The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “media”

In response to the Daily Mail

Today’s Daily Mail (28 October) claims that Cumbria Councy Council tried to keep the death of baby Poppi Worthington a secret in order to protect its social workers.  According to the Daily Mail the judge has stated the secrecy is to protect the identity of Poppi’s siblings and to prevent future criminal proceedings being prejudiced.  Needless to say the Daily Mail doesn’t accept this view.

This news report coincides with the BBC documentary “Baby P: The Untold Story” broadcast last night (27 October).  And it’s significant.

No doubt Peter’s death was harrowing and preventable.  A Serious Case Review, longer and more in-depth than usual, largely agreed that Peter’s death was a coming together of independent errors that alone would not have led to his death but in combination were fatal.  Several agencies and professionals were involved.

If Cumbria want to keep Poppi’s case a secret in order to protect their staff it may be because of the role of the media in what followed the public announcement of the outcome of the trial of Peter’s parents.  The tone of the media reporting, and the public and political response, led Peter’s name to be shamefully abused in his death as he became a media and political football, with demands that ‘heads should roll’. It became a witch hunt, the chasers baying for blood, social workers in their sights while other agencies scattered to lick their wounds.  The findings of the Serious Case Review were dismissed as a cover-up.

But there was one thing that struck me in particular from the documentary – the situation in Haringey’s health services.  So difficult was recruitment of qualified medical staff into children’s services in Haringey it had to be done under cover of Great Ormond Street Hospital.  And the reason for that was because of the fallout of an even earlier high profile child death, Victoria Climbie, which also led to vast swathes of negative media coverage.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DEMAND BLOOD.

People who should be working in what are undoubtedly difficult and high pressured jobs at the very edge of making important, life and death decisions, about the welfare of vulnerable children, don’t want to work there.  And those who stay, or join, find themselves in an excessively pressured atmosphere trying to keep the wolves at bay.  It is not an atmosphere that is the most conducive to saving the lives of other vulnerable children.

So, Daily Mail, before you start your campaign calling for heads to roll, for social workers to be punished and sacked, think about what you are doing not just to the rest of the social workers who are trying to do a good job, but also to the other professions, the police, health and education services, who work alongside social workers in trying to do their jobs to protect the most vulnerable members of our society and prevent further tragedies.

Don’t just blame the boys

Hot on the heels of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber the boys of One Direction have hit the headlines with shocking tales of smoking drugs, adult relationships and erotic pictures, and using the ‘n-word’, chased by a phalanx of angry parents wanting to protect the innocence of their ‘tweenagers’ and crying that with all the wealth that comes from their fame and popularity should come responsibility. The same cries that went up about Miley and Justin.

But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Are the boys to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans? Dare I answer both yes and no to both parts of that question?

In 2010 they were fresh faced teenagers at the start of a meteoric career in the entertainment industry. I find it hard to believe that none of them had experimented or come into contact with, or at least thought about, smoking, drinking, drugs or sex by that age, as innocent as they looked on X-Factor. It’s not for nothing fathers of teenage girls fear teenage boys, remembering their own youthful obsessions and intentions.

But four years have passed and today these boys have turned into young men in their early 20’s. Developmentally they are coming to the end of their adolescent years: years we know are about experimentation, breaking away from parental controls, testing new ideas and finding what will become your own adult identity. The influences that caused them and their peers to think about or try drugs, alcohol, smoking and sex four years ago have not gone away. At their age a proportion of their peers will be at university themselves experimenting with relationships, alcohol and drugs to varying degrees. The only difference is that the boys of One Direction have a lot more money to indulge in these activities than their peers.

Like it or not, their behaviour is within the bounds of normal for their age. That’s not to let them off the hook regarding their behaviour. It would be nice to think that in return for the fame and adulation, not to mention the money, they have received the boys of One Direction would feel a sense of responsibility towards their young fans. But although one of the learning curves in adolescence and early adulthood is in making decisions and taking responsibility for your choices, to be aware of the impact of your actions in the wider world, it’s a lesson that’s usually learned by experimentation and making mistakes!

I can fully appreciate the concerns of parents on the influences on their young children, their role is after all to protect and nurture these young lives. But is it realistic to throw all the blame at the boys of One Direction for being a bad influence?

Take a moment instead to look at how five hormonally and developmentally normal young men in their early 20’s have found themselves living in a time warp that presents them to the world as if they were still slightly naive 16 or 17 year olds.

What about the responsibility of the image makers behind stars such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber and One Direction, artificially presenting young adults in an unnatural way. They take fresh faced youngsters, vulnerable in their youth, enthusiasm and idealism, and straightjacket them in the appearance of delayed development because it makes more money for everyone. And they have been doing it is as long as at least the history of movies: Shirley Temple and Judy Garland from the pre-war years, the Disney girls Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus alongside other child stars such as Macaulay Culkin, who is still referred to as a “former child star” at the age of 33. But the pop music industry has not been immune either. I personally recall my teenage discovery that the squeaky-clean non-smoking members of the 1970’s band “The Sweet” were smoking and taking drugs. It was an early lesson as I realised their whole image had been a media creation; including their music which was chosen for its commercial properties designed to draw the pounds from the pockets of their teen fan base rather than the “heavy metal” they reverted to when their earlier contract ended. The parents of today’s “tweenagers” no doubt have their own memories of bands or singers whose real lives behind the scenes turned out different to the media spin. There’s no reason to think it will be any different today.

So, are the boys of One Direction to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans?

They are doing a job (entertainment) and they get well paid for it. They have a responsibility to do that job well and ‘earn’ their income. They have a responsibility to themselves to complete their normal development, grow up and take care of themselves.

Ideally they should have some thought for their young fans but there are many others they share that responsibility with: the lion’s share of responsibility and the blame for misleading the public should go to the management companies behind the bands, the ones who decide on the public image and promote it. Their decisions affect first the vulnerable young starlets who have a talent and are dazzled by the prospect of fame, tying them into contracts at a time in their lives when they should be breaking free and developing their own identity. They know their young starlets will ‘grow up’ and that the straightjacket can’t last. It’s happened so many times before that they already know that the young fans will be disappointed and hurt when the truth cracks through the media spin (aka lies). The high income may be relatively short term, four years so far in the case of One Direction, but it must be worth it. They know that One Direction (and others) will get over this: maybe they will apologise enough to seem contrite and keep the machine turning perhaps with a more grown up audience, maybe they’ll split and go on to separate careers. Either way, the public will forget and move on to love the next squeaky clean star(s) they are presented with. Which leads to the final area of responsibility.

As members of the public and parents we also have a responsibility for the young fans. Cyrus, Bieber and One Direction are not a modern phenomenon. But as a society we have short memories and don’t seem to learn the lessons; each time another young star breaks free of the commercially profitable straightjacket many react with shock and horror as if we too believed the media image. We should know better. And we should be telling those behind the deceit that their practices are unacceptable.

References

Further information on all the stars mentioned can be easily found with a simple internet search. Similarly there is also plenty of evidence online regarding brain development in late teens and early twenties, some of which can be found in the following links:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2012/08/29/the-neuroscience-of-twenty-somethings/
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390443713704577601532208760746?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10000872396390443713704577601532208760746.html
http://www.edinformatics.com/news/teenage_brains.htm
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110922134617.htm

fear, vulnerability and inferiority?

Heavy with kohl, only her eyes could be seen as they peered between the strips of black fabric that made up the niqab of her outfit. Her shoes peeped from below the bottom of the hem of her dress. Her sleeves rode a little up her arms exposing her forearms slightly, the delicate lace edging of the fabric pretty against her arm. A man joined her as she sat in the waiting area at the airport. Her demeanor did not change. They chatted and appeared relaxed before they walked off, he leading while she followed pushing the luggage trolley. From her eyes, her gait and the age of the man she was with I guessed her to be in her late 20’s or early 30’s.

A lot has been said in the UK press, and elsewhere, about the rights or wrongs, values or merits of the niqab, the effect it has on society, how non-Muslims feel about it, etc. Some of the most recent comments have been about situations such as giving evidence in court, with allegations of the niqab denying other participants the opportunity to benefit from all types of communication, including facial expressions. Over time there have been comments from women who feel they are forced to wear the niqab against their will, perhaps because of the country or society in which they live. Others feel condemned because they choose to wear this garment. Either way, all I can say is that from where I sat, no more than ten feet from this couple, was that this woman’s body language did not obviously display any discomfort.

But it was my reactions that lead me to write. I am White British and no longer young. I was wearing trousers and long sleeves, I was not dressed to incite temptation. Yet my first feeling was of vulnerability. I felt exposed. Her voluminous dress and almost entire face covering denied me any sense of what she looked like, beyond the heavy kohl around her eyes. By contrast she could see if I was skinny or fat, if my hair was long or short, the distinguishing features of my face, if I was smiling and happy or otherwise sad.

As I observed her body language, that she seemed comfortable in her garb, I began to feel inferior. If the niqab was her choice to wear was I her spiritual inferior for not having the same dedication and devotion? Even though my religion may be different?

None of us are immune from the vagaries of our upbringing and experience. All we can do is recognise our reactions and emotions in situations such as these, and be prepared to challenge ourselves.  Especially when our work brings us in to contact with cultures different from our own.

Turning Tides – maybe

Following the Conneticut massacre, and amidst the debates on gun law and gun controls in the US, a quote recently appeared on Facebook:

Reagan quoteAt first glance it might seem that Reagan has a good point, but is it that simple?  Certainly over the years there has been a move towards ‘rights’ rather than ‘responsibilities’ and a decline in the individual being held accountable for their actions, as excuses are made, “he had a bad childhood”, “she was drunk”.

Coming from a different angle, members of the Australian Social Workers’ Association produced a cartoon several years ago.  A small group of professionals: social workers, teachers, police, and medical professionals, were depicted with the caption, “We are responsible for the death of that child.”  The second image was of a large group of people representing society as a whole with the caption, “We are responsible for the death of that child.”  The final picture was of a stereotypical “bad man”, with the caption, “It was my hands that beat the life out of that child.  But I am not responsible for her death.”  If anyone still has a copy of that cartoon (with the accurate quotes), I would love to have a copy to post here.

That cartoon was a reflection on how social workers experienced society’s reaction via the media following a serious incident, usually leading to the death of a vulnerable person.  It wasn’t an unrealistic depiction.  In the UK, when a child dies, enquiries are held, files are analysed, professionals are interviewed and individuals, in this case the professionals, are held accountable for their role and actions.  Often though, it is only the front line social workers who are subjected to castigation in the press.  Maybe it’s because health professionals and the police are seen as the “good guys” they are permitted a little failing occasionally.  Nobody wants a social worker calling at their door.  When the mother of one of the 10 year old boys who shockingly murdered Jamie Bulger in Liverpool back in 1993 said, “I told the (education) welfare (my son) wasn’t in school”, her words were reported but little comment was added as to her role in her son’s generally poor school attendance.  Society, as presented through the media, is selective about the individuals who are called accountable for their actions.

The tide may be turning a little.  Following the death of Baby P in England in London, England, in 2007, the enquiries were still held, the role of the professionals still investigated, but with a tone of shock there was recognition in the media that the parents of Baby P committed the actual neglect and abuse against their son and did their utmost to lie to and conceal the truth from the professionals who were engaged in trying to ensure their son’s safety and welfare.

The individual should be accountable for his actions[1].  But what of the role of society?  In the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.”  Individuals are members of society, together they make up society.  Society makes the laws that enable society to function as a whole.  Perpetrators of crimes are members of society.  Relatives, friends and neighbours of perpetrators of crime are members of society.  Among them will be some who recognise laws are being broken, criminal acts are being committed, that the human rights of other individuals are being violated.  Society as a whole has a role to play in the prevention of transgressions against society, not least because unless they do the “professionals” may not know there is a problem until it is too late.

Shortly after the Connecticut shootings, my heart went out to the woman who wrote her blog entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother”[2].  Not literally, but metaphorically.  Her own child has serious behaviour problems.  At times he is a sweet natured child.  At other times he becomes a monster.  She knows, as his mother, that her soon to be adolescent son will be a risk to society when he is an adult.  He could be the next Adam Lanza.  She has sought the help of professionals and has received and accepted the help given.  But under existing US legislation no-one, including her, can prevent her son from refusing to take his medication (which regularly happens) or one day going out and legally buying guns that are readily available in supermarkets, shopping malls and downtown stores, and using those guns to maim and destroy.

Professionals, whether front line workers, managers, employers, are society’s representatives, doing the work of society, to protect the vulnerable members of society on behalf of society.  They are also members of society themselves.  They have the responsibility to do their jobs to the best of their ability within the guidelines of their profession and the laws of their country.  They have the responsibility to make proper use of supervision to discuss cases and work related issues, to recognise and understand their strengths and weaknesses, and to identify new or refresher training to help them in their work.  Their employers have the responsibility to ensure that supervision and training are properly provided and that workers are not exposed to unrealistic work expectations and caseloads.  They are society at work.

Society as a whole may not be guilty when individuals choose to break individual laws.  But modern society is a fluid entity, impacted on by outside forces beyond its control, a changing thing that as a whole has a duty to protect its own welfare, for the sake of future society.  When it becomes obvious that society’s norms and laws are not protecting society in some way, and society chooses not to respond, leaving more laws to be broken, more crimes to be committed, more individuals to be harmed, more lives to be lost, then society is guilty of not protecting itself or its members.

This is the challenge facing the US today.  Each time innocent children get killed in a school shooting, society has to ask itself if that shooting could have been prevented and how.  Restrictions on gun ownership; more security in schools; more guns in schools to prevent shootings in schools (as proposed by the NRA); better recognition of mental health problems and better mental health care, particularly for the poor and uninsured: just some of the options up for discussion.

If society as a whole does not succeed in coming to some kind of resolution that works when problems such as this arise, then society as a whole may be considered guilty by default of not taking action to prevent the law being broken, and harm being done, in the future.


[1] There may be exceptions, such as victims of certain crimes.  For example, someone who is exposed to the drug scopolamine loses all power of individual thought and can be easily persuaded to carry out crimes on behalf of another person.  Like the date rape drug Rohypnol it may be given to the victim without their knowledge.

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