Culture of blame only adds to risk

Social workers and the vulnerable people they help are not well served by the customary jump to point the finger, says Sandy Riddell

Misconceptions make it even harder for social workers to do their jobs. Picture: Getty

I would challenge anyone to find anything more tragic than the killing of a child, particularly when that child has died at the hands of the person they rely upon most.

As a human being, it is upsetting. As a professional social worker, heading an organisation which leads professional social workers, it is not only upsetting but also worrying. Worrying, because of the inevitable blame and finger pointing that is never far away from our profession.

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Social work is often talked of as a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” profession.

I don’t like that phrase, as it may lead those outside the profession to question the integrity of social workers, giving the implication, as it does, that it doesn’t seem to matter what they do. But what social workers do and what they don’t do matters a lot, not just to those who directly receive support from social work, but to the wider community as well.

And in terms of child protection, what social workers do is crucial. Whether working for local authorities or the health, third or independent sectors, they work with thousands of families every year to make sure they know how to bring up and look after their children well and how to nurture and care for them and how to keep them safe.

But when things go wrong, the public and the media have an appetite for someone to blame and, rightly or wrongly, they tend to blame social work.

Things do go wrong, of course they do – sometimes social workers make mistakes just as teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses and lawyers make mistakes. But social workers seem to be the default group to blame when a child is harmed.

I’ll give you an example. In August 2010, Theresa Riggi stabbed her three children to death in Edinburgh, before attempting her own suicide. When discussing this awful event, a BBC journalist told me her first reaction to the story was to ask the question, “Where were social work?”. Social workers, to the best of my knowledge, were not involved with this family and no one had said they were, but the presumption by this journalist (and she was not alone) was “something has gone wrong, children have been harmed, social work should have prevented this”.

This kind of reaction is all too common and not only is it incorrect, it has far-reaching consequences. It peddles the belief that social workers can prevent any child from being murdered. It promotes the belief that social workers are involved in all cases where children die. It promotes the belief that education, health, police and communities have no role to play. And it takes the focus off the real perpetrators – the person or persons who did actually kill the child – off the hook.

But more fundamentally than all of this, it damages a profession; a profession that, in the midst of unprecedented levels of poverty and drug and alcohol misuse, we depend upon more than ever.

Being a social worker working in child protection is a difficult and stressful job. We need a steady supply of talented, committed, compassionate people to do this job. And if we want quality people to come into social work and to join the army of those who do their best and more every day to protect some of the most vulnerable in society, we need to stop making their job harder by crushing their morale and constantly sticking the boot in, where it is not deserved.

What makes the pressure even worse though, is that social workers don’t stick up for themselves. They can’t. They are focused on the people they support and they applaud their achievements more than they do their own. They often won’t be identified in the press in case they are recognised going into people’s homes and they don’t talk about the people they work with, because that would be a breach of trust and confidence.

So, as the cases of the deaths of these children come to court, perhaps those preparing the media stories and those consuming them would consider looking at the whole picture and the real picture.

If social workers make mistakes, they will be dealt with and punished and their role in any such incident should indeed be highlighted, but we shouldn’t risk paralysing a profession in order to give the public the comfort of having someone to blame quickly.

No social worker killed any of these children and if we didn’t have good committed social workers, how many more children would be at risk of harm?​

• Sandy Riddell is president of the Association of Directors of Social Work