In the summer and autumn of 2013, the names of three children, Daniel Pelka, Hamza Khan and Keanu Williams entered the history books. It is chastening to pause and remember all of the human beings affected by their awful deaths: the children, their siblings, their parents, wider families, neighbours and all the professionals involved. We are therefore mindful of the need for care in making our remarks.
The recent comments from Peter Hay, head of Birmingham’s children’s services department, suggest there is a need to think about why, in some areas, there seems to be such difficulty in recruiting and retaining good quality social workers. We know social workers do not enter the profession to rush from visit to visit, completing forms and instructing parents (usually mothers) to change their behaviour so that their children do not suffer abuse. Yet, our research into families’ experiences and social work systems suggests this is the reality for many.
Parents say they are told to change behaviour immediately, get rid of abusive partners, bond with children – by next week. Families who need help describe a sense of abandonment. Workers briefly enter their lives to assess levels of risk and “signpost” them (if they are lucky) to other, equally constrained, services. Family accounts reveal mistrust and frustration; these are arguably defeated families – defeated by their lives and by the services created to help them.