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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jail Time for Social Workers?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is raising the notion of social workers facing jail time, perhaps up to five years, for failing to protect children from sexual abuse. A summary of the proposal is covered by  Community Care. One can easily see why this idea has come forward in the UK. Recently, there have been very high profile cases in which social workers failed to protect children from large scale abuses. A serious care review in Oxfordshire has shown that workers had knowledge that would have allowed them to protect girls.

There has also been the recent case of Rochdale where there have been multiple victims. But the story of sexual abuse in the UK has been a relentless story in the media. There is the recent conviction of former rock star Gary Glitter for sexual abuse several years ago. The Jimmy Savile case in the UK has shown a profound pattern of sexual abuse over many years with hundreds of victims. Savile, a former BBC pop music icon had access to children in many places.

In Australia, a Royal Commission continues to hear story after story of those in authority who failed to act to protect children when the information was available that something was wrong. There too, the stories seem relentless.

In the UK, the public must be weary of the ongoing media coverage of how children have not been protected by child protection - Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Baby Peter, Khyra Ishaq - and these are only the recent ones. Confidence in the ability of child protection to do their job can only be fragile given these stories. They must be asking what's wrong?

It is in this environment that Cameron raises the idea that social workers could face jail time for being wilfully blind to the risks that children are facing. It could be an idea that can gain public traction easily. Yet, is it the right thing?

Such as approach fails to ask some very key questions:

1. There are many other professionals involved such as police, doctors, health care, teachers - how will they be held accountable?
2. There are questions of caseloads - what can a worker be expected to do with caseloads of 20-30 oe even higher?
3. There is leadership - what is the role of supervisors, managers and community leaders?
4. There is training - have front line workers been given the training needed to see what is going on. Sexual abuse is a specialized area but front line workers are generalists.
5. Inter agency coordination is essential but it remains one of the key areas of difficulty.

The approach also fails to recognize how often these investigations are inconclusive. Very few cases go sexual abuse have physical evidence. It takes quite skilled investigators to work through these cases. Are we putting such skilled workers in place?

There is also the consideration that this may act to drive social workers away from child protection which is possibly the most complex and challenging form of social work. The turnover rates are high meaning that seasoned, skilled workers with this sort of specialized knowledge are not plentiful.

I can well see why Cameron (who may also be facing an election soon) can find this proposal appealing. It may not be the best way to go, however. But his concern is valid while the solution may not be.

1 comment:

  1. The lack of any kind of professional code of conduct in these types of cases is appalling. How anyone could live with themselves after knowing these crimes were going on is beyond me. I just do not understand how somebody could think these things were okay in our society today.

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR's Bail Bonds