Wednesday, January 25, 2012

At last, a documentary that presents social work in all its complex glory

The BBC's Protecting Our Children series is an authentic portrayal of the difficult decisions and situations social workers face every day

Protecting Our Children, BBC2 series
In Protecting Our Children (above), social workers have let the cameras in to show the profession at its best, says Harry Ferguson.

For almost four decades, social workers have had to endure a relentless bombardment of criticism, blame and downright abuse because of child protection cases where children have died. Given the ease and confidence with which such criticisms are made and policies are reformed, one would think that the way social workers go about protecting children is well understood. But it isn't. What is surprising is how few attempts there have been to show how complex the work really is and what it is like to be a parent and child on the receiving end of it.

A brilliant new BBC2 series, Protecting Our Children, is set to change this. The three programmes are based on 12 months' filming child protection social workers in Bristol. The degree of access the programme-makers got to the families and social work practice is remarkable. They repay this by providing a vivid depiction of what it is like to be a social worker going into family homes, checking for signs of neglect, being confronted by dangerous dogs, and poor, sometimes disgusting, home conditions. The authenticity of the programmes and sheer difficulty of the work is brought home in some highly tense encounters between angry parents and social workers at which on-the-spot risk assessments and decisions are made about whether or not to take the children into care or not.

We get to see the families without professionals present and are given glimpses of how they are coping – or not. The struggles of these parents are often achingly sad.

What shines through is the integrity, skill and emotional resilience of the social workers and their managers, and the depths of their passion for helping children and their parents. One social worker ruefully remarks on how tragic it is that social workers' countless routine successes never make news. Others comment on how they feel "hated" and how relatives avoid admitting there is a social worker in the family.

The programmes are insightful because they tell the story of selected cases over the course of a year. As well as tragedy there is joy, as abused children are shown to thrive in response to skilled interventions by social workers and the entire child protection network: paediatricians, children's guardians, health visitors, family support workers and wonderful foster carers.

The complexity revealed by the series should challenge the public and politicians to rethink easy assumptions about feckless social workers who miss "obvious" signs of harm to children, and stop scapegoating. And it should push academics and researchers harder to find ways of deepening understanding of child protection practice. The series provides fantastic training material, and the Open University is to be congratulated for supporting it.

Meanwhile, the programme makers should win awards and Bristol social workers deserve Oscars – not for being good actors but for being themselves and having the courage to allow the public to see social work at its best.

• Harry Ferguson is professor of social work at Nottingham University. His book, Child Protection Practice, is available now. Details at Protecting Our Children begins on 30 January on BBC2 at 9pm.