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Social workers fear after Lauren case

PUBLISHED: 14:30 06 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:37 03 March 2010

DONNA Lancaster makes no secret of the tears she has shed in the last few days.

She admits that Lauren Wright's story is a heart-breaking tragedy of the highest order; that the pictures have plucked at her heart; that the child's suffering has brought it all home.

DONNA Lancaster makes no secret of the tears she has shed in the last few days.

She admits that Lauren Wright's story is a heart-breaking tragedy of the highest order; that the pictures have plucked at her heart; that the child's suffering has brought it all home.

She says the same of Anna Climbie.

Donna shares the sorrow of millions, and yet her frustration and horror is heightened more than most – as a former social worker, her career history has seen to that.

Since mid-way through the 1990s, Donna has been working in various local authorities as a childcare social worker. In fact, the lives of hundreds of youngsters just like Lauren have unquestionably depended upon her.

And, as she is all too keen to stress, there are plenty more tiny Laurens, or 'potential Laurens' just waiting to be discovered right here on our very doorstep.

"These cases really are horrible, and the public has every right to be appalled by what that little girl went through," accepted Donna. "Like lots of other people, I cried at the reports into her life, and I share in the sadness.

"But my insight is different to a lot of peoples'," she added. "I know, that in the course of my work, I have seen dozens and dozens of cases of neglect and abuse out there. They are in our region and all around Britain.

"People really just don't know how bad the extent is – perhaps they don't really want to know."

Donna's experience brings together an extensive casebook, covering a total of three local authorities at different points in the past six years – the last of which was Suffolk.

She had, she now confesses, entered the profession full of enthusiasm and hope, but today she admits that her dreams were severely shattered.

Today she talks frankly, and with some regret, about the brutal realisation of all her intentions.

"I went in to social work truly believing that I could make a difference," she said, laughing at the apparent cliché.

"I thought I could provide the preventative work that would stop young children going into care; that I would help to keep families together. Now I wonder if I must have been somewhat naïve."

Determined to take her place in the profession, and eager to build on her previous work in children's homes, Donna completed a two-year diploma. It was all that the law required of her.

"In my opinion, that's one of the biggest problems with the career right now," she insisted. "Two years is just not long enough to prepare you sufficiently for the way things are out there in the job.

"I thought I had found my niche in life when I'd been working with youngsters in the residential centres, but I was so ill-prepared for what the world of a social worker was like."

Looking back, Donna is still amazed at the culture shock which befalls a newly qualified worker. She is hardly surprised that recruitment is such a great problem in the current climate, or that the level of stress-related illness is so high among service staff.

"As soon as I received my own case-load I knew that the reality of the profession was very different to how I was taught," she confessed.

"It was hugely stressful, and much more demanding than you could ever imagine. The lack of money and resources within the service was so very obvious, and it is something that really needs addressing if things are going to change."

She said: "I was barely out of my probation stage when I was being given the high priority cases – and lots of them.

"There is just no time for your manager to break you in gently because social workers are in such demand, and there is just so many cases out there which urgently need your attention."

Social workers generally deal with their cases in two allotted categories. The higher of the two is the 'Child Protection' list, which refers to those children in urgent need of assistance.

These have been placed on to the Child Protection Register because they have officially been recognised as being within one of four areas: 'physical abuse', 'sexual', 'emotional abuse', and neglect'.

The lesser priority is for cases where a family is seen as in need of help, and, potentially, might be able to prevent a child going into care if they receive this early support.

Donna insists that this structure is well-meaning, but says the pressure on the entire service makes it almost impossible to deal with anything but the highest priority cases.

She said: "The danger, from my experience, is that the number of urgent cases is so high that social workers are barely getting the chance to look at the other category.

"And yes, it could mean that some of our potentially vulnerable youngsters are then consequently ending up in the 'Protection' case load when that might have been prevented."

It is this urgency, and this ever-increasing case-load, which is undeniably contributing to the stress, illness and disillusionment that has hit the country's team of social workers.

Agency staff are now being brought in by many local authorities and countless staff have felt forced to quit a profession that they had so desperately wanted to work in.

Donna is just one of those.

"I just felt that I wasn't doing what I trained to do," she said. "It was so upsetting to come to that realisation.

"I still believe in the good of social work so very much, but you have no idea how tough it was and how desperate for resources this profession is."

Having gradually felt the effects of stress, it was just two months into her Ipswich-based post that Donna had to be signed off through ill-health.

Stress and depression from her experiences in social work had now finally taken their toll.

"I have to stress that this was not about the move to Suffolk social services – it really wasn't," she said.

"That was simply the straw that broke the camels back, because the culmination of all my social work cases had finally got to me.

"It is the same for so many people who enter the profession, and I just wish that there could be more training and support to help deal with this crisis."

With a look of sad reflection, Donna added: "I had no idea about the stress the job would cause, nor the power that you are given over people's lives.

"You can potentially break a family if you make the wrong decision, and you are making exactly those sort of decisions every day."

She said: "Unfortunately, I came to believe that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't when it comes to social work.

"People are always quick to talk about the cases where professionals have removed children too soon, or when they have left them there too late. But you need to remember that there are some really great social workers out there, and that they work very very hard on poor resources, wanting the very best for every family."

In the light of the latest case, Donna reflects on the tragedy of Lauren Wright.

She fervently believes that any social worker would of course have dropped everything if they had heard the kind of reports which had been said about that vulnerable child.

She said: "It's wrong for me to make judgement on a specific case when there is very obviously so much more that we just don't know.

"All I can say, is that if a case with those sort of early reports had come in to Tower Street office in Ipswich, Lauren would have become the first-rate priority above all else."

So obviously passionate about this topic, Donna takes the opportunity to acknowledge the great work which Suffolk social workers are doing.

She said: "Right here in this county, there are a great number of fantastic social workers who are saving the lives of children every single day.

"It saddens me to think that people can be so quick to criticise the work of such professionals, while they don't take the time to reflect on the good these people are doing."

"In fact," she added, "That is where a lot of the problem lies in this society.

"People are quick to lay blame and to frown upon a system, but they don't want to do anything to help."

Donna is adamant that friends, neighbours, relatives and community members could all be playing a far greater part in preventing cases like that of Lauren Wright.

She said: "It's all about collective responsibility. We need to all take a look at what is going on around us, and we need to speak up when we have fears.

"What about Jamie Bulger? That child was dragged screaming through a shopping centre and no-one did anything. We need to learn from lessons like that if we are to see proper care for our children."

"Unfortunately, we worry about being classed as 'nosy parkers' and 'curtain-twitchers', but we can't afford to," she insisted. "We have to pick up the phone, state our concern, and simply stop turning a blind eye."

Donna believes adamantly in 'prevention' through such means.

It is for this very reason that she has taken her latest caring career post – and why she hopes that the climate may eventually change for the better.

"In my role now, I am working to create the collective responsibility that I believe is so important.

"I am a family group conference co-ordinator, and it means that I pool together anyone who could help ease the burden on a potentially 'strained' family unit."

She said: "Essex has had this in operation for some years, but it is only a very new concept in Suffolk.

"We bring together all those that might strengthen a family, and might increase the support for a young and vulnerable child."

Donna knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that if she wanted to be placed back in the centre of the social work profession, she could do it instantly.

It's a move, that despite her passion, she would still be reluctant to make.

"The profession is crying out for workers, but I can't see myself heading straight back in the door with the way things are now."

She said: "I believe passionately in social work, and in its intentions, but unfortunately, the current climate has tainted my view.

"It needs to change, and the only way it is going to do that is with less judgement and more community-wide responsibility."

"Without this, things are just not going to get better," Donna urged with brutal honesty.

"Every social worker dreads a Lauren Wright or an Anna Climbie, but if the system doesn't get more resources, more understanding and more support, these tragedies will certainly not be the last of their kind."

Next week read the Suffolk Social Services viewpoint.

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