Issue 180 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Who cares?

Ken Loach's latest film Ladybird, Ladybird has provoked anger amongst some social workers who feel they are yet again under attack for trying to do a difficult job. We talked to social workers and someone who has been in care about their reactions to the debate and their experiences
Battling with social workers in Ladybird, Ladybird
Battling with social workers in Ladybird, Ladybird

Jane, a London social worker in a children's and family social work team
The work I do involves child protection investigations with children who have been injured or abused. Ladybird, Ladybird seems to have produced a very defensive reaction from a lot of people. There is a feeling that social workers get a really hard time and why is Ken Loach having a go as well?

It's a shame that people have reacted so defensively because unfortunately these things do happen in social work. But he could have looked more politically at why it happens. It's not just individuals being stupid. The pressures on social workers and the role they have to play means they individualise what are social problems. They have to identify families as having 'problems' and then work with them individually rather than looking at any political and social reason for why people are in such a mess.

It's the sort of job where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. There have been several enquiries, like the ones at Orkney or Cleveland, which have really condemned social workers for what they've done--I think justifiably--then you get the other sort of enquiry like Kimberly Carlisle where children have died when they've been known to social services. Social workers feel they get a bad press and that nothing they do is ever right.

People are under resourced, they're far too stretched and end up covering their backs because they're worried about the consequences. There's not any sort of support from management. The whole business culture is coming into social services all the time and that's the sort of culture that can prevail rather than caring about people. The sort of resources that we used to have to support families, like family centres, care workers going in, have been cut to pieces. We now identify families who have got problems, we don't support them enough and then we take their kids off them when they fail. It feels like it's really punitive.

There are small pockets of resistance in social services. The policy of no cover for vacant posts which puts pressure on management to provide enough workers is not as strong as it used to be. People are absorbing the pressures individually and trying to cope with the impossible. Every time they hear of a child death they think, that could be one of mine. Management's response is to blame the individual social workers and to discipline staff. There's a lot of fear around and that leads to corners being cut.

Social work is a very middle class profession and social workers are influenced by the class of people that they are seeing. Some referrals can be very judgmental about people. It's not just about what the injury was, it's about whether the parents created a good impression. That influences whether it's recorded as an accidental injury or not.

James, a district social worker in a child care department
Most of what I do is child protection these days. Social services now has less of a child care preventative role and it's much more of a punitive role. A lot of people I work with have reacted quite angrily to Ladybird, Ladybird, which they said is just bashing social workers. They feel so defensive because they are under pressure. They're struggling with the ever growing demands and needs of families with less and less resources, and a more and more stringent management style.

Most social workers in my office would consider themselves socialists and quite liberal, but individual social workers don't determine how you work with families. On the one hand, you've got increasingly impoverished areas, poverty creates in itself an incredibly violent and brutalised atmosphere to bring up kids. On the other hand, social workers have reduced resources. The entire way we work with families is in a kind of legal framework--policing families by using the law. In some areas you will actually have joint teams of social workers and police officers working together, and sometimes there's no real clear cut line between social services and the police.

This is most clear around sexual abuse. The prevailing idea in social work is that the only way you can protect children from sexual abuse is by getting a criminal conviction of the perpetrator. I've just been on a joint course with the police. The idea is that you learn how to do joint interviews, joint investigations and make a video tape of the child's evidence. But even in their own logic this is simply a farce, so far they've made 15,000 tapes and only 44 have been used in criminal convictions. It's obviously a very poor way of protecting children. Social workers may get defensive at Ladybird, Ladybird but there is a lot of disquiet that so much of our work is closely related to policing families. We get a lot of visits where it's alleged that children have been left alone. Yet when you investigate the vast majority have been left for economic reasons--parents go out in the early morning or late at night and do a bit of cleaning to earn money so they can feed their kids properly. If families had decent benefits or decent wages they wouldn't need to leave their children alone.

The legal framework for working with families is the 1989 Children Act. Many people on the left greeted this as a very liberal piece of legislation and identified the only problem as being underfunding. Certainly the language of the act appears quite liberal. However, it's quite insidious and dangerous on many levels. It talks about shifting parental rights to parental responsibilities and therefore reflects the Tories' whole ideological offensive on the family and juvenile crime. The Children Act talks about working in partnership with families, but partnership is ludicrous because it's so unequal. You're talking about a single carer on a council estate against the local social services department backed up by the courts. The form that this partnership takes is supposed to be social workers using written agreements with families. But often social workers write them and families have to agree to them. That's not to say that individual social workers are bastards or completely punitive, but they have less and less resources to do an extremely difficult job. Individuals don't have much choice over that and have to recognise that they work within a system which isn't interested in protecting the rights of children.

Other ways to protect children's rights
Other ways to protect children's rights

Alison, residential social worker
I worked for seven years with children from ten years upwards who were in long stay care with the local authority--some in voluntary care and some because of care orders. My reaction to the film Ladybird, Ladybird was horror but also that it definitely rang some bells. That is often the way working class people are treated when they don't appear to be looking after their children properly. The economic circumstances and the reality of how they're trying to live is never really addressed and social workers are powerless to tackle those structural problems. I've tried to get people rehoused and it's a nightmare. You're onto the housing department four or five times a week and you get absolutely nowhere. You get told there are hundreds of other families in this position.

Very often you can get demoralised and helpless about situations and you get this black and white view that either the children or the parents are wrong or bad and you have to take responsibility for sorting the situation out. If the parents don't match up--no matter what they've been living through themselves--you have to step in and do something about it.

What came across most in the film was the lack of communication between the social workers, who were portrayed as being middle class, and the working class woman who was put across as their victim. They couldn't talk to her. They couldn't listen to why she felt so angry.

I've worked with lots of different children with different problems in long stay children's homes and there's a whole range of reasons why they end up there. Parents often can't cope, they give up, they haven't got the support systems to enable them to keep looking after the kids. Then the links between them and the child start to weaken, they become overwhelmed by the power of social services. They're not quite sure of their rights or they probably don't get the encouragement that they need to be able to keep up contact with their children.

I can't say that there's any class mix in children's homes. I have worked exclusively with working class children. In fact, for most of those children they're lucky if even one member of the family has a job. They tend to be unemployed and very poor and to have no opportunities whatsoever.

Middle class families seem to have different ways of dealing with their problems. When their children get out of control or are difficult teenagers, they send them to psychiatrists or to boarding school. For the working class kid there obviously isn't that option. One alternative that did seem exciting was when six family centres doing preventing work were to have been set up. Before the new centres were built it was decided they were too expensive, so three old assessment centres were converted into family centres, and within one year one of them had gone. So all that enthusiasm about being able to work with the family both in the home and at the centre--counselling, practical support, group work, all with no coercion or control--all that went. People who would have benefited from that end up where they don't get any help until there's a total and absolute crisis which is almost irretrievable and the children end up in care on court orders.

Mary works for a specialist team within a social services department that focuses on adolescents
The story of Ladybird, Ladybird made me think of an example last year. A young woman had run away from a home in the south west and came to the big city. She didn't know anyone here and so had been picked off the streets, been on the game for a while, got involved with drugs and found herself pregnant aged about 15.

She wanted to try and keep the baby, which turned out to be twins, and the reaction from her local authority was partly quite intolerant because she'd run away and hadn't cooperated. Also she'd fallen into this lifestyle which they considered to be morally and physically bad for her, so they put her in a mother and baby home in London where she was watched very closely with the children. This home was run in the old Victorian style where the women were more there to be under surveillance than to be given support. Her boyfriend was only allowed to visit for one hour a day and she wasn't getting any help with the twins crying or feeding. So when she was seen tipping the babies' milk down the sink because they wouldn't take it, it was a foregone conclusion that she was going to lose custody of the twins, who were failing to grow.

A year later she was pregnant again, still with her boyfriend who social services thought wasn't very good for her. The department wanted to put the baby on the at risk register before it had been born--which they did. But this time we got her into a mother and baby unit that aims to actually support the mothers, to give them a bit of a break and just be more sympathetic and that made all the difference. She had people to talk to when she was having difficulties rather than just put another bad mark against her on her file. Now this new baby is doing really well and she'll probably get to keep it.

Social workers do face a lot of aggression and anger--obviously that's because you are poking around in the bits of people's lives like the family. Even if someone's family life is hell, and hell for everyone else, they still cling onto it because to be judged to be without family or to have failed your family is really loaded. People are left to feel that they have got nothing if you haven't got that.

Social workers are expected to represent the child who traditionally hasn't had a voice--decisions were always about controlling malfunctioning adults. It's supposed to be about recognising that what happens to you as a child has a life long impact. But poverty is probably one of the most damaging and lasting things that can happen to children. Yet social services don't do anything to help about that.

Whereas there used to be more money to help in quite a material way for example supplying furniture and grants and deposits, all of that is practically gone now. Social workers now spend quite a lot of time applying to charities for money for their clients.

I'm aware that I'm more often going into houses where there isn't one piece of food in the house than used to be the case five or ten years ago. The number of people literally living from day to day seems to have gone up. That's just the real face of all the statistics that come out of organisations dealing with child poverty. It's not at all unusual for the adults to go without in order to give what they've got to the kids. I'm supposed to offer people tea and sympathy but unfortunately they often need a lot more than that.

Rebecca was in care for four years
The first home I was in was more like a hospital, everything was routine--when you had your breakfast, watched TV--it was cold, more like a prison. You'd wake up in the morning to all these hoovers going, then they'd bring your breakfast out. It was terrible, I was wrecking the place every minute. You're not going to have any respect for a place like that.

The second home was like a house, it was very nice. You could have locks on your door so you got more privacy, it felt more like a home. You took turns with washing up and the shopping together. You had a chance to get to know the staff a lot better. When that happens you have more respect for them, you don't want to upset them so much and it's easier to sit down and talk to them. Just because you've had problems it doesn't mean you should go and live in a dump.

Social work is an impossible job to do, most of them have not experienced the things I have. They can't win. I was in with kids of all ages with all sorts of different problems. They should separate you more so that people with experience in just that field can help you. A lot of the time they don't look at you thinking--she's had this done to her she's had that done to her, that's really bad. It's more like--this is a troublesome one, this one freaks out. We're supposed to be there to be helped, but it's like a punishment sometimes.

If kids are at home and they're being beaten up, or the parents are being violent then it's not good for them to be there. Otherwise they should try and keep them at home and have someone to come round all the time to deal with it. Because you take someone away from their home, they get into a different lifestyle, and it's impossible to go back. I was only supposed to be there for a few weeks but once I'd been there and run riot and had all my freedom, I never went back home and stayed there for four years.

No one was interested in fostering any of the older children, even six year olds. They want their little baby so it can grow up and be theirs. The workers in the home couldn't not tell foster parents about my tantrums and what I was like, and not many people are going to want to take that on.

A lot of kids taken into care don't need to be. I don't think I really needed to be. The problems I was having could have been worked out by talking to someone rather than just stick me in this place.

Children shouldn't be in care for a really long period of time. They should still spend a lot of time out with their families and their families should spend a lot of time at the home so you're with them all the time. You can't sort out your problem if your family is one place and you're in another.

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