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Would criminalising social workers give the chance of a fair hearing?

Posted on 5/09/2016 by

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Plans for a new crime of ‘wilful neglect’ might allow professionals to explain the challenges they face – and mount a defence

One of the most horrifying experiences of the aftermath of Peter Connelly’s death was the suggestion by David Cameron in the Sun that the social workers including myself should be subject to criminal charges. That didn’t happen. Instead, we were subjected to the “court of public opinion” – or what felt like the anger of a mob.

I’ve often wondered whether being charged with a criminal offence might have allowed us and the paediatrician who lost her job to have a voice. We could have told our stories ourselves rather than leaving it to several enlightened journalists, documentary makers and writers when it was all too late to reverse the damage. In my book, Learning from Baby P: The Politics of Blame, Fear and Denial, I refer to the blaming of social workers as a “cultural trope” in order to capture its habitual nature now embedded as a belief, reality or truism that goes beyond thought or reason.

These experiences have given me a particular perspective on the Conservative government’s proposal for a criminal offence of “wilful neglect”, which would apply to social workers and others. The criminal sanctions will cover inaction, concealment and/or deliberate cover-ups and would carry a maximum jail sentence of five years.

Social workers protested against these proposals when they were first announced. But such protests risk digging a deeper hole. I often ask roomfuls of social workers two questions: “What would the British public say if they are asked if social workers should be locked up for wilful neglect?” – their silence conveys a resounding yes; and “do you want to belong to a profession that retains a social worker who is guilty of wilful neglect?” – and the silence conveys a resounding no.

But what is wilful neglect and how would it be defined? How would wider issues – such as the impact of austerity on families and on the services that seek to support them – be accounted for? Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children and families, suggested the proposal to jail social workers “comes with [the] territory of holding responsibility on behalf of the state” but that it would be very difficult to secure a conviction. More crucially, she described the government’s proposal as matching “the public [and] political mood”, something we saw demonstrated in the case of Baby P. This notion of locking up social workers might be no more than political posturing, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

There are lessons that can be learned from Germany, where social workers have been charged in cases of fatal child abuse/neglect with “negligent manslaughter by omission”. However most cases are terminated, overturned, or result in modest fines due to rules of “diversion” or “quasi-conviction” (presumably because social workers didn’t actually kill or harm the child) and social workers return to their jobs. Crucially there is no naming of professionals or media campaigns on the scale of those seen in the UK. In effect, the case against German social workers is primarily legal and in the UK it is open to the complex interactions of the tabloid media, political opportunism and public perception. It’s the difference between a fair hearing in court that conforms to fundamental concepts of justice and equality, and the court of ill-informed and often manipulated public opinion.

So might the introduction of a criminal offence of wilful neglect give social workers access to a fair hearing? What first appeared as a threat that drew a defensive reaction might be the best opportunity the profession has had to communicate the challenges of the job and to mount a proper legal defence.

But if the profession is to embrace such radical change it must change radically itself. At times in the last eight years I have felt that my colleagues and I were very badly let down by the profession. Why is it that the profession did not challenge this cultural trope when we were so roundly vilified? Why has the profession not presented the arguments and stood up for itself? The College of Social Work,which failed to survive, was situated too close to government and unable to represent social workers. It attracted only a quarter of the profession yet the only independent member-led professional body, the British Association of Social Workers, also only attracts a quarter of social workers. This low level of engagement of social workers in professional organisations that strive to support them suggests a fragmentation of the profession.

Whether the criminal offence of wilful neglect becomes law or not, social workers at all levels of seniority must unite under one strong independent representative body; the professional organisation must develop the wherewithal to support social workers through litigation and given strong membership have the ability to fund that litigation; employers must consider professional indemnity arrangements more thoroughly; social workers who are accused should have access to support networks to prepare for a fair hearing, and the profession must lead on developing and promoting new discourses that improve the knowledge and understanding of the public.

Social work is an enormously challenging job. It is very successful in protecting children. But the public don’t know that. It is only by being a more united profession – led with much greater determination – that it can take back control and build pride and confidence, which will in turn make it even more successful.

Source: The Guardian