Don't Mistake Hatred for Freedom of Speech

03/10/2012 18:21 BST | Updated 03/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Prince Harry and Kate Middleton may be less than thrilled at the public's interest in their lack of holiday attire but their plight, and that of many other celebrities who might crave more powerful privacy laws, can be keenly felt lower down the social orders too, and sometimes with far more malevolent implications.

A number of social workers have recently felt the royals' pain in an all-too vitriolic fashion, their names, faces, employers and addresses plastered all over a number of websites dedicated to exposing the ultimate conspiracy theory - that there is a secret plot to remove the attractive children of poor people and re-distribute them into a 'care industry' of potential middle class adopters. Money grabbing foster parents, paid for every child that a social worker 'snatches', are claimed to be a further by-product of the scenario.

The British Association of Social Workers has condemned such 'name and shame' hate sites for presenting real security risks to individual social workers who are trying their best to protect children in a challenging and resource starved system.

Some sites make malicious use of the social services abbreviation 'SS', comparing social workers to the Waffen-SS, Hitler's notorious secret police service. Worse still, they stamp this Nazi imagery on to pictures of named social workers, often taken from Facebook. Whatever people's view of social workers, few would surely condone pictures taken from someone's wedding day branded with Nazi insignia and posted all over the internet, coupled with the person's name and details of how to find and intimidate them.

Social workers are used to criticism; with the job, on occasion, necessitating entering a home to explain to a family that allegations of child abuse have been made against them, they know open-armed welcomes are unlikely. And of course social workers don't always get it 100% correct, especially with the sort of rising caseloads and diminished support BASW revealed in May through its State of Social Work survey of more than 1,000 frontline workers.

The fallibility of individuals is one reason why the system for removing children from care doesn't give social workers quite the uber-power many assume. When the stakes are so high, the decision to remove a child from a family home is extremely complex. As is the legislation underpinning such decisions, and the lengthy legal process that follows.

Yes, social workers make an assessment of a child's situation, but this then has to be scrutinised by managers and local authority lawyers before the child even begins their journey through the care system and the family courts system, whether that is temporary foster care before being returned home, or being removed from home on a permanent basis.

And then there is that stark reality facing social workers - the dilemma of whether to leave a defenceless child in a potentially abusive situation, or give someone the benefit of the doubt. What would you do?

I have read posts on these sites that rant and rave about an 'evil' individual social worker 'stitching them up' that then go on to say, "yes, I had committed assault, yes I had been on a drinking binge for three weeks, BUT..." I ask you, Reader, what would you do, if faced with facts such as these? Are social workers just supposed to let children stay in such situations in the optimistic hope that it is 'just a blip' and that harmony will soon be restored to the household?

The recent tragic case of Jayden Lee Green, who was given methadone by his heroin addict parents, has been referenced by some hate sites to support their claims that social workers unfairly take children away from good parents. Yet surely a case such as Jayden's supports the view that, sometimes, too much is done to keep a family together.

In reality, taking a child into care costs a local authority money, it isn't some sort of ingenious council money spinner. In the landscape shaped by the death of Baby Peter Connelly, most child protection social workers worry that not enough children are being removed from abusive situations, not that they haven't hit their child snatching 'quota' for the month.

The secretive nature of the family courts, where they are closed to the public, no jury is present, and judgements are very rarely published, fuel the conspiracy theories. The principle behind having a closed court, like many child protection procedures, is for the benefit of the child. Not the parents, the child. Given the sensitive nature of the personal details revealed in the family courts, supporters of the closed system would argue that this protects families from Jeremy Kyle-style exposure.

Solicitors, lawyers and judges involved in making decisions about children are also being targeted on hate sites. Such legal professionals are just as involved in care proceedings as social workers, yet social workers face the brunt of the 'blame'.

Families must of course have a right to protest, but these sites achieve nothing more than spreading hatred and inciting possible violence - or at the very least intimidation and harassment. Posting inflammatory comments can also cause more harm than good to those who feel they have been wronged. Families involved in protesting should be aware that IP addresses can easily be traced, and that abusive comments made online could potentially jeopardise any on-going care proceedings.

It is also concerning to see people offering assistance to such vulnerable parents, with dubious individuals using the hate sites to offer their services in 'helping' to win back their children. There is clear evidence of people claiming to have legal training and qualifications, for instance, when they have nothing of the sort. Families who believe they have been wronged should of course seek legal redress, but must be cautioned to seek legal representation from qualified and registered solicitors, and legitimate advocacy services, not from con men.

Social workers are hardly in a position to defend themselves, not because they are frequently guilty of wrongdoing but because confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts, aimed at protecting the privacy of their clients, forbid them from speaking publicly about their work. This clause fuels conspiracy theorists, and leads to one-sided media stories about how children were unfairly taken away.

Without the case notes to accompany such stories, it is impossible to judge the truth, yet social workers can be judged guilty even in circumstances where they may have saved a child from an abusive home. We never get to hear about the thousands of children who were saved by social workers from being the next Baby Peter, or from the children who were glad that they were removed from their parents.

This respect for confidentiality should work both ways, yet increasingly it doesn't.

Families, don't be taken in by these sites. Social workers, remember that Facebook can often be seen by strangers, and be careful of how much personal information you reveal online. No-one should be intimidating decent hard working professionals, and posing significant threats to their well-being, but the sad reality is that just as Kate Middleton might think twice about removing that bikini next time, so too social workers need to think twice about what they divulge to the world.