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Social workers respond to Arthur Labinjo-Hughes tragedy on social media

A selection of posts from Twitter that give social work's take beyond the media headlines and calls for action...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 6 December, 2021

Six-year-old Arthur Hughes' stepmother Emma Tustin and his father Thomas Hughes were sentenced for his murder last Friday.

Amid the media and political outcry that followed, social workers once again found themselves under fire from some quarters with suggestions that they should have done more to protect him.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to “leave no stone unturned to find out exactly what went wrong” as the government announced a national review into the murder over the weekend.

Some social workers took to social media to express their thoughts and feelings. Many were concerned at the vilification and blaming of their profession. 

Responding on Twitter, Matt Graham said: I fear for social work and social workers today. The public’s anger and hatred towards the profession is palpable and Boris Johnson and the government will use this to their advantage….

“These issues are complex and systemic. It requires critical thinking and analysis.”

Diane Jukes said: “The way social workers are portrayed by the media has not changed in years, but now we also have a Prime Minister who is the champion of blaming others to contend with.”

Zoe Thomas: “God knows what this will mean for social work under the review… [An] unfair and unrealistic narrative will spin right into it.”

Mary Brazier said: “Thinking of the inevitable desire for a scapegoat. Responsibility will never sit centrally. It was ever thus.”

Kim Detjen queried the launch of another national review, asking: “And how much does that cost? Use the money to hire more staff, have external reflective supervision, support those who are working so hard… Instead, the govt continues to blame social workers.”

Professor Harry Ferguson of the University of Birmingham, who wrote about the impact of social distancing during Covid on social work in an article published in The Guardian this weekend, said: “Here we go again: social workers are naïve and easily deceived (Martin Narey). SW training needs reform to change that (Lord Laming)… These views are out-of-date and not research/evidence based.

“Research suggests social workers do generally use their authority, see children and are alert to parental deception. The bigger issue is the complexity of ‘hostile relationships’ and the challenge of working with parents who don’t want them there.”

Mike Shaw agreed adding “we should never forget that some people will deliberately lie and deceive social workers and this can prevent effective safeguarding of children even for the most curious of social workers”.

Deirdre Mahon questioned “the assumption that social workers can 100 per cent predict the unpredictability of human behaviour” adding, “we forget about the thousands of children that social workers help every day”.

Paul Harrison said the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case “highlights yet again the unattainable public expectation that social workers can protect all of the children all of the time”.

Linda Howard suggested the search for someone to blame was fuelled by a sense of "helplessness or denial within the public”. She added: “If we accept the fact this evil can happen and not be seen would [it] mean other kids might be suffering same right now and no one can see it?”

Jackie Mahoney said it was “so important that the cycle of blaming social workers is broken and a whole system accountability approach is taken”.

Dr Godred Boahen urged the government not to turn the serious case review “into an ‘investigation’ into social work”. He added: “Otherwise we’ll lose the focus on practice improvement and start another round of social work-bashing.”

Some messages pointed to the impact on morale among child protection social workers in the wake of the public, media and political backlash.

“So glad I am retired. Why would anyone choose SW as a career?” said Ros Hutchinson.

Manchesterains added: “This is why I choose not to work in UK child protection work (along with the very very high reported burn out rates).”

Nina Chaudhry called on social work’s leadership to “advocate on behalf of their workers and the profession”, adding: “Lessons should be learnt, are constantly being learnt but pathologising the workers will achieve nothing for the children who need them most.”

Many highlighted the added difficulty social workers have faced practising during Covid. Arthur's horrific abuse took place during the first lockdown of 2020.

Stara said: “People do not realise the pressure and stress we were under working through the pandemic. How parents and families made it difficult for us to gain the voices of the children in our care. How families used ‘isolating due to Covid’ to delay our work further.”

YOTworker said: “The minimum contact we were allowed to have with children during the first lockdown was terrifying. As restrictions eased I spent most of the time walking the streets and around parks with young people which was far from the ideal way to undertake YOT intervention.”

Kim Scragg said: “I believe and still think too much of this work is done virtually and all professionals need to start regularly visiting families. Those that preach have sat in the comfort of their own home.”

Wider systemic issues were also highlighted. John Marriot said: “From my experience, retention at all levels is a problem in social work. In one local authority, over 90 per cent of staff from director to social workers were on short-term contracts. It was a revolving door. For children and families a total lack of consistency.”

Amie called for "better funding, more support workers, more admin staff/business support, less paperwork, better IT systems that don’t keep crashing, less panels, fewer layers of management…”

Hanna B observed: “It isn’t social workers who kill children but they do have a responsibility to protect and safeguard. However, years and years of underfunding and cuts have impacted on their ability to do this safely in some areas. This context shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Cath Holmstrom said greater focus needed to be put on “retention and post qualifying support and development rather than the pre-entry phase”.

Suzannah Claire believed having more social workers in schools would help. “I was part of a pilot with the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care and the results were incredible… We need more integrated working not another organisation.”

Perhaps the most powerful testimony, however, came from a non-social worker. Sophie Borrett, a speech therapist with adults, said: “I have total respect for social workers and more so for those who work with children.

“Even if social workers were well funded and perceived as heroes, I couldn’t contemplate the stress and distress of doing this job. Utter respect for you all.”