Is social work Britain’s most dangerous job?

Radio Times spends a day on the front line with the professionals working to protect Britain's children

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9.00am Roll call of misery

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It’s a sharp winter’s morning and on the top floor of an office block by one of the main arteries into Bristol, senior social worker Ben Crang is preparing for the daily morning meeting with his team. He is among the most criticised professionals in Britain, abused by those who see social workers as home wreckers, do-gooders or incompetent.

Crang and his unit are one of four assessment teams that service the city. Their catchment area covers much of its southern slopes; sprawling housing estates rife with poverty, crime and drug abuse. The child protection team works at the acute end of the scale, assessing new cases, implementing protection plans and, in extreme cases, applying to the courts for children to be taken into care.

Sunshine streams into the open-plan office flooding it with light, and the atmosphere is relaxed. Nothing hints at the litany of misery that unfolds in the next hour, as Crang runs through the calls that have come into the department. This morning’s list is fairly typical: 12 calls concerning 28 children.

“We’ve got two children referred by another local authority,” he says, consulting his notes. “One of their relatives is in custody for gang-related violence and the family is at risk, so they have been moved here temporarily. It’s messy. One of the adults has already stabbed someone, so our role is to ensure that the children are OK.

“Next is an anonymous referral. An underage teenager who is sexually active, a younger sibling smoking cannabis, an absent mother who spends long periods away from home and an illegal dog.

“Then we’ve got two children from a family who are already known to us. Mum’s ex-partner grabbed her by the throat, she called the police and when they arrived she was threatening to kill her partner, oblivious to the effect it was having on the children, who were very distressed. The mother has a history of domestic violence and drug abuse, so we’ll arrange a visit.”

Crang’s case list continues. The level of detail is sometimes harrowing: a six-year-old boy found crying in his room, his drug-addict mother selling his toys to pay for her next fix; a child who has allegedly witnessed a stabbing incident, barely parented by an alcoholic mother and a controlling, drug-addicted criminal step parent; five siblings with different fathers caught in the drunken violence between their mother and her current partner; the young boy whose naughtiness prompted his stepfather to threaten to cut off his hands with a sword…

It’s a depressing catalogue of violence, drugs and alcohol, neglect and sexual abuse. And in the time it has taken Crang to read through his notes and discuss each case, another four calls have been made to the duty officer.

10.05am Emergency payout

The files are allocated and the team – senior social workers earn between £32,000 and £34,000 per year – disperses. Each social worker holds an average of 22 caseloads – each and every one involving one or more children. New work is taken on as cases are closed down or passed on to a different team who work on long-term cases.

Our first visit is to a rundown bed and breakfast to check on a foreign couple who police stopped leaving the country after arresting the husband. Crang’s interest is limited to the couple’s ten-year-old child. Because the father’s passport has been confiscated by police he cannot work or claim benefits, so Crang hands over £95 so that the family can buy food.

11.00am Taking in kids

Crang consults his watch. Two visits have been planned for the remainder of the morning but one of these, a check on two parents who are coming off drugs, has been cancelled.

Contrary to popular belief, social workers don’t have the power to remove children from their families. “The law doesn’t allow us to take children,” explains Crang. “The courts have that power. The police have very temporary powers where they can take a child out of a situation where they are at immediate risk, but that’s their power, not ours.”

Is there too much emphasis on the idea that it’s best to keep a child with its family? “There’s a genuine debate around this, whether children are better off with their families. Every social worker can think of children where if only they had been taken away when they were younger – but it never reached the point in law where that could be possible.

“Perhaps the law needs to be changed. Maybe children need to be adopted more. But how much will society accept children being taken from families? The debate is about the system, not about whether social workers are conciliatory to parents or not.”

12 noon Domestic abuse

We return to the office in his scruffy hatchback, a Vauxhall Astra, 1998 vintage, to meet a young victim of domestic abuse. Now in her early 20s, she met her ex-partner when she was 14. After their daughter was born he became dangerously violent, not just to her but to members of her family.

Initially she was reluctant to leave her partner but was persuaded by Crang to move, with her child (now aged four), to a safe house out of the city. She describes hair-raising episodes of violence, yet admits she was unable to recognise she was a victim until she had left home.

“I used to wake up and think, will he be in a good mood or a bad one? I thought I wasn’t terrified of him but actually I was. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking it was normal for someone to hit her [the way he hit me].”

Crang takes up the story: “Luckily, her daughter is young enough not to be affected permanently, but it’s horrible when you don’t get there in time and children have started to internalise the violence, either becoming withdrawn, or violent and anti-social.

“If the mother isn’t going to act protectively to her children by leaving an abusive relationship then points are reached when the children have to come out of the family.

“But there’s no getting away from it – if you take a child out of any family environment, no matter how abusive it is, it’s going to do some damage, and that has to be a factor. So to get to the point where you decide the child is better served by coming out of the family than remaining in it, that is quite an extreme thing to do.”

2.00pm The scourge of drugs

On our way to another home visit I ask Crang whether things have grown worse in his job in the past 20 years?

“We deal with the dark side of humanity: sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and emotional abuse. The drugs are worse, they’re more prevalent. Other things might have gone on unknown years ago that we know more about now. Perhaps we’re just more aware of it.”

3.20pm Respect for parents

Back in the office, Crang checks on the outcomes of the day’s other visits and completes some of his own paperwork. Over a cup of tea he reflects again on how the children, who are the focus of his job, have changed.

“There’s a debate about the authority of parents being lost and children losing respect for authority generally, and you can feel that. Perhaps it might be down to a lack of role models and not having a good parent themselves. There’s more anti-social behaviour in the community; schools have more ill discipline to deal with.”

4.10pm Only the brave

Crang rises from his desk and pulls on his jacket. One of the female social workers has a home visit to a very violent father, and he is accompanying her as back-up. “We send social workers out in situations that in any other profession, with the health and safety risk, would not be allowed.

“The police go out in pairs and they have stab vests, yet we go out and knock on doors cold. I think it goes unrecognised exactly how brave and courageous these social workers are, and the dangerous people they deal with. They are brave people who just get on with it. The majority of social workers are women and I’m not making a gender distinction, but I admire them.”

Does the strain ever get on top of him?

He shakes his head. “You need an ability, when you walk away from work, to leave it there. If you take it home with you, you would probably struggle to come back every day.

“Protecting the most vulnerable children in society has to be valuable. We might not be valued but we know the effect. If we weren’t there we know there would be a lot more suffering than there is.”

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 January 2012.

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Documentary series Protecting Our Children begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2 and BBC HD.