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Social workers exposed online – the dangers we face

Last week saw public attention drawn to the launch of a new “name and shame” website aimed at “exposing the truth” about social workers and their penchant for unjustly removing children from their parents. The site, UK Social Workers Exposed, showed names and photographs of individual social workers, prompting articles about it on Community Care’s website. BASW condemned the website and, following social workers’ protests, an accompanying Facebook page was taken down.

There are many such websites, along with films on YouTube and elsewhere, making allegations in general about social workers stealing children and virtually kidnapping them to meet adoption targets – ‘forced adoptions’ – and identifying specific social workers in particular cases. Those behind such sites seem to believe individual social workers can remove children from good parents on a whim and for no reason.

They clearly hold social work and social workers in low regard, which of itself is fine – we have no right to be loved and know very well that our work requires often unpopular decisions to be made about the most important aspects of anyone’s life. In many ways it is only natural that when people experience the trauma of having a child removed from their care by the legal system that, in some instances – though by no means all – they lash out and apportion blame for their loss.

Where some sites go too far, however, is in not only identifying individual practitioners and exposing them to significant risk, but also highlighting examples of social workers being threatened and intimidated verbally, and even attacked physically in the course of their work. On some sites and in the chatrooms linked to them, there is talk of social workers being stalked by aggrieved parents and their supporters, photographed on leaving their place of work and left highly exposed to potential danger.

Because this latest website so clearly identified individual workers, BASW issued guidance for employers of social workers and contacted the employers of those workers featured, suggesting action which could be taken (the name of the person who established the website is known). It is our view that any action should be taken in the first place by the social worker’s employer, as it has a duty of care towards the staff they are asking to carry out such difficult work.

We reminded employers that they should have policies and procedures in place for recording all threats and verbal and physical violence against social workers and for taking action to protect and support staff – something we know from past history that not all do, as there is no statutory onus for such records to be maintained and reported to a central government department.

Our response has resulted in BASW staff receiving emails from individuals and organisations who believe their children have been stolen by social workers, some of which have contained the sort of abuse and similar language to that seen on the websites.

Amidst the rabid hostility, there is a theme of social work complicity in a grand masterplan to appropriate children and place them with better off families – some sort of class swap programme. Few people close to child protection work would concur with this for a moment but, equally, as we look to defend social work against these often wild accusations, we are not seeking to suggest that all social workers are always perfect in their practice, or that injustices aren’t at all possible.

Indeed, we at BASW have been very keen to highlight the need for better resourcing and for a higher priority to be placed on the vital work we do to ensure better, longer and more sustained preventative work with families, as well as, on the flipside and not without irony, more capacity to remove children into safe foster arrangements where the risks become too great – it won’t go down well in the aforementioned chatrooms that many social workers are only too aware of the numbers of children living in families where the risk is much higher than we would like, but the resources to intervene are inadequate; there really are two sides to this coin.

What BASW cannot accept, however, is the notion being propounded that any social worker sets out to deliberately break up and destroy families. Such a view is plain wrong and is at odds with the experiences and motivations of every social worker I have ever met. It also fails to understand that social workers simply do not have the power to dictate whether a child is removed from their family or not – we are just one part of a process which culminates in the view of the courts, where the social work view will very often be overruled.

Social workers are not the only profession to suffer from such hostility and threats, particularly at a time when social media and the internet makes it so much easier for people to organise, share stories and spread ideas at such pace. There are probably sites dedicated to the hatred of doctors, nurses, police and teachers, for instance.

Yet these sites feature social workers and it is social workers who are our business. Should BASW ignore these sites or should we respond? To acknowledge them gives them the oxygen of publicity and may make those behind them think their views have some measure of credibility. So should we just maintain a dignified silence? We would welcome members’ views.

One thing we must say is that the failure of politicians and social work organisations over the years to stick up for social work and to explain the role of social workers in the protection of children and adults has enabled the media to run outrageous stories, completely misrepresenting us and inviting attacks, arguably fostering and encouraging those with more extreme views. Every time a politician casually blames social workers for some failing of public policy or systems, he or she is contributing to an anti-social work culture. Reporters who do not trouble to find out the whole story promote ignorance and hatred against a whole profession – see Christopher Booker’s recent diatribe for yet more evidence if it were needed.

Some doctors make mistakes and engage in criminal behaviour, some nurses are revealed to be uncaring and negligent and some police officers are found to be corrupt and abusive. But when this is reported, it is not used to berate a whole profession as happens to social workers whenever a child protection case hits the headlines.

Matters have improved in some circles since Baby Peter Connelly’s death, and the programme featuring Bristol child protection workers earlier this year did much to inform the public of the work. However, there are many people who wish to hold onto the view that they should be free to treat their children as they wish or that no-one does in fact abuse their children, an issue we’d all rather not think about in an ideal world. This view suggests social workers should not interfere in family life, and those who hold it presumably ignore reading or watching anything, such as the Bristol programme, which might challenge their position.

In BASW we will continue to do what we can to promote social work and all the good it does, but these recent events remind us of what we are up against from a vocal minority, as a profession and as individuals.

Ruth Cartwright, BASW England manager

What do you think? Email editor@basw.co.uk with your views