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Media vilification of social workers puts more children at risk

Ray Jones spells out his concerns in wake of coverage of the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson tragedies

The terrible killings over a year ago during the pandemic lockdowns of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes have generated much media attention as the criminal trials of those guilty of the killings concluded.

All of us will have been horrified by the sickening torturing of these two little children. And like the public at large we will be angry at the abuse they experienced and which killed them.

But as before, much of the media, and especially and predictably the tabloid print press, has turned their attention away from those who killed Star and Arthur on to social workers who have been named, with a photograph of one of the directors of children’s services shown in the press.

Other agencies such as the police who received reports of abuse of both children have disappeared from the media coverage.

Local Conservative MPs have grabbed the opportunity for political grandstanding and have demanded that social workers and their managers be sacked.

No mention of course of the cumulative consequences of cuts targeting local authorities, after more than ten years of politically-chosen austerity imposed by the Conservative governments since 2010.

The Daily Mail has reported on social workers being attacked and spat on with no censure of these threats to social workers – and, not unexpectedly, no recognition or acknowledgement of the part their paper has played in generating this vilification across the country.

Beyond the immediate concern here are two longer lasting ones for the future which will make it harder to keep children safe and to promote their welfare and wellbeing.

First, attacking and abusing those who give their professional lives to help and protect children – which is already difficult, demanding and sometimes distressing – will have the consequence of making it even more difficult to recruit and retain social workers, health visitors, community paediatricians and others who see that they could be in the media’s frame for blame if something terrible happens to a child.

A less experienced and less stable workforce with more churn and change cross all services working with children means that it will be less likely that what is happening within families is known and that the jigsaw of disparate concerns and information is put together to build the picture of what life is like for a child.

And if someone wants to hide their abuse of children it is easier to do so if there is no continuity and consistency of those seeking to find out what is happening behind closed doors and when they are not there.

The second longer term concern is that the awful killings of a year ago – which are exceptional if not unique and which is why their horror has attracted so much media - may be used to fuel the proposals which have already been aired regarding the Department for Education's care review being led by Josh MacAlister: the creation of a separate standalone child protection service.

What this would mean is that a service detached and remote from social workers and others who are working within communities with families would parachute in and undertake investigations.

It presumably would be the agency that decides on and initiates court proceedings to remove children from families. Maybe the children would then be placed by a national care service, which has also been canvassed by those close to the social care review, within what is already a  marketplace of private sector commercialised foster and residential homes, often some distance from the children and young people’s immediate and wider families, friends, schools and communities.  

This child protection service would not have the brief to assist families and is unlikely to have longer term contact with them. Families for whom help might tackle concerns about the care of their children are only likely to receive sporadic investigations and could end up being monitored and under surveillance by a new breed of  here-today-gone-tomorrow child protection workers.

It has all the dangers of replicating what was introduced by Chris Grayling in 2012 when he broke up the probation service.

Those considered to be serious offenders and more of a danger and risk were to be supervised by the National Probation Service. The supervision of the other two thirds of offenders were to be outsourced to privatised community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).

It was a costly and disruptive danger-generating disaster. It has now been abandoned.

The fragmentation it created meant that knowledge and visibility of individuals and networks became lost as it fell in the gap between the two services.

Offenders were parcelled and passed between the services as their risk status changed so that their history became less well known, and there was duplication and wastage as both the probation service and the CRCs had separate management structures, were separately represented at meetings, and also had the additional complexity and burden of seeking to liaise with each other.

There was also the downgrading of the workforce and deskilling of those working within the privatised CRCs.

It is not a good recipe for the future of services for children and for families. Let’s hope the terrible killings of a year ago will not be used to justify this as the way forward.

Ray Jones is author of The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George's, University of London and a former director of social services