Ironically, given the title, the preponderant comment I’ve seen about this Panorama (even before it was aired tonight) is a complaint about a lack of balance. Social workers (because it did seem mainly to be social workers making such comments on my social media when a post by Community Care magazine popped up on my Facebook feed) are not, it turns out, clairvoyant – either when it comes to predicting the risk of future harm to a child or when predicting whether an unseen documentary will show balance. Because it was actually pretty balanced.
I’m not completely impartial, of course – I have two connections to this documentary that I should own up to before going further. One is that the journalist who was behind it and who fronted it (Louise Tickle) is a former client of mine (and a colleague in other capacities), and the other is that two of the parents interviewed for the programme are my former clients. I’m not going to comment on their case beyond inviting those who are interested to read the judgment, and to observe that, insofar as ‘my’ case is concerned, the documentary was fair and balanced and properly reflected the court’s findings after a long and careful court process and trial. At least some of the other cases covered are also the subject of published judgments so anyone who is worried about a lack of balance can check those out for themselves. Just go to Bailii.org and search for keywords ‘Hereford’ and ‘Keehan’. If you need to narrow your search you could add in the word ‘egregious’ or ‘failure’.
Anyway, I was shocked at the time of my Keehan / Herefordshire case, about the fifty shades of dismay that emerged as the case progressed, and I defy anyone who has read the judgment to be at all surprised to hear the sort of comments that came from the adoptive parents in that case (voiced up by actors to protect their identity and those of the children). Of course they are angry and upset.
What I came here to say – intentionally pretty much immediately after I watched the show, since everyone else has shot from the hip – is this…
It is so depressing to see people rush to judgment before they have even seen the programme. Based on their jaundiced views of the media generally, their negative views of the previous work of this journalist or upon their general defensiveness against any criticism of their profession.
It is just as depressing to see them shoot off having seen the show without going away to read the actual findings of the court (it was pretty obvious from some of the post-show comments I’ve seen that some still believed the show to have aired spin rather than the conclusions of the court – even though the judgments were specifically quoted).
It’s even more depressing to see people (mostly social workers) complaining that a journalist has chosen to write about local authority failure rather than all the good things that social workers do. Social workers are under-resourced, over-worked, their task, skills and dedication under-appreciated, and they are often wrongly criticised (most of which is repeatedly acknowledged in the documentary by the way). But people don’t make documentaries about stuff that is working ok. Firstly because nobody would watch it. And secondly because it’s much more important to expose things that are going wrong. Over the last few years I’ve learnt quite a lot about how print and broadcast journalism works and I’d bet my house that you’d never get such a show commissioned let alone to air (if you want to get a sense of how much work goes into getting something like this through see Louise’s tweet thread earlier here).
More to the point : this was not an example of social workers wrongly criticised by the venal media. This was an example of local authorities RIGHTLY criticised – by a judge. Repeatedly. After proper scrutiny. And of a public service broadcaster bringing that – already largely public – information to a wider audience, and in a format that they can better engage with than several lengthy detailed and excoriating judgments. I’ve seen several outraged comments from tweeters who had clearly never heard of the twins case until they saw this programme. But it’s all out there in the public domain. That’s the power of the broadcast media. It has reach and it has impact that mere publication of a judgment in some internet backwater.
And what I also noticed when I watched this programme was that – right from the start – the script was actually pretty sympathetic about the chronic difficulties social workers face – asking in the opening section ‘Are social workers properly supported to decide who is at risk and who isn’t?’, and going on to involve respected social work academics to help show the systemic problems that sometimes contribute to or cause failures of the sort that happened in these Herefordshire cases, and which touched upon the impossible decisions that social workers are often called upon to make.
There was no blaming of individual social workers by the presenter or academic interviewees (although Mrs Justice Lieven had given permission for the social workers in one case to be named, in fact they weren’t). There was scrutiny of the system. Which on any sensible view has gone horribly wrong for quite a lot of families in Herefordshire. And possibly more widely. At a time when the Care Review is about to be published and our news is full again of horrific stories of small children dying and possible safeguarding failures this sort of public debate is pretty critical. Difficult, but you don’t solve a problem by ignoring it and patting social workers on the back. You solve a problem by making systemic change that supports families and supports social workers.
No, the only people you heard in the programme directly criticising social individual workers, attributing to them motivations which I know most social workers would feel hurt, uncomfortable and affronted to hear – was the families (both parents and in one case a young person who had been in foster care). They were aggrieved. They were hurting. They were angry. At the harm caused, at the time lost with their families, at the stigma, confusion and anxiety they had felt and continued to feel.
Their perspectives are of course not ‘neutral’ (whatever that means), and what they choose to focus on is inevitably only going to be a tiny part of the bigger picture. But it’s their story and their experience, and it’s how it felt to them. They are describing what state interference with their Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights feels like – they are bringing the law off the page. This is how it feels to lots of families – both to those who are actually ‘wronged’ by social services, and sometimes to those who are caused pain by social workers who are simply doing the right and necessary thing. And I think we should respect and listen to those stories and give them some validation. It is easier to discredit or turn away from those accounts that are dissonant from our internal narratives that we are good actors doing the right and necessary thing to protect and rescue children – but part of good judgment (as a social worker, a lawyer or a judge) is about tolerating, listening to and thinking about the impact of our actions on others – and asking whether stepping in and removing might be more harmful than leaving a child at home. If we stop listening to parents when they push back – even though they sometimes say things that are difficult to hear, unfair, or even unreliable – then we may well find we resemble the criticisms of some of those panorama parents rather more than we care to believe.
Those parents talked about feeling judged and not listened to. When I see those hackneyed old knee-jerk complaints of ‘but it’s not fair, Miss!’ that I’ve heard a hundred times before whenever anyone wants to talk about social work gone wrong, I think those parents might have a point. They aren’t always listened to. And sometimes they are right.
Any professional with life changing responsibilities has to be able to tolerate a level of challenge and a level of accountability. That’s hard (I know it’s hard because lawyers get exactly the same blame for judgment calls we’ve made, and for things that we can’t change, too). But it’s not really optional if we want to be trusted and respected.
I’ve not tried to re-locate and quote from specific tweets and comments I’ve seen – I’ve been intentionally broad brush about the themes I saw this morning, and again post-airing. But it’s right to say that this ‘Why don’t you ever talk about how we save children from abuse?’ whataboutery-type response to journalism that has scrutiny rather than PR as its aim, is fortunately not the whole picture. From what I have seen so far, the show has also prompted a much wider range of responses than that, many positive or at least constructive. And that is what it’s about : Public awareness, debate, disagreement and maybe change – not shutting down of criticism and battening down of hatches.
And now I should stop fretting about stuff I’ve seen on the internet and go to bed.