Social workers as scapegoats: some reflections on the case of Baby P

The appalling and scandalous treatment of Baby P has struck a chord with many over the last few weeks and media coverage of the story has been ubiquitous.  A prominent tabloid, never one to let facts get in the way of opinions, issued photographs of some of the key players in the case under the malicious headline “Blood on their hands” and urged readers to support its campaign for mass sackings at Haringay council.  Since then the focus of blame has shifted away from front line social workers towards Council leaders and the Director of Children’s Services who has received abusive messages and anonymous death threats against her own children.  In the Court arena it is reported that applications for Care Orders have risen significantly as child protection agencies switch to panic mode with social workers erring on the side of caution in response to the damning headlines.

Social workers have never enjoyed a good press but these latest actions come at the end of a particularly torrid time.  Hard pressed social workers manning (or should that be womanning?) society’s front line against abuse, chaos and cruelty in inner city London have been publicly vilified by self-righteous journalists and politicians insulated against deprivation by their salaries and expense accounts.  What’s more, members of the general public, informed only by slanted reporting and large doses of moral indignation, have been encouraged to join in the fray, so they add their strident voices to the clamour for heads to roll.  Small wonder, then, that one of the social workers involved in the case has confided in her friend that she is so consumed by regret about what has happened to Baby P that she has contemplated suicide and is too afraid to leave the house.  What on earth, one might ask, is going on here and where has all the hatred come from?

The bad tempered exchange in the House of Commons between our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition should perhaps give us a clue, should we need it, that child protection is an emotive subject with a propensity to arouse the passions of even the most sober of individuals.  It touches us all, especially those of us who are parents, at a deep level and triggers strong reactions – not all of which are consciously processed in the usual way.  We find ourselves becoming angry about a situation over which we have no control and for which we bear no direct responsibility.  One can only suppose that these sorts of strong emotional reactions would, in less liberal times, have been assuaged by public floggings or hangings.  In an advanced, democratic state what should we do with these atavistic responses? Where should we go with our moral outrage?  One hypothesis might be that hapless social workers, always seen as victims, guilty by association with their often feckless, irresponsible and violent clients, are a convenient public scapegoat.  Heaped with opprobrium they are driven out into the wilderness carrying on their backs the sins of society.

In his classic study “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, sociologist Stan Cohen describes a process that happens at regular intervals in modern society.  Cohen’s thesis is that deeply uncomfortable dilemmas with no easy answers become transformed from complex, moral issues to technical decisions about risk.  His argument is that these periodic panics are society’s way of dealing with anxiety and uncertainty.  In his introduction to the Third Edition (published in 2002) Stan Cohen refers specifically to social workers as a current manifestation of the phenomenon of folk devils:

Social workers and social services professionals are middle class folk devils; either gullible wimps or else storm troopers of the nanny state; either uncaring cold hearted bureaucrats for not intervening in time to protect the victims or else over-zealous do gooding meddlers for intervening groundlessly and invading privacy (Cohen 2002, page xv)

According to this analysis, child abuse, especially savage brutality against a defenceless young child, is such a blatant contradiction of cherished notions of parental love that we cannot face up to it.  Instead of acknowledging the reality that human beings have the capacity for all manner of cruelty,  we avert our gaze and focus instead on structures, processes and the manifest failures of the child protection system.  Rather than trying to understand how adults could perpetrate and collude with such unthinkable crimes we blame those professionals who were trying, albeit sometimes ineffectively, to help.

In one of the more insightful and balanced responses to the Baby P case published under the headline “Officialdom cannot hammer straight the crooked timber of mankind”, Simon Jenkins says:

What went wrong appears to have been our old friend, the crooked timber of mankind.  The saga began with an inadequate mother and the strange and evil men in her life, sadistic or careless towards the child and cunning in their ability to cover up their misdeeds (The Guardian 14th November 2008).

Child protection social workers are called to do something that the rest of us would rather avoid even thinking about.  They are asked to face up to the fact that men and women (even mothers and fathers) can do violent and horrible things to the little children in their care.  Instead of becoming overwhelmed by horror and panic – the natural reaction of us all – they are expected to intervene in a compassionate, decisive and effective way.  We shouldn’t be surprised when sometimes they, together with the other professionals who share responsibility for keeping children safe such as police, health and education professionals, fail to uncover covert abuse.  The problem of child abuse continues to be resistant to our most strenuous efforts to eradicate it.  This is not a reason to stop trying but it is a reason to avoid cheap headlines at the expense of an already beleaguered profession.

Bill Stone, December 2nd 2008

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