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Tuesday, November 25, 2008 

The short-term effects of a witch-hunt.

The Sun is now boasting of having received 1.1 million signatures to its petition for justice for Baby P. Even accepting that some of those will be duplicates, that anyone can sign the online version with just a name and an email, with some signing from abroad and that there may well have been group efforts to get the total up, it's still a mesmerising total, helped along by the pornographic detail of much of the coverage and the almost Diana-like sense of mourning which led reportedly to up to 1,000 spontaneously visiting the cemetery where his ashes were scattered. This was after the Sun reported that he had received no proper funeral; it subsequently turned out that this was completely inaccurate, but the paper quickly adjusted its coverage and no apology was forthcoming for the father of the child, the paper having appropriated his dead son for its own means. That this resembles the "grief tourism" which resulted in crowds visiting Soham during the summer when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing is unmentioned.

Also quickly becoming apparent is the effect that the media and Facebook-led witch-hunt is having on social workers themselves. As could have been expected, fearing that a terrible mistake on their part could lead to them being declared to have blood on their hands, the number of applications for child protection orders appears from evidence on the ground to have sky-rocketed. The Observer reported that in London and Leicestershire applications had as much as trebled from the usual average, while in Leeds the number of applications over a week was described as "unprecedented". Figures collected by Cafcass suggested that there had been a 26% increase in applications between the 10th and 20th of November, as compared to the number made over the same period last year.

This is institutional risk aversion. Some will doubtless argue that this is no bad thing, that when children deemed at risk are taken from their families no further harm can be done to them, and that even if it turns out to be unnecessary, it's better to be safe than sorry. Yet this is work which social workers themselves cannot necessarily possibly deal with: tomorrow's Guardian prints a diary from an experienced social worker in Scotland that simply cannot cope with her current work load. Her problem is both that she cannot provide a proper service whilst so overloaded, but that she is expected to justify her every move, all with the copious bureaucracy and paper-work which has become such a familiar part of working in the public sector.

Here is why the media coverage of the Baby P case has been so hypocritical, so counter-productive, and so potentially disastrous for those who have chosen social work as their profession. It has been led ostensibly by the same right-wing newspapers that so howl when children, especially those of respectable middle-class parents that couldn't even imagine harming their child, let alone do it, are wrongly taken into car. When this happens it's the state snatching, even kidnapping children, as the Daily Mail for example earlier in the year described the taking into care of a newly born child, thought to be at risk, as another of the mother's children was. The same newspapers are the ones that object repeatedly to council-tax rises, when resources, as the anonymous social worker describes, have been so cut to the bone or directed elsewhere that it makes it even more difficult to provide adequate supervision. Finally, who now would honestly consider the idea of becoming a social worker when the profession has become the latest soft target for the impotent rage of the nation to be taken out upon? How many, already brought to the brink of exhaustion by their work-load will see how much gratitude is given to them and finally decide that it's time to pack it all in before something goes wrong on their patch and the mob inevitably moves in? Not enough "golden hellos" in the world are going to make someone, even in an recession, want to take on such responsibility whilst at the same time being given no respect.

Even more unhelpful were last week's ridiculous headlines, including in the "quality" press, regarding 4 children a week dying while either in the care of the state or being seen by social workers. These figures, if true, would also have been unprecedented, and completely out of line with the ones produced by the Home Office. As it turned out, Ofsted had confused the number of those who had died while receiving any kind of local authority help - 282 - with the number of serious case reviews that had been taken out following child deaths, which was a far less remarkable 81. Ofsted said that the "report may have been confusing for a lay person", which it seems is a perfect description of journalists in general, with the figure subsequently being bandied about by those already highly excised by the death of Baby P as an example of the incompetence and failure of social work and child protection policies.

The furore over Baby P will eventually calm down, even if the Sun promises to "not rest until those to blame are brought to book" (pro-tip: they're already have, they're in prison), and the equilibrium will settle back down to something approaching normality. In the meantime however, children will be taken from their families when they previously wouldn't have been, further breaking down the relationship between individual and the state, and potentially loosening those families for good. This will ironically be the result of newspapers that preach the virtue of the family, moralise remorselessly about single-mothers and the "underclass", if not openly in some cases dehumanising them, all while demanding a return to traditional values, the same values which previously amounted to the goings on in someone's house being entirely their own affair. Sales, sensationalism, and giving the public what they think they want always triumph over the note of caution and waiting for the full facts before passing judgement. When the next Baby P comes along, we can look forward to going through this all over again.

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1. They appear to have shot from 500,000 'signatures' to over a million in a space of a day or two. I smell a rat.

2. The Sun is keeping awfully quiet about the widely-circulated email containing the names protected by court order... and a link to their petition.

3. They didn't think a million people marching in London against the illegal invasion of Iraq warranted immediate action. I recall Littlejohn sneering that we were out for a jolly jaunt and would end up at Starbucks afterwards.

"Grief tourism" or ghoul tourism?

Great article by Septicisle. The Sun has a lot, but really a load, to answer for.

I wrote this piece on the subject:
http://mymarilyn.blogspot.com/2008/11/blood-of-social-worker.html

After a couple of decades working for large organisations where office politics was endemic I have what is probably a unique and unpopular view on matters like this.

There is nothing worse than a department that accepts itself producing substandard output. By saying yes when they should say no they prevent the organisation from properly resolving issues of resource and priority.

Think of blame/responsibility as an object. The objective is to only accept it if you are happy that the risk/reward is in your favour. If not, give it to someone else.

When a Social services departments accepts an incidence of cases that they are unable to properly handle they settle for a low standard of performance and the consequences that we have seen. By taking more children into foster care they are forcing a crisis in care which should lead to a proper matching of expectations and resources.

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