The publication of the heavily redacted Serious Case Review into the tragic death of Peter Connelly (previously known as Baby P) has brought the inevitable headlines vilifying social workers.

Baby Peter

Several of those involved with the case have already been subject to the scapegoating insisted upon by tabloid press and government, including Sharon Shoesmith (Director of Haringey) and two social workers.

Mistakes were made in assessing the level of risk Peter Connelly was subject to, though hindsight is a wonderful thing. The social workers involved had caseloads 50% above the level recommended by Lord Laming in the report he wrote after Victoria Climbie’s death. The caseload for the social worker leading the work on Peter’s child protection plan had doubled between January and July 2007.

Whilst the health visiting service was fully staffed, there was an 8% sickness rate. The caseload for a health visitor in 2007 averaged 607 families. Professional judgement and inter-agency communication is inevitably affected when carrying responsibility for so many children and families.

Peter Connelly’s mother experienced a difficult childhood and became a parent herself at a young age. She had a volatile nature, yet social workers are expected to work alone with such potentially violent adults whilst challenging them over difficult and traumatic issues.

A theme through many serious case reviews has been the difficulty of working effectively with violent and dangerous families when social workers feel intimidated and at risk. However, due to budgetary restraints, social workers still visit dangerous homes on their own and with very limited safety measures.

Children’s services departments have been subject to governmental targets. One of these targets was to lower the number of children subject to child protection plans, whilst another was to minimise the number of children who had child protection plans lasting over 2 years.

It is inevitable that such targets exert a pressure on social workers, however insidiously, to minimise the assessment of risk to children.

The introduction of the ICS computer system also meant that social workers spent increasing amounts of time inputting data in offices, rather than directly working with children and families.

The present government has been quick to say it is reconsidering all the recommendations made by Lord Laming after Victoria Climbie. These recommendations had previously been accepted in full by the Labour government, but the new Children’s Minister Tim Loughton has said he does not agree with any caseload limits for social workers.

There is a deeper issue at the heart of all the serious case reviews which have taken place into the distressing deaths of children. Social work is a profession which intervenes at the very intersection of the ‘private’ and ‘public’ worlds. Within the private sphere of the family people believe they can find comfort and happiness within relationships they have chosen.

In fact, the pressures and stresses from the outside world both impact and become magnified within the home. The home can become a place where people feel the most disappointment and anger, and these tensions can be directed towards other family members.

Social workers are expected to intervene within these private arenas on behalf of the state. However, behaviour acceptable to the state is also unclear. Parents are allowed to hit their children, provided they do not leave a mark and the violence is considered ‘ reasonable’. Adults are not by law allowed to hit anyone else. Therefore, it appears the state encourages the idea that children are the possession of their parents and, therefore, a ‘privatised’ object.

However, a threshold exists where parenting is not ‘good enough’ and a child is deemed to be ‘at risk of serious harm’ and then a social worker is supposed to intervene. The threshold for intervening is not consistent between children services’ departments or between courts. This means an inevitable subjectivity in assessing risk.

If there are fewer support services available then it is likely that social workers are only able to become involved at times of high risk and , therefore , become seen as punitive by families and so unlikely to be able to build positive relationships with them.

Social workers enter the profession to help those most vulnerable in society but, because they have such heavy caseloads and few resources, they are limited in their ability to offer preventive services. Social workers are continually scapegoated by government and media so that they are ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ when it comes to intervening in families.

Social workers are an easy target upon whom to project systemic failures, and as individuals they are named and shamed in order to cover up for the failures of a system which has no stake in investing in the wellbeing of disadvantaged families and children.

A biennial review of the findings of serious case reviews is published by the government. There are themes running through all of them: multiply disadvantaged families, domestic violence, alcohol and drug use, parents who have experienced damaging childhoods, poverty, lack of interagency communication, poor record keeping.

All of these are issues requiring long term investment and structural change.

At the very heart of social work under capitalism is the fact that welfare and market principles are irreconcilably in conflict with each other. Welfare institutions will never equalise income distribution or life chances. Welfare provision is contained and shaped by market forces.

To act on behalf of the state when it feels the need to curb the worst excesses of family life, whilst not being given the resources to materially improve people’s lives and carrying the blame for misjudgements made when working under huge pressure, is the contradiction which social workers constantly face.