Protecting Our Children

Episode 2 of Protecting Our Children aired on BBC2 tonight. And if it didn’t bring a tear in Episode One, Episode Two will definitely do it for you. I only caught the second half of Episode 1 last week, and was left wondering whether there might be some gaps in coverage (above and beyond the necessary editing of a massive amount of information into an hour’s tv viewing). But I made a point of watching the first half of Episode 1 on replay tonight, and I’ve got to say I’m now totally converted and overwhelmed by this brilliant series.

Tonight’s episode struck a real chord – those cases where clients make a remarkable turnaround are so fantastic, and so awful. Because you are hoping against hope it won’t go wrong. But sadly, most often, it does. It is no surprise that the social workers who bear the responsibility for making the judgment call to terminate those mother and baby foster placements drop like flies. Its a terribly stressful job, especially if you put your heart into it like the social worker in today’s case. Some social workers become hardened, no doubt to protect themselves, but the best are warm and sympathetic – and of course all the more vulnerable because of that.

It was a surreal experience watching the #protectingourchildren hashtag on twitter tonight. It cascaded down my screen almost to fast to read – faster that #bbcqt. It seemed to be a mixture of “that social worker / foster carer is amazing”, “social workers do such a hard job”, “heartbreaking”, messages of hope that the mother would succeed, and angry comments about how irredeemably awful the parents were: “they should be sterilised” and “disgusting”, “how could she choose drink over her baby”. These latter display a lack of understanding of just what a big achievement it was for the mother depicted to break free from her unhealthy relationship, remain dry and parent apparently very well for the first five weeks of the baby’s life – albeit that it could not be sustained. 

I’m really pleased that this series seems to be generating a certain amount of goodwill to social workers, and it certainly is a reminder that what we lawyers scrutinise and criticise in witness statements and in cross examination, was a real lived experience for the social worker – with all the shouting, crying, noise, smell, emotion, hope, frustration, stress, danger, responsibility and fear that goes with it. Lawyers criticise and defend their client – they bear responsibility for doing a job well or poorly, but the burden of decision making rest elsewhere. Social workers must bear responsibility for making decisions in the field and then often have to defend themselves in court. I wish I could say that the kind of social work demonstrated is a reflection of what I see day in and day out in care cases I deal with. In truth it’s not. The picture of social work we see is far more inconsistent than that. But this series is a reminder that the court based professions must constantly remind themselves of what it’s really like to be out there, working against the tide. And on top of that, what the show has yet to tackle is the chronically high caseload and lack of resources that most social workers struggle with.

At court recently we were all struck by the young social worker who, having weathered quite an attack in cross examination from myself and another counsel, chirpily joked “thanks for going easy on me”. It was his first experience in the witness box and he made a point of being polite and friendly throughout the rest of the trial. Often social workers are ill prepared for cross examination, and misperceive the experience as personal attack – this is partly a product of inadequate training about how the court system operates and what a lawyer’s role is, and partly because social workers as a profession are used to being under attack. David Norgrove was partially right when he identified a dysfunctional relationship between the social work and legal professions, but this young social worker was a breath of fresh air. I hope he doesn’t bring the barriers up and become like so many of his stony faced colleagues. He will be a poorer social worker for it.

For anyone who has not seen this series there is a useful guide on Community Care, as well as on the BBC website.

8 thoughts on “Protecting Our Children

  1. Provincial Solicitor

    I have not seen the series – sounded a little too much of a busman’s holiday to me – but agree with the sentiment that we should all remember the (not inconsiderable) pressure fellow professionals are under. I have a sympathetic bias since my wife is a social worker (not child protection – that would be too much!), but the majority of my professional experience is that social workers have a genuine vocation and really want to achieve the best results for the children they are involved with.

  2. i’m not saying being family counsel is easy (apart of course from the fact that you don’t seem to need to know anything about civil procedure, snark) but i really wouldn’t be a social worker.

  3. This programme presents examples from public law cases where neglect, harm and their attendant causative factors are evident and obvious. Most of it doesn’t apply to private law contact and custody disputes and it’s a mistake for the professionals to assume a crossover. From what I can see, most private law disputes arise from imbalances in parenting arrangements where the parent with care is unwilling to cede control and will go to some length to resist change.

  4. Family Solicitor

    I have been finding the series slightly frustrating in that in editing down to fit the time-slot it does miss out a lot of what must be going on – I have seen a lot of comments elsewhere about how the Social Workers we re “determined from the start to take the children” and about the lack of any support or advice on how to improve given to the parents. From my experience in Care cases I am very confident that the paretns were in fact getting a significant amount of support/advice.

    Obviously it would be difficult to include all of this, but it wasn’t mentioned in any of the narration either – in the last episode, I felt it could have been explained that the foster carer’s role would include advice, modelling good parenting, feeding back on quality of care etc, and could also have mentioned whetehr Marva had been referred to, or was seeing, other agencies to help her address her drinking, for instance.

  5. The BBC showed a rigged and biased commercial in a vain attempt to soften the tarnished image of our UK social workers !A dysfunctional couple with no furniture and drinking problems were cruelly separated so that the pregnant girl could have her baby .Even this handpicked setting did not disguise the reality of the “contract” signed by the mother not to see the baby’s father.You saw him just once but it was “one strike and you are out” so she lost her baby to adoption by strangers.
    The BBC were allowed to follow a real case but if distraught parents had produced their own case showing their pain at being separated from children they loved and cared for ;both they and the producers would have been jailed !
    Thousand of parents, mostly mothers ,all over the UK ,have had their children brutally removed by social services and have been prevented from telling the public.Mothers whose babies have been removed at birth,have been gagged by threats of imprisonment if they dare to tell the world of their plight,and so have the newpapers ,the tv stations,and other media.Some of these parents may deserve to have their children removed ,but do even those parents deserve to be gagged so that their arguments cannot be made public?

    This is not all however.When parents are finally allowed contact with their children “in care” they are gagged again ,and so are the children ! Parents are forbidden to say they miss their children and want them back,forbidden to discuss the court case,and if they are foreign visitors they are forbidden to talk with their children in their native language ! Any infringement of these draconian regulations means that contact is immediately stopped,sometimes for good !

  6. I hope the series meets with a generally favourable response because another and more in-depth series could include more about the workload demands involved, the multi-disciplinary nature of child protection investigations and work, and those who assist in the day to day care of the children involved – foster carers.

    Indeed a whole series on its own could usefully address the nature of ‘parent with child’ fostering and the training and tasks involved. These types of placements – as shown in episode 2 – are alternatives to residential assessment and to the almost kneejerk decision that is often made to separate mothers from babies and then assess their parenting skills whilst living apart from their child, during family centre contact assessment and observations.

  7. […] that there is much good work, much genuine effort and care as demonstrated by the BBC Protecting Our Children series). I still worry about it. I am not sure I have done the right thing. Perhaps I am a […]

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