It’s a grim old life as a social worker. I’ve always felt rather sorry for them because of the awful reputation they seem to have. The title of my new one-off comedy, Damned, says it all really; if they do something right, nothing happens, but if they make a bad judgement and something terrible happens, then opprobrium upon opprobrium is heaped upon them.
There aren’t many TV programmes made about social workers. If you think about how many hospital dramas there are, the difference is striking. People have such stereotypical views of what social workers are – from the 1950s “Lady Almoner” in her tweed suit, who is posh, went to Benenden and dispenses her advice everywhere, to the well-meaning, hessian bag-carrying, hippy in her sandals and socks. It is not, unsurprisingly, like that any more.
My mum’s been a social worker all her life and she did it really well. She’s 80 now and she still sits on various tribunals and panels. She’s a person I really admire, someone a huge number of people go to for advice, someone who can’t say “no” if she’s asked for help. I was ten when she trained as a social worker. She originally worked in mental health and then moved into child protection but I can remember, as a child, seeing her go out in the middle of the night to section people. It was a very, very demanding job.
Nobody ever wants to see a social worker at their door. They’re not coming to praise your choice of outfit for the day, after all! They’re coming about something serious, which may result in a child being taken into care. Inevitably people are going to be really angry when a social worker turns up at their house and we all know that there are a lot of people whose impulse control is zilch. Facing a situation like that is really frightening. In theory, no social worker would ever go into a dangerous situation alone; they should always have police with them. But I suppose, through a mixture of cuts and people/resources not being available, or just through a sense of the job being safer than it actually is, this happens quite a lot.
People think social workers have a kind of punitive edge to the way they work but their priority is protecting children. Parenting, even for the most together, wealthy, well-educated families, is not easy. And people who struggle with drug or alcohol problems, people who are too young or too immature, sometimes simply cannot parent children in an acceptable way. Of course, social workers also have to deal with terrible, extreme cases of cruelty or neglect – the kind of things that hit the headlines – but on a day-to-day basis they are just there to support parents who are struggling. They’re not coming to tell you off; they’re coming to say, “How are things? What can we do to help?”
Government cuts haven’t helped. The Sure Start scheme [an initiative under Gordon Brown to improve child care, early education and health], for example, offered very good support to parents but that had its budget cut. When support networks like that disappear, it makes it so much harder for families.
I think people being out of work, benefits being cut and money being tight are all factors that stress families out – and when families are stressed out, a lot of the time it’s the poor kids who lose out. They’re the ones who often bear the brunt of their parents’ frustration. They’re the ones without new shoes, without proper food. It’s a really bleak situation and I can only hope that the Government doesn’t keep on the way that it’s going.
There are also, of course, problems caused by inexperienced social workers being given situations that are too complex for them to deal with, or experienced social workers, who should pretty much be able to do what they want, being bound by red tape. But I have never met a social worker who hasn’t wanted to do their best – it’s an incredibly important job but is very rarely acknowledged.
I wrote Damned with Morwenna Banks because I wanted to show this other side. We wrote it as a comedy – I think that if you’re a comedian, what you have to do first is the jokes – but we’ve mixed and matched a bit so that you get something that can be watched as a drama.
The role I play is Rose. She’s a child protection officer whose own life is being reflected back at her. She’s kind and hard-working but just doesn’t have enough hours in the day. She’s stressed out, sleep deprived, menopausal and bad-tempered... actually, everybody I know is like that, me included! I don’t know anyone who is serene, apart from some women in Dulwich who have so many staff that if they’re not serene, they bloody well ought to be!
Alan Davies plays my colleague, Al, a gentle but somewhat cynical soul. He’s been doing the job for too long, but when it comes to the crunch he’s a softy – I think there are an awful lot of social workers like that. When you talk to them, they take the p*** and make jokes about the job but actually, at their core, there’s a good person who just wants to make a difference.
I hope Damned will show people what social workers’ lives are really like. It’s an incredibly hard job – I don’t know how they do it, I really don’t – and it’s time they had a pat on the back.
Playhouse Presents: Damned is on tonight at 9:00pm on Sky Arts