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The Death of Liam Fee Is a Feminist Issue

02/06/2016 08:58

The death of two-year old Liam Fee is cruel and heartbreaking. It hits me hard as an adoptive parent because I know, but for a little luck, that might have been my daughter's face plastered all over the media.

I say luck, because while I'm hugely grateful for the social workers' early intervention, the events that later unfolded indicate that it might have been very different. There was a systematic series of failings that have so many echos of young Liam's case: social workers disappearing on long term sick, our daughter "falling off the radar", failing to spot things they really should have seen.

I should point out at this stage that I am absolutely opposed to the media witch hunt of social workers. Liam Fee's parents killed him - not the social workers. However we can't pretend children's social work isn't in crisis. It has been for a long time. It's why these horrific cases happen, and will continue to do so until we address the root causes.

The failings
Our daughter had three different social workers while she was in care, and like Liam, was at one point left without one at all. Her case was particularly horrific, and as these different women traipsed through our home, it did strike me how under-prepared they were. Both practically (they often hadn't read the case notes) and emotionally. They simply didn't have the robustness of the police, yet they were dealing with as difficult situations. So it didn't surprise me when first her social worker, then her replacement social worker and then the social worker's manager all went on long term sick.

When our application to adopt started to fall apart I became painfully aware of what little grasp the social work teams had on the legal situation. They didn't even seem to understand basic adoption court proceedings, and certainly failed to relay important information to us. As a result we were left fumbling in the dark, and felt forced to hire our own solicitor to get out of the legal mess they landed us in.

There was also a failure to give the due care and attention that I would expect to see at a professional level. They mishandled sensitive documents, constantly missed deadlines, and were late or failed to show for meetings.

In addition, they didn't have the intellectual ability to work within a framework, but move out of it when needed. As far as they were concerned, rules were there and not to be broken. The fact the child may be disadvantaged in following these rules, didn't come into it

Social work: undervalued, underpaid and under resourced
As a mass generalisation, social workers I have experienced are far less competent than lawyers or doctors. It's not that surprising - the qualification standard for social workers is fairly low. You only need two A Levels to get on to a social work degree, and then it's three years of study. Compare that to a doctor who trains for eight.

The reason it's low is because it's so badly paid - who's going to study for eight years to become a social worker when you can only expect to earn about £30-35,000 pa? For doctors it pays off - they can earn £60-70,000 pa.

We of course want our doctors to be well qualified - they are in the business of saving lives. But so are social workers, and we are witnessing what happens when they fail.

The gender pay gap in our society is well documented. Women's jobs are paid less than men's jobs. For example, a cleaner will be paid less than a caretaker, when actually they are pretty much doing the same thing. It's no coincidence that children's social work is predominantly done by women, and also poorly paid and valued.

When I worked for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, the chief executive at the time use to say: removing a child from their family is the single biggest thing you can do to them. If that's correct, and I believe it is, then shouldn't we be valuing, training and paying the people who do that better.

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