So went the (so-called) joke when I was growing up in a council estate in Yorkshire in the late 80’s. The answer? ‘At least you get a part of your kid back from a dangerous dog’. The point? In housing schemes, Social Workers are viewed as the Gestapo, with the power to turn up at any time—night or day—to take away your children. Anybody working within schemes for any length of time are going to have to face highly emotional issues with both social workers and local people.
Last year, the BBC produced a three-part documentary called, ‘Protecting our Children’. The series followed 8 Bristol based Social Workers and their‘clients’as they worked with them over a 12-month period. As usual, with this kind of ‘fly on the wall’ look behind the scenes, it caused widespread debate and opinion. An article in the Guardian questioned the motivation behind Bristol Social Services agreement to be filmed by the BBC. If it was to garner public sympathy to their job then, according to journalist Terry Philpott:
Placing one’s hopes for a change of public understanding being engendered by a TV series ignores a core problem, no matter how well made and illuminating the programmes may be (and these are both): social work has no deep roots in society. Unlike teaching, nursing, medicine, and the police, social work is not a universal service. Apart from (often) middle class people as adopters, it tends to be used by those who are among the poorest and most vulnerable – groups for whom society generally has least time.
I tend to agree. It may be enlightening for the middle classes, but those who live on schemes will be less horrified by the state of people’s lives or their living conditions (because it largely matches their own experience) and more so by their perception that a Social Worker’s main job is to ‘take our kids’. Unfortunately, they can show as many programmes as they like, but it will take much more than that to change the mindset of those who live on schemes. Here, three professional agencies guaranteed to cause anger and hostility on a scheme are the police, the DSS, and Social Workers. So, what is our position on these things as a church?
Well, at the outset, let me say how much I both sympathise and empathise with Social Services and Social Workers in general. It is far too easy to make them out to be pariahs when things go wrong, and high-profile abuse/death cases hit the headlines but the great, and vital, work they do often goes unnoticed and unheralded by the general public. As Christians, we should be praying for Social Workers and the difficult, complex, and thankless task they do, often in the face of great hostility.
The other side of the coin needs to be looked at as well. Often, the“care system” can be as corrupt and dangerous as the very homes they are seeking to“rescue” children from. Although not the fault of Social Worker’s, institutions like “approved”schools and/or homes can be nothing more than breeding grounds for young criminals intent on bullying and destruction. This has only been heightened, surely, by the advent of “child centred” psychology and practice, which often ties carers up in knots.
Removing children from their parents does not always produce stabilising results. I say this as a product of countless children’s homes and foster parents, some of which were abusive, unhelpful, and destructive. The system did me no favours growing up! Unfortunately (and I have grown out of it now with maturity and understanding), Social Workers were the ones responsible for dragging me out of my bed, often at night, separating me from my sister, and depositing me in some strange place without a moment’s notice and with no clear explanation. I often wondered if it was better ‘the devil I knew than the devil I didn’t’ at that time in my life.
When it comes to child safety, as a church, NCC have to abide by the Law and, particularly, ensure that we have all the necessary Child Protection Procedures and safety measures we can in place. I have no problem with stringency in this area, and I welcome even tighter rules and regulations for the protection and peace of mind of all who come and use our building and entrust their children and/or vulnerable people into our care. However, we must be careful not to go too overboard and turn into the secret police and end up with a non-tactile, clinical, empty, approach to youth and children’s work. Also, I have friends here in the scheme with criminal convictions from 20 years ago (for violence—non-child related) who are now being categorised a “risk factor” for working with youngsters. They have turned their lives around, and are now making a positive contribution to society, but the system seems to be penalising them. We need balance (although I 100% agree that if there is to be imbalance it should be weighted in favour of the vulnerable).
I think one of the great strengths of the TV show was how it dealt with the complexity of many of the issues that individual cases throw up. That is certainly a tension we feel at NCC as a leadership team, as we work with many troubled and vulnerable individuals in our community. We have a responsibility to report any and all episodes of abuse we see in order to safeguard those at risk on our estate. We have also counselled for people to co-operate with the Social Services in caring for their children in order for them to better stabilise their lives. However, our concern is the spiritual well-being of those in our community. That is our priority. Therefore, where possible, we refer back to the necessary authorities and seek to support people through the legal processes rather than working against them. We try to be careful in the advice we give, and we are very open with people regarding our legal responsibilities.
On a scheme like ours, the dangers are manifold:
1. The issues come when “grasses” in whatever form immediately become (wrongly) ‘persona non grata’ despite their best intentions.
2. A great problem in a scheme like this is spitefulness, jealousy, and plain evil. So, somebody with a grudge makes an anonymous phone call and then within days the police are at the door. This post code is going to raise some very red flags to the social services. Once mud is thrown it is very difficult to clear off.
3. A reputation for anything suspicious to do with children, no matter how unfounded, is virtually impossible to shake off and you can pack your bags and get out of town before the posse arrives to run you out, whether you are innocent or not. The example of the person on a “risk” register which has nothing to do with child abuse is a case in point. In that instance, the person is less concerned about their legal requirements (which they agree with) but more with the terms “register” and “risk” in a community that is not too bothered about nuance. Abusing your children is the unforgivable sin on a housing scheme, and any suspicion of anything will be ‘leprous’in the extreme.
Working with vulnerable people is tough not only for the social services, but for Christian workers as well. Not only do we have to advise and counsel difficult people, but we have to encourage an open-mindedness to Social Workers, the police and, indeed, anybody in authority viewed as the ‘enemy’ and a threat. We are the ‘Red Cross’ walking through no man’s land; sometimes the bullets whizz by a little too close, and sometimes people even get hit!
The tension is further ratcheted by the fact that, as with all public service officials, there are those who are helpful and those who are unnecessarily obtuse (of course that is a two-way street with the locals as well!). But, let me tell you that it is a fact that many people from Niddrie are stigmatised. It is almost ‘presumed guilty before proven innocent’ here. Little has changed since I grew up in similar circumstances in this respect. I see it as part of my Christian responsibility to ‘defend the cause’ of my community.
Now, as you can imagine, evangelism and discipleship with vulnerable, chaotic, explosive, and unpredictable characters can be stressful, exhilarating, and challenging all at the same time. Unlike Social Services, we do not have the luxury of burly security officers accompanying us on home visits or protecting us from abuse in the streets. We rely on the goodwill of the people and the protection of the Lord.
Pray for our many Christian Social Workers and Carers in our land. Pray for our Social Workers, many of whom are doing a great job. Pray for us as we often face the scorn of the ‘caring sector’ (who often see themselves as the only viable professionals) and the hostility of some of our more chaotic ‘friends’.