In praise of social workers



I was interviewed today by ITN news in the wake of the tragic death of 21 month old Ayeeshia Smith, and found myself getting really frustrated with yet another news reporter once more berating social services for not learning the lessons. ‘Why’, they ask, ‘after so many Serious Case Reviews, do social services keep failing our most vulnerable children?’

But the reality is that social services – and all the other agencies working to support children and families – have learned lessons. And children in this country live far more safely than they did a generation ago.

Every year in England, social services departments deal with over 600,000 referrals of children in need. Over 50,000 children are made the subject of a child protection plan. Nearly all of these are protected from further serious harm, and in the majority of cases, social services, health professionals and others work hard to ensure that these children can stay with their families.

In our recent triennial review of Serious Case Reviews[1] we found that around 26-30 children each year are killed by their parents – far fewer than in the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of these children died in spite of, not because of, all the good work that social care professionals are doing.

Child protection is not a simple job that you can just carry out by following a protocol or just spotting the signs and responding appropriately. Every day child protection professionals are dealing with complex, challenging issues, juggling and appraising the information given to them, and trying their best to find a positive way forward to protect the children, while seeking to support and work with their parents.

So yes, when an innocent child like Ayeeshia Smith is cruelly murdered by her mother, we are right to feel outraged. We are right to ask that lessons be learned – and, as with the current case – there always will be lessons to be learned. But let’s not take it out on the social workers, health visitors, police officers and other professionals without whom many more children would be harmed and many more families would be torn apart by the stresses, grief and turmoil of our complex, messy lives.


[1] Sidebotham P., Brandon M., Bailey S., Belderson P., Dodsworth J., Garstang J., Harrison E., Retzer A., Sorensen P. (2016) Pathways to harm, pathways to protection: a triennial analysis of Serious Case Reviews 2011-2014. DfE RR545. London: Department for Education. ISBN: 978-1-78105-601-1. Available at