Defending the social worker


A new book called Transforming Childrens Services?critically examines a number of key issues connected to the modernisation of social work services for children and their families. MICHELLE MCDONAGHspeaks to the author, Paul Michael Garrett, director of social work at NUI Galway

PAUL MICHAEL Garrett has dedicated his latest book to a UK social worker called Lisa Arthurworry who he believes was unfairly vilified in the wake of the inquiry into the horrific death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié.

“I dedicated my book to Lisa as a gesture of solidarity because of what she was put through following the Laming inquiry into Victoria’s death. Most of the blame for the failures of the public services in relation to Victoria seemed to be directed at Lisa.”

In January 2001, Victoria’s great-aunt Marie Therese Kouad and her boyfriend Carl Manning were convicted of the child’s murder. She died after being kept in a bath, beaten and fed with scraps of food. Her social worker, Lisa Arthurworry, later accused her employer, Haringey Council, of using her as “a sacrificial lamb”.

Garrett comments that media reports of social workers frequently undermine their positions and he points to the example of the Roscommon abuse case earlier this year where photos of the social workers involved appeared on the front page of one Irish tabloid.

The shocking case of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, known as Baby P, attracted huge media coverage. His mother, Tracy, her boyfriend, Steven Barker, and his brother Jason Owen were convicted of causing or allowing the toddler to die following a horrifying campaign of domestic violence in August 2007.

“A lot of the media coverage of the Baby P case was not terribly insightful. It tended to focus on the baby’s carers, the mother and her boyfriend and his brother. The word ‘evil’ was bandied about a lot and I do not think it took us very far in terms of being able to comprehend what took place in that case although some of the coverage did begin to throw light on social work practice,” Garrett remarks.

Although his new book focuses mainly on the UK social work experience, he says it contains many messages relevant to Ireland as well.

“I am arguing the importance of maintaining social work services within the public sector for children and families experiencing difficulties, particularly in these times of cuts and further envisaged cuts in Ireland, and to recognise the hard, difficult and troubling work that social workers undertake day in, day out.”

Prior to his current position as senior lecturer and director of social work in the School of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway, Garrett was previously a senior lecturer at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of three books critically examining social work with children and families and is an adviser on social services for the All-Party Irish in Britain Parliamentary Group in the British Parliament.

So what can Ireland learn from the UK social work experience? Garrett again highlights the need to preserve social work services for hard- pressed parents and children within the Republic, pointing out that even before the current economic difficulties, the ratio of social workers to population fell far below levels in the North.

“One of the aspects that is somewhat worrying is the number of temporary social work positions in Ireland. In order to invest the social work services with some kind of confidence and to give the system some continuity and stability, they need to be staffed with full-time permanent contracts. We know that it is damaging for children if they are moved around to different public care services and if their social workers keep changing.”

He remarks that the report into the Monageer tragedy in Co Wexford – in which the Dunne family died – suggested the need to bolster the Irish social work system for families. Adrian Dunne (29) took his own life after killing his wife, Ciara, and their two daughters, Leanne (5) and Shania (3), during the weekend of 20th-23rd April 2007 at their home in Monageer, Co Wexford.

The Monageer inquiry report pointed to a number of failures across the social work system in the handling of the Dunne case, such as communication problems within the HSE and a failure by health or social work professionals to identify the family as requiring “special attention”.

The inquiry team said that a fundamental problem had been the State’s failure to provide out-of-hours social work service to ensure a response to all serious child protection and welfare concerns.

Garrett fully supports the need for an after-hours emergency service.

“This seems entirely to gel with the recommendations of the Ryan Commission report which clearly highlights how badly things went wrong in the past, and alerts us to potential calamities in the future,” says Garrett.

He also warns that social policy in Ireland is apt to be “cut and pasted” from elsewhere which can lead to its own difficulties.

In his book, Garrett highlights the challenges that social workers face in striving to work in partnership and build relationships with the parents of the children they are involved in caring for.

He also focuses on the use of phrases to describe antisocial behaviour such as “neighbours from hell” which he says are “not very helpful and demeaning of children and families experiencing quite difficult circumstances”.

Social workers are increasingly finding it difficult to engage with families on a day-to-day basis, Garrett explains because they are now spending so much of their time at desks in front of computer screens. He refers to this as the “electronic turn in social work”.

“A lot of social work in the UK is becoming electronically mediated, requiring the use of electronic templates and databases. Many social workers find this is undermining their ability to do what they do best which is to involve themselves with families on a daily basis.

“Sad to say, there may be a gradual realisation by government in the UK that there has perhaps been too great a use of computer technology in some instances.”

Garrett also highlights civil liberty concerns around the whole series of surveillance systems now being targeted at children in the UK, including Asbos, DNA databases and a controversial new government database called ContactPoint which contains basic details on every child under 18 in England.

The database was set up in response to the abuse and death of Victoria Climbié and was designed to improve child protection by refining the way information about children is shared between services.

However, a number of childcare organisations have expressed concerns that ContactPoint is a measure that is far too invasive of people’s privacy and there are fears that the system could be hacked into. In the book, Garrett refers to a number of instances where the British government has lost data or information on millions of adults and children over the past couple of years.

“Clearly, because of integrity of security, people are somewhat worried about how secure ContactPoint can be. It is now up and running on a pilot basis and some organisations in Ireland have shown an interest in developing a similar system.

“However, it is quite costly to set up so given the current financial constraints, we may see this interest diminish.”

  • Transforming Children’s Services?by Paul Michael Garrett is published by the Open University Division of McGraw Hill. Price: about €23