centred on the case of a couple with a significant history of alcohol abuse who were expecting another child. Four previous children had been removed by the local authority and ultimately placed for adoption.

Last night’s programme was another excellent insight into the scenarios social workers face every day, illustrating the many significant difficulties of the job. The social worker featured, Annie, offered an excellent example of an experienced practitioner.

Perhaps the one element of the documentary that social workers at home will have identified with was Annie’s understandably emotional response, at the end of the broadcast, to the decision to remove the baby from her mother’s care. This goes hand-in-hand with her statement that if she ever “stops caring”, it will be time to leave the job.

Annie also highlighted the need for social workers to be given the space and opportunity for reflection and to be able to absorb some of the impact of particularly emotional or stressful cases before being thrust into another difficult situation. Annie said she had 15 cases at that particular time to manage, all unborn children and their parents, each of whom would have had issues to grapple with and vulnerabilities to support. I just hope that the other 14 cases she was confronting at that time weren’t anywhere near as challenging, though I suspect some of them would have been.

Bristol appears to do well in supporting its social workers but sadly the same cannot be said of all local authorities. While Bristol follows a traditional social work model of frontline workers operating in supportive teams, many councils have adopted hot-desking and flexible working, meaning more and more practitioners are left unsupported and isolated.

A significant talking point from the programme will inevitably be the role of social work and the overlap between children and adult services more generally in the lives of the parents in such situations. Clearly the focus of a programme called Protecting our Children will be the children (including the unborn) and young people whose interests the social workers are asked to safeguard. As is so often the case, however, it is the ability of the adults to overcome, or at least manage, their abusive or post-traumatic behaviour that will determine whether a child could possibly remain in their care.

What wasn’t evident in last night’s programme was any sustained attempt to engage the prospective parents in therapeutic or rehabilitative services that might have supported them in changing their behaviour. Of course both adults had been on the children’s services radar for many years, having had four previous children removed from them, so efforts in this direction may have been ongoing throughout that period.

Equally, as the producers told us at a special screening of the first of the series – where we were fortunate enough to have the chance to speak directly with the social workers involved – they recorded many hundreds of hours of footage in total, the overwhelming majority of which could not be squeezed into a one hour, so there would undoubtedly be additional input that viewers will not have seen.

The concern remains, however, that the programme indirectly highlighted a phenomenon we know all too well from our work with children and families; which is that while children are the clear focus of sustained intervention work, their parents’ needs often receive notably less support, beyond the advice and assistance social workers are able to impart in the small amount of time they have with each family.

We know how limited resources are but without sustained interventions by multi-disciplinary teams, backed by resources tailored to specific needs – whether drug and alcohol counselling, anger management or wider mental health support – the chances are that resolving the child protection concerns will prove extremely difficult.

Just like the first in the series, however, last night’s programme offered a snapshot of what hard-pressed social workers are trying to do, often against considerable odds. I cannot praise the social workers enough for handling the pressures of undertaking sensitive and challenging work while all the time having cameras watching their every move.

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