There’s been quite a lot of discussion lately about the nature of social work and the social work task, and this has got me thinking about my years as a social worker, which has covered 5 decades.
I started as a generic social worker in 1976, and continued to hold a generic caseload, consisting of a mixture of mental health, elderly, child protection and children and families, until my local authority elected to operate with specialist teams in 1988. It was then that I became a specialist mental health social worker, working in a multidisciplinary community mental health team (one of the first in the country).
In addition, throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, I also worked one or two shifts a week on the out-of-hours standby duty team. This team dealt exclusively with emergencies and crises that arose outside normal working hours.
This seemed to me to be the essence of social work: working in crisis, having to make independent executive assessments and decisions on the hoof with hardly any backup, and having to be prepared to live with the consequences of those decisions.
It was during this time that I encountered similar issues to those reported in Rotherham.
The child protection failures in Rotherham were by no means unique; there were a few occasions when I was called out to the city police station to act as an appropriate adult under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) for teenage girls who had been picked up for soliciting.
I recall one occasion in the early 1990’s when I was called out during the evening to deal with two 14 year old girls. They had been arrested following a tip off from a much older prostitute to the vice squad.
She had reported them, not because they were taking business from her, but because she was rightly concerned that such young girls should not be attempting to solicit. She was primarily concerned for their safety.
But the police did not really see it like that. They did not see it as a child protection issue. That was not why they wanted a social worker. They regarded these girls as juvenile offenders. They simply wanted to process their cases by giving them a caution and then getting them out of the station as quickly as possible. So they needed a social worker, in the role of appropriate adult, to be present while the formal procedure was conducted. And so that I would then be officially responsible for their disposal once released.
Tracey and Tanya were waiting in the custody area when I arrived. They looked as if they were going to a “tarts and vicars” fancy dress party, with ridiculously short skirts and exaggerated makeup.
But they also looked like children rather than adults, and like children, they seemed to have a startlingly naive picture of the reality of prostitution, and were actually grossly unprepared, both practically (no condoms or other protection) and emotionally (they appeared to think that they would get spending money in return for little more than a kiss and a cuddle.)
They were reluctant to talk to me about their motivation or the circumstances that had led them to take to the streets (this was the first time they had tried it), and actually seemed to regard it as a bit of a laugh. The custody officer told me that the mother of one of the girls was a known prostitute, but it was unknown whether the mother knew what they had been trying to do, or indeed if she had actually encouraged them.
They were duly given a caution in my presence, and then released to me. I was unhappy about taking them home, as none of their parents could be contacted, and eventually obtained agreement to place them in a local children’s home, at least until the day time children’s services could assess the situation.
As so often when working out of hours, I never heard what happened toTracey and Tanya.
But I did find out what eventually happened to another lost girl I had involvement with, called Naomi.
Naomi was 16 and over school leaving age. She was on a Care Order to the local authority, and had been in a children’s home for a considerable time, until she had decided to leave the home and move in with someone she described as her boyfriend, a man in his twenties. She had been picked up for soliciting, and I was again called out to act as an appropriate adult.
As she was actually on a Care Order, I felt that I had to ensure that she had a safe place to stay tonight, and arranged for her to have one of the leaving care beds at the local YWCA.
I went to the police station. Naomi was an intelligent, likeable girl. But she had the manner of someone much, much older than 16. She came across as weary and hopeless, and had no interest in what I might be able to do to help her, other than to get her released from police custody.
Once the police had cautioned her, I told her that I was going to take her to the YWCA.
“I’m not going,” she said. “Just take me home. Take me back to my boyfriend.”
I had the strong suspicion that her “boyfriend” was actually her pimp. I was very reluctant to take her there.
“Look,” I said. “It’s just for tonight. I’d just like to feel you were in a safe place.”
She looked at me with 1,000 year old eyes.
“No,” she said finally. “I know you’re just trying to help. But I don’t need any help. Just take me home.”
Although she was on a care order, I had no powers to compel her to live in any particular place, so I reluctantly took her to her stated home address.
Two weeks later her dead body was found on wasteland on the edge of town.
To this day, her murder remains unsolved.