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The uphill struggle to protect children

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On average, a director of children’s services has responsibility for 80,000 children - equivalent to a full Wembley stadium. 

You have to ensure that each one of those children is safe, healthy and educated and you are responsible for the performance of all the schools in your area, despite their autonomy. 

You go to the stadium and look out from the dug out.

Your team (of social workers) is on the pitch ready to act.

You look into the eyes of every one of those 80,000 children and mentally ask: ‘do you need help?’; ‘are you the one who will be physically abused and possibly killed by those who purport to care for you?’; ‘are you being sexually exploited?’; ‘are you living in fear of domestic abuse?’

And none of those children has it written on their foreheads. 

So you look at your players with a range of experience and expertise and, if you’re lucky, on permanent contracts. 

How to deploy them to best effect? While you’re considering this, you notice some of them have left the pitch because savings needed to be made - or another manager’s offered them a golden hello.

You give your now smaller team the go-ahead to start the game by assessing and intervening, and they do a good job. 

Then the regulatory body turns up unannounced and uses the ‘Scale of Perfect’ to measure you against.

We have learnt, sometimes at our cost, that the view from the top is that improvement will only be secured by telling authorities they are not good enough. So you come out mid-table at best (requiring improvement) and some hit the relegation zone (inadequate), with a new coaching programme (ie an action plan) which may or may not have relevance to the work you need to do but certainly occupies your time and energy and demoralises your staff. 

The unlucky few - not so few anymore, of course - are encouraged or required to make their way to the coaches’ retirement home.

Meanwhile, a few more leave the pitch and it’s difficult to transfer in (beg, steal or borrow) new people to come and do this job. But fear not, the players’ agents (the agencies) are here to help out – but knowing the market they are charging double, and more, what you used to pay. Well, you’ll just have to have fewer staff then to stay within budget. 

And now the analogy can be stretched no further because a real tragedy occurs – they always will; no child can ever be guaranteed safety. 

No director of children’s services or social worker has ever killed a child in the course of their job – conversely, social workers have been killed by the people they are looking after.

Social workers and their managers are disproportionately vilified for doing a job that really no one else wants to think deeply about.

Most people are rightly appalled by the death of a child, it strikes a deep chord within us, but the mass media, the government and the public stop short of a proper debate about responsibility and attack social workers who frankly can’t do right for doing wrong.

It’s time those who carry out society’s tough jobs – and those who manage them – are supported in doing this work, otherwise there will soon be no-one left to do it.

The author is a director of children’s services who has asked to remain anonymous

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Readers' comments (1)

  • We often hear that there is a need for public debate over an issue - but this is one that genuinely deseves such a debate. The vilification of social workers and their senior managers is a serious concern - and risks making some jobs undo-able or unappointable. How true also to say that it is not social workers who kill children but the calls for retribution in the media are such that you might sometimes think it was.

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