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Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Monday, 2 November 2009
Social workers: A frontline view

Baby P and Victoria Climbie

In the aftermath of the death and subsequent public outrage over the case of Baby P - now identified as Peter Connolly - Panorama gained access to child protection workers in Coventry in a bid to understand the challenges of social work in Britain today.


On a routine visit to investigate an anonymous tip-off of child neglect, the initial signs of trouble were visible before newly-qualified social worker Sarb even reached the front door.

"Crikey, there is something smeared on the window," she said as she headed for the house.

It's always in the back of your mind that something will go wrong because you're working with people who are vulnerable, marginalised and often don't want us involved in their lives and they can be dangerous to their children
Andy, social work manager

Sarb was investigating a complaint that three children were at the window of a house, naked, and that dirty nappies were being smeared on walls and windows.

Two hours later, Sarb put a call into her office at Coventry Children's Services to seek advice on whether or not to request police involvement in the investigation.

Contrary to what most people believe, social workers do not have the power to search a house or remove children without parental consent or a court order. In emergency situations, the police are called to begin a joint investigation, as they have the power to remove children on the spot.

Anonymous tips

Once Sarb had persuaded the mother of the children to allow her into the house, she discovered that two of the children were sleeping on a single mattress with no bedding and that there was both dog and human excrement on a quilt and floor near where the children slept.

More worrisome, Sarb noticed that one of the children, a little girl, was covered in bruises and had what appeared to be bite marks. In the end, police were called.

This was just one of the calls that the Panorama team was allowed to trace in its time spent with Coventry's emergency referral and assessment service - the frontline teams who respond to tip-offs of child abuse or neglect and who deal with around 200 calls a week.

Sarb explained that with anonymous tip-offs, it is often an angry neighbour or a disgruntled former spouse who are making malicious complaints, but she added, child protection workers must assess each one with the assumption that there might be a child in need of protection.

During the time spent with the team in Coventry, the unit dealt with suspected cases of neglect and abuse, a 12-year-old girl who had consensual sex with a 17-year-old boy - but in the eyes of the law it is rape - and a single father who struggled with alcohol while trying to win more access to his four children who had been placed in care.

Workload worries

Social workers say that despite the reports into what went wrong with both the Victoria Climbie case in 2000 and the more recent death of Baby Peter, they fear more tragedies could happen.

You're so overstretched. I've got 39 cases - how can I give them 100%?
Sarah, social worker

The reason? Workload.

Public diligence is running high after the death of little Peter Connolly, with emergency calls up, on average by 30%.

Most councils say social workers should not look after more than 13 children at any given time.

In Coventry, social worker Sarah, with two years experience, has 39 children to assess on her file and said she feels like she is "fire-fighting" at every turn, leading her to worry that she is not giving her families enough of her time.

"You're so overstretched. I've got 39 cases - how can I give them 100%? I want to give them more, I want to give them quality work and I don't think I do.

"I sit at home thinking, oh my God, that could be me. It could be anyone who works in this building," she said of the public blame levelled at the care workers in the Baby P case.

Never again?

Andy, a social work manager, said he fears that risks remain in a strained system.

"It's always in the back of your mind that something will go wrong because you're working with people who are vulnerable, marginalised and often don't want us involved in their lives and they can be dangerous to their children," he said.

Generic child - anonymous
Reports recommend social workers have a caseload of 10-15 families

Andy said, as a manager recruiting new social workers is a priority, but across the UK there is an estimated shortage of 13,000 workers.

Those who are in the profession admit that they are over-stretched and they take off more sick days than any other branch of the public sector. They also have a low retention rate.

Social worker Lucy said: "The only way I think they can start to even think about getting more social workers in child protection is to pay...more money than other areas."

From experienced colleagues to newly-trained Sarb, social workers all seem to live - and work - in the fear that if a child dies or is seriously injured on their watch, they will take the blame.

"There but for the grace of God go any of us in social work," said Andy.

Panorama: The Child Protectors, BBC One, Monday, 2 November at 2030 GMT.



SEE ALSO
Baby P staff sacked for failings
Wednesday, 29 April 2009, 18:38 GMT |  London
Action urged on child protection
Thursday, 12 March 2009, 17:07 GMT |  England
Baby P official fired without pay
Monday, 8 December 2008, 19:33 GMT |  London
Panorama 1974: Battered babies
Monday, 4 May 2009, 14:32 GMT |  Panorama

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