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Dickensian themes aren’t just for Christmas

We may not have soup kitchens but we do have food banks, says retired child protection social worker John Fitzgerald, and in such hard times social workers make all the difference

A christmas carol, dickens, social work, child protection, poverty, food banks, universal credit
BBC1's dark interpretation of A Christmas Carol shown over the festive period

Professional Social Work magazine - 6 January

As we move into a New Year, I have been reflecting on the preponderance of productions based on the writing of Charles Dickens in the Christmas television schedules. There were several versions of a A Christmas Carol including probably the best film ever made based on the novel with Alastair Sim as Scrooge and the inevitable showing of Lionel Bart’s Oliver.

Strip away the cinematic gloss and you are faced with child kidnap, sexual and physical exploitation, abuse and cruelty, child and adult homelessness, gross poverty, slavery, domestic abuse, coercive control, and use of the poor in crime and murder in Victorian London. Yet take Dickens out of the equation and that list could be found today in great abundance across our country.

The destitute adults and children may not end up today in the workhouse but they can and sometimes do end up in care homes or hospitals or part of other organisations such as the church, where cruelty is meted out. We may not have soup kitchens but we do have food banks. Children may not end up in petty crime gangs run by a Fagin but some vulnerable young people do end up under the control of, and work for drug dealers.

The national police lead on combating modern slavery and human trafficking stated at the start of this year that “exploited children were almost back to Victorian times” adding "austerity and criminals had exploited the space between the school gate and front door”.

The grotesque abuse and murder of Nancy in Oliver was not unique in Victorian times any more than it is today. In 2020 at least 120 children in the UK will die as a result of abuse, around 100 women will lose their lives because of domestic abuse and thousands more of both will suffer neglect, sexual and physical abuse.

In Victorian times poverty was vast but it’s not much better today despite the existence of a welfare state which has produced an industry managing money for the poor, while successive governments have sought to bear down on and try to destroy those dependant on the state for an income.

Universal credit springs to mind which does the exact opposite of the meaning of those words yet earned its architect Ian Duncan Smith a knighthood in the recent honours list. In its place the wealthiest five per cent of our population and corporations were handed breathtaking tax cuts, thereby widening the ever-increasing income gap.

Social work as we know it did not exist in Victorian times but today our profession is expected to clear up all those “unpleasant” problems that society would rather turn away from. When I qualified in 1971 considerable amounts of money, or so it seemed at the time, was being put into social work but by the end of the decade cuts were in place and continued right through to 1997.

Although there was some respite at the turn of the century the world banking crisis in 2008 ushered in the worst period of austerity since the 1930s and is still with us.

Whilst it is easy to be gloomy about our progress, I prefer to dwell on the amazing achievements of social workers and others. Many will have gone the extra mile to make life better for a young single parent, or saved a child’s life, or intervened to ensure a victim of domestic abuse was helped out of an abusive relationship or blew the whistle when they uncovered abusive behaviour in an institution, knowing they may have to pay a heavy price for doing so.

These are the unsung heroes of our profession and I am always encouraged when I meet the younger generation of social workers on whom so many people depend. They are enthusiastic, caring, committed and against all the negative odds, will make a difference. They are the future.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.