Making a Difference?

Sunday, April 1st, 2012 by Chris Durkin

I find the news in recent months very depressing and worrying -the ongoing difficulties in Afghanistan, the crisis in Syria and potential future problems in Iran. It feels like a world full of conflict and despair. All these issues are viewed from afar from the comfort of my sitting room: troubling but unlikely to impinge on my life. Like many, the geographical distances from home allows me to separate myself and feel the stories from foreign lands have little to do with my own relatively comfortable life. However, the ongoing deaths of soldiers and the increasing numbers coming home with post traumatic stress disorder pricks the bubble of collective consciousness and is beginning to change the narrative.

If we look closer to home at our own country things don’t seem much better, with ongoing economic difficulties and what seem like many intractable social problems - high levels of unemployment particularly amongst young people which in some areas will add to the growing problems of poverty, poor health and community relations.

I was also disturbed recently by a reality television; it was neither a talent show nor another celebrity programme; this was reality that was raw. There was nothing in this programme that was uplifting or a show for some future talent. It was a show of an isolated family who were struggling with life. The programme focused on the work of a Bristol social work team and shone the spotlight on a young couple who were struggling with the bringing up of their son. Their situation was causing increasing concern to a variety of agencies because of issues of neglect. The boy was developmentally delayed due to speech problems and the house was untidy and dirty. This was what is sometimes described as a ‘typical’ neglect case; yet there is nothing typical about human tragedy.

From what I can remember about the programme the family were living in a very sparsely furnished flat in a rundown estate with few friends and limited contact with other family members. However, what we saw were two parents, particularly a father who was not coping and a mother pregnant with her second child. Later on during the programme the mother was admitted to hospital with pregnancy complications. As the story unfolded you watched as the social worker and her manager became increasingly concerned; concerns were compounded when it was realised that the father was not coping, which finally resulted in the child being admitted into care.

My initial thoughts were why did this family agree to have their rather tragic story shown on television? It also brought back memories of similar cases that I had been involved in when I was a social worker. Neglect cases are often very complex and you have to make difficult decisions about whether to leave a child in a home balanced against the potential harm caused by removal. They are not just tales of people living in a dirty house.

Neglect, unlike any other category of abuse, can be caused by either commission or omission. In the latter case, problems may be alleviated and ultimately solved by support and education. They are cases, however, that can go on for years with families being passed round all members of a team and often seen as a ‘good learning experience’ for a student. Yet the slowly deteriorating state can lead us to a false sense of security, wanting to feel that things are improving when they are slowly deteriorating. As the time progresses we may shift our gaze and lose our focus on the child and his or her relationship. These are fine judgements that have to be made.

Too often a family’s needs may require the involvement of a number of different agencies which may compound the problems leading to confusion, poor communication and passing the buck; ultimately nobody takes responsibility. The Victoria Climbie case showed how easy it is for people to change their focus away from the central issues; for example, in that case much of the time was focused on the housing status and issues of immigration rather than the deteriorating family relations.

I would have forgotten about this programme if it wasn’t for a colleague asking me about it wanting my perspective as an ex-social worker. As I spoke to her my memories came flooding back of some of the difficult families that I had worked with – the anger people felt about the decisions I was making, the threats I received and, on occasions, the kindness I was shown. Although I hoped I had made a difference to some, I had to admit to my colleague that I was not really sure what change I had made in many of these families.

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