I finally managed to sit down and watch the first episode of BBC2’s new series about social workers (Protecting Our Children) last night. I was immensely moved.
I have felt for several years that social workers get a raw deal in this country. The subtitle of this week’s episode was “Damned if they do, damned if they don’t”, which just about sums it up for me. What I thought was so good about this programme was that it was fairly balanced, showing us the ins-and-outs of the case and allowing us to make our own judgements. This was brave, given the highly emotive subject matter.
At varying different points in the programme I felt sympathy for both Toby’s parents and the social work team who were trying to help them. It was clear that both Tiffany and Mark loved Toby, but it was also clear that neither of them really knew how to show that love effectively. Watching their half-hearted attempts to discipline him – one minute putting him in a very painful looking arm-lock, next hugging and kissing him to try to make him behave – anyone could see that what they really needed was someone to teach them parenting skills.
The problem was that none of the social workers assigned to his case (among the many others they were also dealing with at the time) had the time or resources to really help them with this. Any help they did offer was treated with great suspicion by Mark, who seemed convinced from the start that they were simply there to cause trouble and ultimately take Toby away. Coming up against his hostility, poor Tiffany could only bleat feebly from the corner, clearly desperate for them to help her, but too afraid of Mark to go against his wishes. And with good reason, as it turned out, as they eventually split when he hit her during a row.
However, the points where I felt most sorry for Tiffany and Mark were at their case conferences. Here were these too largely uneducated and frightened adults, one of whom (Mark) certainly appeared to have learning difficulties, being made to sit at a big table in a conference room with six or seven professionals, listening to them talk about “interim care orders” and “meaningful interaction”. It was clear from the lost look on both their faces that they not only felt hopelessly ganged up on, but they also didn’t have a hope of understanding most of the language that was being talked at them. Often, the professionals talked about them in the third person, as if they weren’t even there, and didn’t even try to include them in the discussion. It made me wonder why they had invited them to be part of the process at all. However, it was clear that the social worker’s hands were largely tied by bureaucracy and the rigid set of rules and criteria which they are duty-bound to follow, regardless of the individual nature of each case.
When Tiffany finally decided that it would be best for both Toby and his new baby sister to be adopted, my heart broke for her. It was clear to everyone involved that Toby’s arrested development had improved in the few months he was in foster care and she took the only decision she could. However, everyone involved in the case, including her individual social worker, obviously wished that she could have been helped to sort herself out, as there is no doubt she would have made a terrific mother under just slightly better circumstances, particularly with Mark out of her life.
Parenting is hard, and we don’t come out of the womb instinctively knowing how to do it. As the new health and social care bill continues to be debated, it seems that social worker’s lives are only going to get harder. The short-termism of successive governments means that the long-term parenting programmes and grass-roots help which these families need so desperately is unlikely ever to be provided for them. This means that children like Toby, who at the end of the programme was still to be adopted, fall through the cracks into our broken care system far too easily.
Something needs to change. I only wish I could be hopeful that it will.