We recently wrote about an article by Louise Tickle in the Guardian which had caused a certain amount of controversy, in particular arising from her use of the term ‘kidnap’ to describe failures of local authorities to act appropriately when accommodating children under s20 Children Act 1989, as illustrated in a recent judgment concerning a significant number of children in the care of Herefordshire Council. As well as being a freelance journalist, Louise is a member of The Transparency Project group.

We’ve noticed that the Guardian have now published a comment piece which seems to be a response to Louise’s kidnap article, or at any rate to have been prompted by it. It has generated an amount of discussion within the Transparency Project group and it’s fair to say that there is some divergence of views, which probably reflects a wider lack of consensus about how we should publicly discuss issues around failures of local authorities or of social workers.

The reply post is by a social worker going under a pseudonym and is entitled : A warped view of social work in the media is unfair – and dangerous.

You can read Louise’s original article ‘The state has a terrible secret : it kidnaps our children’ here, and our post ‘Secret State Kidnap – breathless headline or blunt reality?’ here.

The central complaint of the pseudonymous author is that recent media coverage of social work ‘has misrepresented the system that seeks to protect children’. The examples it gives are a piece that appeared in The Economist in March : From Cradle to Court – The troubling surge in English children being taken from their parents, and Louise’s piece.

Of The Economist it is said that they failed to draw the distinction between ‘looked after’ children and removed children. There are of course some looked after children who are not removed and where the plan was never removal, and the Economist don’t draw that distinction. But whilst the Economist article mentions the number of looked after children, it is focussed on the rise in the number of children who are the subject of a court application, the statistics for which have been rising year on year for a decade.

Although there are no readily accessible statistics showing what proportion of looked after children are under care orders with a plan for remaining at home, those who work in the court or child protection system (including the social worker who wrote the piece) will know that it is relatively unusual for a child to be the subject of a care order and yet placed at home – and that in some local authorities it just never happens. Although we don’t know the precise breakdown of ‘looked after at home’ and ‘looked after removed’ children, there has been a prolonged and marked statistical trend of more and more children being the subject of proceedings – so we don’t think there can be any real doubt that more are also being removed from their parents.

The second point made against The Economist is that the article doesn’t acknowledge the move away from adoption towards the proper exploration of alternative options like special guardianship in recent years (following Re B-S in 2013). That seems to be a legitimate criticism – the Economist cite the rise in the number of applications for care orders, but do not refer the reader to statistics on the outcomes of care proceedings. The Family Court Quarterly statistics routinely show a discrepancy between the number of care order applications and the number of care orders – a care application does not always result in a care order, either because a child remains at home / goes home or is placed with family members, typically under a special guardianship order.

What is clear and accurate from The Economist article is that the state is resorting to taking families to court with the prospect of removing children and all that brings with it, much more frequently.

Louise’s article though, is said in terms to be ‘dangerous and damaging’. The author acknowledges that there is evidence that social workers have ‘misapplied the law’, but there is no sense that the author has read and taken on board the judgment in the case that Tickle is reporting about, which sets out really quite significant poor practice and unlawful behaviour (we think that describing the behaviour of the local authority as described in that judgment as a mere ‘misapplication’ of the law is minimising the extent of the failures – if you want to know why, read the judgment here. As one of our group members (Polly, a lawyer) says : ‘retaining a child in the face of parental objection for years is not a misapplication of the law but a fundamental rejection of the whole idea that there is a threshold and legal oversight. It’s egregious’).

Whilst the author complains that ‘reporting of the basics of the child protection system is […] often seriously flawed’ (as it undoubtedly is), this journalist is generally known for her careful and thorough writing on this area, and this particular article by her is factually accurate and underpinned by a specific example, with a link to the judgment. So even if one takes issue with the use of the phrase ‘kidnapping’ or phrases which appear to point the finger at frontline social workers in general, this seems an odd example to pick to best illustrate poor or unfair journalism.

Complaint is made that Tickle’s article trivialises a complex issue and is ‘used to justify condemnation of the whole profession’.

There is an irony here : a social worker complaining that journalists use words to condemn their whole profession, whilst using words to condemn the whole journalism profession.

It may be that Tickle’s article ‘ignores the sheer complexity of the decisions social workers make day-to-day and undermines the work we do to help children and families in crisis’, but the author does not acknowledge that opinion pieces are inevitably tightly word limited, and that Tickle has written sympathetically of the difficulties faced by social workers on other occasions.

It’s not clear how the article trivialises the issue – if anything it emphasises a serious issue by using emotive term ‘kidnap’ to describe very poor behaviour. Many have condemned the use of the term kidnap. Others take the view it is hard hitting but legitimate description of evidenced examples of unlawful removal of children. Whilst in our previous post we didn’t think that the intention was to denigrate the whole profession, it is clear that a number of people have interpreted it as doing so. It may be that there is a need on both sides to reflect on the language used and the reaction to it.

It is really important that when the state does bad things and breaks the law, the press are able and willing to report that – however much flack they get for it. The vilification of social workers, who do a tough job in difficult circumstances, is also unhelpful – it makes it harder for social workers to do their jobs. There is a real tension at times between those two things. The answer of course is to avoid failures in the first place, as then there will be nothing to report on – but this is often out of the control of individual social workers because the problems are systemic.

So, a conversation that basically runs like this :

SW ‘Stop calling us kidnappers!’ 

Journalist : ‘Stop breaking the law and I’ll stop saying it!’

is probably not hugely productive.

We think that professionals like social workers must be ready to accept criticism of their colleagues, the system they work within or their profession where individuals, organisations or systems clearly fall below an acceptable standard, and that they need to better understand that a journalist who writes a story about social work failure or local authority practice is simply doing their job, a job that by its nature makes life uncomfortable for someone (a position that social workers ought to be able to empathise with). And that it is no part of the function of journalism to act as a public relations conduit for social work.

This should be mirrored in the other direction : journalists and media organisations who issue condemnation of individuals or organisations like social workers or local authorities, must be prepared to listen to pushback. There is room for both.

It might be helpful to think of it this way : whilst journalism about what is working well in social work is to be welcomed, generally the good news stories ‘do not meet the threshold for [journalistic] intervention’.

It is probably as hard for social workers to get a good news story about social work heard as it is for journalists to get a fair hearing amongst social workers. Perhaps each profession needs to gain a better understanding of the ethical underpinning, context and function of the other to break out of this sometimes repetitive cycle?