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.