Following a fortnight long controversial storyline on BBC's Eastenders involving a social worker issuing child protection measures that sparked outcry from some quarters of the social care community, The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has written an open letter to the producers of the show calling for “more accurate, and more positive, depictions of social workers and social work”.
BASW has also offered to work with the show’s production team for future storylines that involve social workers and social work, as they already do with other TV shows.
A BBC spokesperson has responded to the criticism, saying: "EastEnders takes great care when portraying serious issues such as these and we worked closely with experts in the field including a social worker and police advisors to ensure the storyline was portrayed as accurately as possible."
"At no point was it our intention to portray social workers in a bad light, in fact, it was clear that the social worker simply wanted what was best for the children."
Here in full, is the open letter, from BASW CEO Dr. Ruth Allen:
I am writing to you as CEO of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) to share our views of your recent depiction of child protection social work in Eastenders. With 5 million viewers, the stories you choose to tell of this sensitive work, and the experiences of all involved, are important. You can have a huge impact on public opinion, and your stories have great resonance for many people including those who have used services and the public professionals, like social workers, tasked with delivering them.
We all know that soap operas distil down complex slices of life. Nothing is much more complex and emotionally taxing than parents being accused or suspected of harming a child, and social workers (and others) stepping in to a family home with the intention of protecting that child.
We want you to keep tackling this very difficult area and representing it on primetime television and radio. The crucial issue for us is - what stories about this difficult, almost taboo part of life do you choose to tell? How accurate are those stories? And how do you nuance the depiction of social work and its impact on all involved, most particularly the individuals and families affected?
In the plotline in question, the character Stacey Fowler's children – Lily and Arthur – were taken away from her for the night after the children’s grandmother, Carmel Kazemi, became convinced that Stacey was abusing her son Arthur.
As the story unfolded over several episodes we have been gathering the views of social workers, and some people who have used social work services and their advocates, to make a response to this storyline.
There was a swift outcry which has made it to the Daily Mail and Sun newspapers. Much of this is from social workers who feel strongly they have been misrepresented. Many have raised complaint about 'inaccuracy' in the process and actions taken by the fictional social worker.
It is clear some of the actions of the social worker and police on the evening of the temporary accommodation of the children were unlikely, procedurally wrong, and in places unlawful.
Amongst other issues, Arthur’s alleged bruising was not looked at by the social worker or anyone else, let alone medically assessed, before the decision was taken quickly to place both children with an unvetted family member, the grandmother Carmel.
Police resources being deployed as bodyguards to the social worker is unlikely although not impossible, and added to the coercive pressure on the mother.
As the temporary accommodation of the child was not under any statutory power, the mother would have needed to consent to the children staying with grandmother and the father of just one of the children, but this is not mentioned.
The father of one of the children is not spoken to directly, and mother is quickly pressured into acquiescence with no reference to her rights.
The social worker at this point in the drama was quite the cardboard cut-out, showing little empathy or responsiveness to the family’s situation, although she wasn’t particularly harsh or offensive.
So, the dramatic action was legally questionable, unlikely, (but not impossible in the real world, as some authoritative commentators have pointed out) and showed a stiff, uncompassionate social worker interacting with distressed parents.
This characterisation is troubling for social workers who strive to work differently and use their skills to work compassionately with individuals and families, even in tough circumstances. Some have said it feeds into the fear of children’s social services being heavy handed, and might reduce parents’ openness to early support and help.
However, we are aware that others, including some people who have experienced child protection services and their advocates, as well as some social workers, have said the feelings of bewildered disempowerment of (in this case a wrongly) accused mother are not so far from the truth.
Child protection social workers, on behalf of all of us, are tasked with using powers to protect children that are sometimes experienced as punitive and are resisted by parents, even where practice is very good and policy followed.
They also must work with parents and others who are genuinely a high risk to the welfare of their child (unlike the mum in EastEnders), and who deny or hide this. Not every removal of a child from an apparently risky situation can be prevented. But many in our profession and outside recognise the urgent need for more early help for families to reduce the use of controlling child protection powers and removal of children from the family.
We are taking increasing numbers of children into care across England and the poorest and most disadvantaged families are the most likely to experience this. Families in the poorest areas are now ten times more likely to be subject to child protection procedures than those in the most affluent. Social workers should be enabled to help families overcome the social, economic and other challenges more effectively to reduce the times we must intervene in a crisis.
Social workers and social work – like any professional field – is not perfect all the time. We find that work pressures and managerialist regimes often conspire against the best practices we want to pursue - such as spending more time with families to prevent higher risks emerging and the need for more controlling interventions later.
There is no reason to expect television dramas to only show the best of what we do; we don’t expect that of dramas about doctors or nurses (see the Trust Me series recently as a good example). The problem for social work is there are far fewer depictions on television or film, and they tend to be disproportionately inaccurate and negative - and they are landing on top of popular perceptions that are also often disproportionately negative or uninformed about what social workers – particularly child protection social workers – actually do.
This can make social workers sound defensive when they call for more refreshing, accurate, good practice portrayals.
Social work exists in the interaction between practitioners and people using or receiving services. More mainstream media stories that explore those working relationships from all perspectives are welcomed.
Overall, we would argue that the more accurate and sensitive they are, the better – better for viewers who may see themselves in the characters, better for improving the public’s understanding and confidence in social work and ultimately better for the drama.
The realities and struggles of social work and the situations that social workers work in are likely to be far more fascinating, diverse and multifaceted than any inaccurate fiction or stereotyping.
We appreciate that EastEnders has in fact pursued quite a complex storyline over several episodes involving a parent with a mental health condition, a child's accidental ingestion of medication and an anxious grandmother raising an anonymous concern. We later find out she is triggered to do this because her grandchild's bruising brings up memories of her ex-husband’s assault on her own son (the child’s father) when young.
In a subsequent episode the story fills out, the mother explores her rights through the Council’s online information and through this she exerts her right to attend the medical examination of her child. In short order, the doctor finds no cause for concern and mother and children are reunited at home. And the social worker warms up and says she is pleased the family is back together. She then turns up again at the parents’ house – rather sternly and with minimal explanation to offer ‘support’.
For a soap opera, this is quite a multi-layered story overall but I invite you to think about whether it could have been a better drama, and have had many added public benefits, if the depiction of social work and the social worker from the outset was more positive and had tried to depict what great social work can look like.
We have worked with the BBC and other broadcasters and film makers on many occasions to improve scripts and ensure accuracy and ‘realism’.
We urge you to work with us regularly, and earlier in script development, so we can help you create excellent drama that shifts the balance of portrayals of social work. If social workers were to be all over tv drama, like police, doctors and nurses, we would expect to see the light and shade of what we do.
But we hope this would include social workers as real human beings and capable, skilled professionals, not card board cut-outs or cartoon characters.
Let’s see more portrayals of social workers displaying some of the best qualities society needs and expects from public professionals, working closely with citizens to improve lives.
Dr. Ruth Allen
CEO, British Association of Social Workers
Picture (c) Philip Toscano / PA Wire.