November 13, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

For reasons I can only guess at, this article paints a very anodyne picture of child protective services in the U.K (Phys.org, 11/7/17). Its primary and, as far as I can tell only objection is the portrayal of caseworkers in the popular media. It offers but two examples, one from the news and one from pop culture.

The piece’s message is roughly this:

This is how social workers do their jobs today. They are there to help families, not to tear them apart. It is never an easy task to split a family and it is only done when it is believed to be in the child's best interests.

Portraying social workers as incompetent child snatchers rather than useful sources of support and help will only stop people accepting help in what could be their most pressing time of need.

So the proverbial bottom line is that a few bad cases of shanghaiing children away from fit parents don’t represent the whole and we shouldn’t look askance at social workers who really just want to protect children as best they can.

As I say, it’s an anodyne piece.

And of course all that is true enough.  I’ve written many times that being a caseworker for a child protection agency is one of the hardest jobs in the world to do well. That’s for a number of reasons, but among them is the difficulty of distinguishing between parental neglect and poverty. The two can be very similar and figuring out whether a latchkey kid who spends two or three hours alone in the afternoon while his mother is at work is being neglected or cared for well enough within her circumstances isn’t always clear. Add to that the fact that the caseworker in question may have as many as 30 other similar cases to attend to at the same time and it’s easy to see how some of them make a wrong call.

But please. The article carefully overlooks far too much information from recent times that depicts social workers in the pay of the state in a very different light. Consider this piece I wrote less than a year ago. Frankly, it’s not just a few incautious journalists looking to make a splash or drum up a scandal that’s the problem. The fact is that the rate at which U.K. children are being taken from their parents has skyrocketed in the past three years, and the poor find themselves specially targeted.

Consider this quotation from a Guardian article:

Government statistics show that local authority applications to take children into care are rocketing to record levels. August’s figures showed a total of 1,258 care applications – a 34% increase on August last year. The annual rate of increase is also rising: in March 2014 it was 4% up on the year before; March 2015 was 5% up, and it was 15% up again in March this year. The latest figures [pdf download] show that there were a total of 70,440 looked-after children in England in March this year.

These figures prompted an unprecedented warning from Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the high court. In a statement entitled Care Cases: The Looming Crisis, Munby describes a “relentless” rise that is stretching the family court system to breaking point, not to mention the care system’s finances – the cost of looking after a child in care is estimated at £35,000 per year. Assuming a conservative yearly increase of 10% in the next three years, Munby calculates that by 2020 annual care applications will have trebled from 2007 levels, to nearly 20,000.

Yes, it’s not just a tabloid writer here or there who’s complaining; the president of the family division of the nation’s high court is too. And he’s far from alone.

“The number of children in public care is, I would contend, a national disgrace,” said Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

In the U.K. as in the U.S., almost all of the attention of caseworkers is on the poor. The article admits as much as did the Guardian’s last year.

Studies have found that children in deprived neighbourhoods are more than 11 times more likely to be on the child protection register, and 12 times more likely to be "looked after" by the state. But this is not because these families are abusing their children, nor because social workers wrongly believe they are unable to do so. Rather, poverty is said to be "part of the picture of harm".

That “picture of harm” is what I mentioned earlier. Poverty can look a lot like neglect. But if the U.K. is anything like the U.S., the poor also find themselves targeted by caseworkers because they’re far less likely to know their rights regarding their children and the state and, even if they do, not be able to assert them. If it takes a lawyer to represent you in juvenile court and you’re having a hard time paying the electric bill, what are your chances of effectively defending yourself?

But more to the point of the article, given that the rate of children being taken from parents is skyrocketing and that caseworkers target the poor, is it really any surprise that people fear them?

Portraying social workers as incompetent child snatchers rather than useful sources of support and help will only stop people accepting help in what could be their most pressing time of need.

Hmm, that may be. But pretending that “we’re the government and we’re here to help you” is meaningful to people who know all too well about the child protective system won’t make matters better. And blaming the news media and pop culture for the bad rap caseworkers have ignores what the likes of Sir James Munby and other experts on the system have articulated all too powerfully. Too many kids are being taken and people know it and that, not a few news stories and soap opera scenes, is why social workers are feared and reviled.

 

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