Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Social care in context – Alma’s Not Normal



Last night I cried watching Sophie Willan’s brilliant Alma’s not Normal (BBC). In this episode, the show’s protagonist, Alma, receives a box full of her social care records. As she sits down to read them she is confronted by sentences such as: “Alma was added to the child protection register under the category ‘gravely at risk’,Alma is not making progress academically”, “Alma is an overactive, over sensitive, emotionally distressed child”. I know I’m not the only person that will have cried. For those working in social care these sentences won’t surprise you. But what is striking is that a lot of these sentences – and those that are a lot worse – are still written down and recorded “on record” (the title of this episode). What this powerful episode does is highlight the impact that these assessments and words can have on a person, and indeed how ridiculous they can seem. Alma quips “that’s like some sort of shit Mystic Meg isn’t it?” after reading a psychiatric assessment which notes “the level of neglect Alma has suffered is already presenting itself in Alma’s chaotic attachment style and low self-esteem this could cause more problems for Alma later in life”.

Over the years there been several times that I have cried when ‘doing’ case file reviews (reviewing young people’s case files for research purposes); where young people are described in records, like those of Alma, with statement such as: “Emma seems to be quite controlling towards her parents and can manipulate them”, “She is bright, clever and presents herself well. She has also has the potential to get drawn into a cycle of criminality, drug and alcohol use and poor choices” or “school have raised concerns regarding Jade’s promiscuous behaviours”.

It’s easy at times like this to get angry, to think about how terrible the social worker must be that has written these things. And I have to admit that this can often be my first thought; I’ve, cried down the phone to colleagues or stomped up and down my local park angrily. But what I found so powerful about this episode is that Alma, via the genius of Sophie Willan, doesn’t blame the social workers who’ve written these records, but puts them in context, both in the national policy cuts but also the demands on social workers. When reading them with a friend she jokes about “poor fucking Colin to be fair” – the social worker that arrived at her house to find a man wielding a hammer. Her insights that social workers are overworked and under pressure is summed up concisely at the start of the episode: “Poor fuckers, social workers. They deal with loads of harrowing stuff, take shit off everyone and never get a lunch break”.

The careful balance Alma’s Not Normal takes between sadness and anger over what is written in records and putting practice in context is what we have been trying to do through the work of the Contextual safeguarding team. Over the last three years we have worked with 10 social care teams across the country. This month we are holding our last ‘system reviews’ – meetings that we hold with local authorities to provide feedback and insights on the work they have been doing to develop Contextual Safeguarding systems. There’s been lots of wins and great successes, but there have also been difficult conversations about practice we’ve seen for young people affected by extra-familial harm. It could be easy during these meetings to take the stance of ‘academic’ observer, assessing and inspecting. But that hasn’t been the approach we have taken. Over the last three years we have worked together and alongside local authorities to not only develop their systems and processes, but to understand the conditions in which safeguarding takes place. This isn’t to say that we don’t discuss ‘poor practice’ when we see it, but that we put this in context to support the changes needed to improve social care.

When we are confronted with practice that doesn’t feel right, or case notes like those above, we spend time together as a team talking through what we’ve seen and where it might be coming from. In many instances what we know is that it’s a combination of factors: the risk posed to young people is incredibly high, practitioners are anxious, the interventions are underfunded or don’t exist, practitioners aren’t supported, and they are under extreme pressure to meet targets and inspection frameworks.

At the same time, social workers, and the systems they operate within are emboldened by networks of power – be that legal, policy, social or cultural. Who social workers deem are ‘at risk’ and what is understood as responsibility is interwoven with systems of power – sexism, racism, ableism, classism – that mean that it is often marginalised groups that feel the full force of harmful systems and practices. The power practitioners have is not insignificant and the stakes are often very high: in the best-case scenario a child that has been sexually exploited might not see that they have been called ‘promiscuous’ in their case files notes and the practitioner might be supported to understand that this is problematic. In one of the worst-case scenarios – but also likely - these notes could undermine the conviction of an adult sex offender and contribute to the blame and trauma victims may experience. It is therefore important that we understand the context of social work but work together to change the system and increase the power of those within it.

It’s important then that our methodological approach to working with local authorities is done collaboratively and that we place practice in context, just the same way we ask practitioners to do when working with young people affected by extra-familial harm. Without this, what we see are researchers, managers and practitioners who take an adversarial approach – exactly as we see in this episode with her manager at the subway shop. The use of the behaviour chart (which the manager uses in this episode) feels scarily close to what we see in schools, and the new social worker who appears to have taken a particular stance to get through a tough job. Done badly, the methods we have developed to support Contextual Safeguarding – such as case reviews, systems reviews or ‘RAG rating’ could be used as a stick to beat practitioners with, not an opportunity to learn and develop. Sometimes this route is hard to do, but we work together to keep going, and we can see already the huge strides that local authorities have taken.

This isn’t about letting social workers ‘off the hook’ but an invitation to engage approaches, methods and stances to systems change that works with practitioners to improve the safety and support of the young people and families they work with.

*Alma’s not normal is available via BBC iPlayer

*all names used in quotes are pseudonyms.

Posted: 19 Nov 2021

Author: Jenny Lloyd

University of Bedfordshire logo