In working with the most vulnerable children and adults in the country, social workers, along with probation officers, the police and a host of other professionals, are charged with protecting people from themselves and the public from harm. We know that most harm comes from those closest to people, from whom they least expect – at least when it starts.
The difficulty realising what is going on is perfectly and appallingly illustrated by the failure to spot the extent of localised grooming of vulnerable girls by older men in some Northern towns over the last few years. Instances like this make it harder to think of social workers as experts, but the truth is the profession of social work has gradually and inexorably become more expert. We see experts in risk assessment. We see experts in empowerment, though the daily promotion of personalisation. We have experts in specialist areas like dementia care and the needs of young carers. These areas of expertise help to define social work as a civilising force.
In family court social work, we are increasing our expertise in social work methods such as a child impact analysis, in which we aim to understand the impact of neglect, family violence, drug or alcohol misuse or high-conflict parental separation, on an individual child. It is one of the hardest tasks in social work. Children are often conditioned into staying silent, or laying a false trail, often to protect the very person or people causing them harm. Many children have never told anyone how they feel. Our professional task is to understand a child’s needs, wishes and feelings, often without the time to build a trusting relationship in which, over time, a child can begin to feel that rush in confidence that heralds the release of pressure and a need to communicate what is really going on. At Cafcass, getting even closer to children is our main professional task. In our work, for various reasons, we sometimes get it wrong, like all social workers and all social work agencies sometimes do, and we learn from this. But we get it right most of the time, and that has saved many children's lives.