Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Channel 4 Dispatches "Undercover Social Worker" - 7th June 2010

Like Stanley Milgram's famous electric shock experiments, this programme (filmed undercover in a child protection team) was ethically flawed but impossible to ignore. I found myself feeling disturbed by the under-cover approach and concerned for the workers and service users covertly filmed. I hope that enough has been done to protect the identities of service users involved.

For me it raised four compelling issues:
  1. Overworked staff, suffering from stress and low morale. "No time, no support," said one of the workers. Several felt out of their depth. John, the undercover reporter employed as an unqualified family support worker, was allocated a very difficult case on his first day. He also undertook a child protection investigation. There was poor induction. "Our induction processes are crap," said a manager. Everyone was hard pressed and had too much to do. Many were working more than their contracted hours. As a result some workers were depressed and tearful. All seemed anxious and stressed. "The job's too much. It's not do-able," said one. 
  2. Cumbersome and obstructive procedures and administrative systems distracting staff from their work. John struggled with a 40 page assessment form. The paperwork was described as "overwhelming". Many forms were duplicated. A business support manager described the procedural manual as "totally unworkable" saying that it was written in "... a language which is totally alien to most humans". There were complaints of spending too much time in front of the computer. One person estimated that one hour of client contact resulted in 3 -4 hours of paperwork.
  3. Despair and cynicism. One social worker said, "You get your tick for performance, but you've done nothing meaningful." Another commented that "The work of a social worker is just to write reports and make referrals." Most shockingly John's manager advised him to protect himself by making sure that cases were closed, because then, if the child died, he wouldn't be held accountable. She said that the real problem was with cases "sitting at the back of the draw" but still technically open. "If one of those goes off on you," she said, "God help you."
  4. Those in need not getting the service they require. Members of the team seemed prepared to allow a looked after fifteen-year-old to sleep rough. A social worker remarked that visiting children on child protection plans once every ten days did nothing to keep them safe. Another said, "How's the actual child? I don't know because I've not seen them for two weeks doing all this administration." A corporate objective of closing cases had failed to put "slack in the system" and there seemed to be no alternative to continuing to reduce the numbers of children receiving help further.
Was this just an isolated example of things going badly wrong? Sadly it sits all too neatly alongside what we know about rising caseloads and workforce shortages. It is congruent with academic research which shows how the ICS approach to case recording results in needless administration and associated tokenism in recording. There were just too many echos in the programme of what we read in the summaries of so many serious case reviews. It had the ring of truth.

The programme should act like an electric shock (a real one, not a fake one like Milgram's) to all those members of the children's services establishment who have presided over what has happened to statutory child protection. It should be a wake-up call. Sadly I fear that there will be many sitting quietly on the sidelines hoping that in a few days most people who saw it will have forgotten quite how shocking it was. I hope I'm wrong.