Why don’t Social Workers Feel Safe About Speaking Out?


And what can we do to help?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

The post arises out of an interesting Twitter discussion between lawyers and social workers on Sunday 20th February 2016.

In essence, we were discussing the forthcoming Child Protection Conference, organised by the Transparency Project on 3rd June 2016 in Birmingham ‘ Where Do We Go From Here?’ following on from last year’s successful event: ‘Is the Child Protection System Fit for Purpose?’

What was sobering and worrying for me, is that one of the social workers who came last year discussed how she had not felt safe to reveal that she was a social worker, given what she perceived as an atmosphere at the conference which was very negative and hostile towards her profession. This was alarming as I had naively thought we had successfully worked hard to create a safe and respectful environment to allow people to speak .

During our Twitter discussions the social worker elaborated further about just how draining it is to feel constantly blamed and discredited for the failings of an entire system and how those attacks quickly become personal. She spoke of being ‘hated’ on line and discussed how she had been attacked and vilified to extent that she had to disengage from debate on many occasions.

She raised a further very troubling point; that policies on use of social media set down by local authority employers are extremely strict and in effect prohibit social workers from engaging in even general discussion. This view was confirmed by a number of other social workers on Twitter who pointed out that they were posting anonymously.

This raises for me some very troubling issues; both general and particular.

The general issue – Why can’t social workers speak out?

I clearly have a rosy tinted view about the freedom of speech for social workers as those I have been exposed to recently have been feisty, engaged and very outspoken; see this post on my attendance at the Promoting Humane Social Work Conference in February.

However, I can understand the position is very different for a social worker employed by a local authority who is subject to a strict policy about engagement on social media. No one wants to risk their job or their reputation for a Twitter conversation.

I have not conducted any detailed research into local authority social media policies but my cursory investigations suggest the following:

Superficially social media and the use of it,  is seen as a ‘good thing’: for example, this policy from the Local Government Association says:

The LGA is committed to supporting local government colleagues to help realise the full potential of social media. We believe that, used correctly, social media is a powerful tool helping to drive cultural, political, economic and social engagement. It is also a key communications tool for local authorities and highlights their commitment to openness and transparency.

But it’s not clear that this support is translating into general practice. It is also likely that any existing policies are not a result of long gestation: research in 2013 showed that 43%  of local authorities had no policy about use of social media.

And regardless of the policies themselves, certainly the interpretation of those policies by the social workers on Twitter on Sunday night, was to find them either prohibiting outright, or inhibiting significantly engagement on social media for employees of a local authority.

It was a sobering wake up call for me; I have often complained that social workers won’t speak out and I was disappointed at how few engaged with the first Child Protection Conference. I had not appreciated what forces may have marshalled against them to prevent their engagement. The issues of cost, getting time off work AND perceiving that you cannot speak out and keep your job are pretty powerful forces against your engagement.

The specific point – what can we do to encourage social workers to come to the conference?

I think we need to look at the conference ground rules again with care and make sure the message is going out that everyone who comes is entitled to speak freely and to feel safe while doing so.

We ought to be able to disagree with each other and yet still recognise and respect our essential humanity. No one should feel that a disagreement is a personal attack. We need to experience constructive criticism as an opportunity for change and improvement, not as an excuse to sink further into the culture of blame and shame, which already casts a long and toxic shadow over debate in this area. 

But probably the most important thing is to engage directly with the professional bodies that represent social workers  – what support are social workers getting from their professional bodies? What’s the message they are getting about how and when they can engage?

Because this is vital. We can’t make changes if some of the people crucial to the debate feel scared to talk.

I will see what responses I get and hope to update this post.


23 thoughts on “Why don’t Social Workers Feel Safe About Speaking Out?

  1. Dave

    In our area, the local authority has banned us from identifying ourselves as foster carers despite the fact that we wouldn’t reveal details of placements. This leaves us feeling isolated and I fully understand how social workers must feel.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      What is the rationale behind this ban? Did they tell you? Do they have a written policy about this, do you know? I would be interested to find out more and get a sense of what is going on around the country, because I think this is madness.

  2. Jerry Lonsdale

    Can I just add, and, second what Dave has said, during the last conference I had a someone from all sides of the equation due to speak at the parents slot, birth parents, adopters and foster carers, all given the same platform to have their open say, I spent many hours and days with the Foster Carers I asked to speak I was forevermore trying to quash their anxieties and concerns, sadly they had to pull out at the 11th hour, literally within an hour or so before conf started, reasons given reflect on what Dave has said.

    They were not long term Foster Carers but called upon for respite care and emergency situations, the Foster Carers main concern was that they would lose the ability to carry on caring for children if they said anything un-towards, controversial or criticising the Local Authority, the Foster Carers showed me their speech and it did neither, in fact it would have shown more of concerns regarding L.A policies if anything else, it would have shown how all too often Foster Carers are seldom missed from debate and I personally think Foster Carers are the Key Stone to keep the bridge upright, without them we simply have no Child Protection System, so they are the ones who should be the headline acts.

    I wonder if there are differing policies between Local Authority Foster Carers and those of the private agency sector, Sarah, I am sure that is a very important aspect to look at.

    There is simply no merit in holding any form of debate if a key element is missing, sadly the divisions are so entrenched its going to take a monumental effort in bridging that gap. I have never understood what the rationale is behind driving the divisional wedge deeper, it serves no purpose when I would say that what needs to be said will be across the board agreement.

    One often see’s many cases where parents are dragged before the courts because of expose on social media, again more often than not the policies have never been given to the parents or other.

    Even suffice to say that in defence of parents they are presumed to know the laws and policies, even for a trivial matter of taking a photograph in a contact venue where there may be the tiniest identification of the support worker, if and when that happens the L.A use the sledge hammer approach.

    In 2010 when myself and K first devised the idea of a Multi – Discp conference we were always given a glowing and positive reaction from all quarters of those involved in Child care and Care Proceedings, there was and still is an overwhelming need for conferences like ours to build and continue to thrive, lacking one sector or aspect of the area will not drive away the concerns and issues, we cannot pursue our need for change while some aspects are missing and still living in the stone age!

  3. Angelo Granda

    Silence, the avoidance of comment and fair discussion,argument etc and the circum-navigation of the natural world ,humanity and REALITY is essential policy to any authority which seeks to implement inhumanity.

    It must keep away from such conferences as it has to avoid transparency (whilst officially paying lip-service to it).

    Social Workers have to obey the LA and watch where they go, abstain from honest debate in case they let the cat out of the bag and expose the illegitimacy of its practices. Just as they have to angle their investigations towards justifying the removal of children into care.Now , it seems foster-carers are beholden to the LA also.

    To be honest, this is not news to parents and child-victims of the inhumane policies.They know full well that foster-carer’s reports favour the LA’s and that they pay little attention to children and their parents.

    Sarah,Jerry. When did you last see a foster-carer report that a child was greatly disturbed by circumstances and demanding to be returned home to Mum?

    Illegal arrangements for financial gain of EVERY description are rife in Local Authorities. This is FACT not fiction or conspiracy theory and the public recognise that the institutions affected( such as child-protection are not necessarily all corrupt by design in themselves.Because they are managed by LA’s, they can’t help it.

    Where corruption occurs,it depends absolutely on the SILENCE of the criminals who also have to isolate themselves from honest discussion and normality. It will be taboo for any of its employees to engage in a CPR conference .
    There is an unwritten code amongst them,
    I hope we on the CPR will not be afraid of hitting out at LA’s which make seemingly illogical decisions against the best interests of children.

    Sarah has put all this in one word ‘MADNESS’. I have gone into a bit more detail.

    It is madness.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Just on that one specific point about children wanting to go home and foster carers reporting this – I have seen mention of children’s wishes clearly made in writing by foster carers and social workers. And some children do vote with their feet and actually run away from foster care. I have had a few cases where a care order was discharged because children aged 12 and up just kept running away.

      so I don’t accept that children’s views are routinely ignored and not reported.

      I also don’t understand what you mean by ‘illegal arrangements for financial gain’ are rife. Taking children in care COSTS the LA an enormous amount of money. I appreciate there is understandably concern about private companies having an interest in foster care organisations but unless you are saying private companies pay the LA some kind of ‘kick back’ for putting children in foster care there is absolutely NO financial incentive for a LA to have a child fostered – quite the reverse.

      If you are alleging some kind of ‘kick back’ then some proof of that assertion would be useful.

      1. Angelo Granda

        You are not kidding!
        Proof would be useful and many child-victims and parents complain to the Police but are generally ignored.
        Were parents permitted access to CS records and personal bank accounts also their ‘phone records and were we let through into the inner sanctum in order to examine archives,minutes of policy meetings and other documents such as expense sheet,corporate hospitality shindigs and holidays ( such as cup final tickets) also free dinners and periodic beanfeasts from which LA staff benefit , it would be different.THEY WON’T ALLOW US IN AND WON’T ALLOW SW’s TO ATTEND CONFERENCES just in case they let anything slib. Likewise, they discourage Foster carers from doing so.
        It is madness! Apply the BofP standard of proof and parents will say we have all the proof we and you need.
        Perhaps not enough to secure a conviction in a criminal court but their silence and non-compliance with normal rules is enough for us.
        There has to be a very strong incentive to keep staff out of the CPR conference.I imagine if you ask the LA why such madness,it will deny any such policy and state that it encourages employees to participate in openness and Public transparency debates.
        Did any of the behaviour last year give rise to sw’s being frightened of attending this or is it in their imagination.do you think?

        1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

          Have you tried a FOI request about such spending?

          I thought the conference last year went very well; there were indeed some negative things said about social workers – but some of the people saying those things were themselves social workers. It was not an attack against individuals but a recognition that the system in which they were trying to work was not allowing them to do the kind of work they wanted – fundamentally, to help people.

          1. Angelo Granda

            We don’t know what goes on within the CS system and,of course,we never will until the Local Authorities relax their secrecy rules and allow their employees the human right to free speech.
            Meanwhile ,may i appeal to all Social Workers who might be readers of the forum.
            Always be true to yourself and humanity.Should your superiors or the Local Authority rules attempt to take you along the left-hand path to inhumanity and dishonesty,resign immediately.
            I will add that no self-respecting person in any other walk of life ( unless they are subject to the Official Secrets Act), should accept the right of an employer to control their thoughts,words and deeds. Foster carers ,if you want to go to the conference and speak,do so . Your rights are more important than your pay-packet. The same applies to SW’s .Have more respect for your independence and individuality.
            If you are honest at the conference,you will be welcomed not attacked. If the LA sacks you afterwards,take them to a tribunal.

          2. HelenSparkles

            BTW, I don’t think I said the atmosphere was hostile, just negative and social workers will know we all have a lot of negatives to say as did the SW who spoke during the panel discussion last year. Part of the problem is blame, & I really don’t experience other professions being blamed wholesale and professionals being wholly blamed. I see difficulties in all systems and organisations, and whilst I recognise the power of SW to affect families, many other professionals can do a lot of damage when they go awry. The poor police officer, lawyer, doctor is just that, the whole system isn’t written off and neither are all doctors. Just the other day on Twitter someone told me there wasn’t room for one crap SW, the work was too important, well I don’t want to work with crap SW either (I do just like some of you work with colleagues who aren’t that great, are lazy, or don’t really care). This was said by an adopter, and whilst I’ve met some great adopters, I don’t think all adopters are. I didn’t say that, I’d have just got into a tit for tat. I’d already been accused of being defensive and paranoid because I had stated a point of view, which because it was one I have stated elsewhere else as well, was additional evidence of me being defensive and paranoid rather than just restating an opinion I hold. Add to that my social networking policy, the need for SW to speak via representation, why would I speak out. My inability to speak in a way which is unfettered is limited and this strikes people as being the opposite of transparency.

  4. ian josephs

    FAT CATS will ensure that their profite from our dreadful care system will keep rolling in…………..

    Foster Care Associates

    Owned by: Jim Cockburn and Janet Rees through Ideapark Ltd

    Income from foster care in 2014**: £127.2m

    Payouts to owner in 2014: £7m

    Highest paid director salary and other benefits: £406,000

    National Fostering Agency (includes the Foster Care Agency)

    Owned by: Stirling Square Capital Partners (previously Graphite Capital until April 2015)

    Income from foster care in 2014*: £94.5m

    Payouts to owners in 2014: £14.4m to Graphite Capital

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits: £318,112


    Acorn Care and Education (includes Fostering Solutions, Pathway Care Fostering and Heath Farm Fostering)

    Owned by: Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan

    Income from foster care in 2014*: £73.1m

    Payouts to owners: £13m accrued in 2014

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits: £266,420


    Partnerships in Children’s Services (includes Orange Grove, ISP, Fosterplus and Clifford House)

    Owned by: Sovereign Capital

    Income from foster care in 2014*: £29.8m

    Payouts to owners in 2014: £1.9m

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits: not shown in accounts

    we have not heard back.

    Swiis Foster Care

    Owned by: Dev Dadral and family

    Income from foster care in 2014: £29.4m

    Payouts to owners in 2014: £1.5m (from the wider Swiis group, see below)

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits: £169,000

    Capstone Foster Care

    Owned by: Different individuals and companies (see below)

    Income from foster care in 2015: £21.1m

    Payouts to owners in 2015: £406,000

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits: £185,000

    Compass Fostering (includes The Fostering Partnership, Eden Foster Care and Seafields Fostering)

    Owned by: August Equity

    Income from foster care in 2015: £25.9m

    Payouts to owners in 2015: £3.1m accrued

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits: £131,000


    Owners: shares are publicly-listed – Farouq and Haroon Sheikh biggest shareholders with 20%

    Income from foster care in 2014: £12m

    Payouts to owners in 2014: £240,000 in 2014

    Highest paid director’s salary and other benefits

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      OK. So are you saying that these companies offer LA financial incentives to put children their way? Because otherwise all you are doing is confirming what I say – that putting a child in foster care is a massive financial drain on limited local authority budgets.

      And, if this is part of the Evil Secret Conspiracy etc, etc, why is the Government pushing for ADOPTION rates to increase and apparently paying local authorities bonuses to ensure that this happens?

      Or are you saying the Evil Local Authorities take the Gov bonus with one hand and the kick back from the private fostering companies with the other and ensure a steady stream of children to be fostered and adopted to both?

      It would help if the conspiracy theorists would pick one unified theory so we could properly examine it.

  5. Angelo Granda

    Readers should not be taken in by the term ‘conspiracy theorists’.
    There is no widespread conspiracy ( organised plot) by Local Authorities. Some act correctly,others contrive to abuse children’s human rights.
    ‘Conspiracy theorists’ is merely an insult thrown by those latter Local Authority staff at critics to marginalise them.

    There is nothing wrong with private companies making profits and as long as careful attention to moral rectitude and human rights is taken, there is nothing amiss with profits being made out of foster-care and residential children’s homes.
    All Local Authorities have financial responsibilities and budgetary considerations inevitably have an impact on CS policies just as with town planning,public works ,education and all other departments. Sometimes corruption for financial gain exists amongst wayward officials and individuals.That may play a part in injustice but that issue is for the Police .Sometimes abuse occurs but mostly,we hope,right prevails.

    The POINT is that Local Authorities have a financial interest in the outcome of child-protection cases.They cannot evade their financial responsibilities. To ensure justice and human rights for children, therefore, Local Authorities should not be a factor ( should play no part) in investigations or decision-making where the cp system is concerned.
    The principle of the ‘seperation of powers’ should be applied. That is the same one applied by the Law towards the judiciary. It should not take financial aspects of a case into consideration when administering justice.
    ‘Conspiracy theorists’ is a derogatory term used by the Authorities. The suggestion is that any critic of theirs is mad. The same term has been used about ‘Elvis is alive, living on the moon and eating green cheese’ theories. Also ‘ who shot Kennedy’ theorists.
    The Authorities tried the same tactic with ‘Hillsborough’ families when criticised by them but the truth has emerged eventually.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I agree with what you say, but you will have to accept that the activities of such as Sabine McNeill and Belinda McKenzie – to name just two – have done enormous damage to those who push for change. These ladies actively campaign on the basis that Satanic Ritual Abuse is encouraged and protected by the authorities. A colleague of theirs is Maggie Tuttle, who has the support of Ian Josephs…. and on and on it goes.

      I agree with you that ‘conspiracy theorist’ is often a shorthand for an insult – but there are many people out there pushing such lunatic theories that the danger is they taint everyone who campaigns for change with their delusions.

  6. Angelo Granda

    We should not be diverted by discussions about plots and conspiracy.
    For the purposes of this thread,can any reader think of a legitimate reason why Local Authorities might want to prevent its staff taking part in CPR conferences etc. Why can’t social workers speak out?
    Clearly, the LA will prefer only its own official views to receive public airing and individual sw’s may not always agree with official policies.
    Is it legitimate to ban one’s employees from exercising the right to free speech?
    I think sometimes it is when they are using inside information to you detriment.All comments welcome.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I agree – there is no legitimate reason. We should not be afraid of debate and discussion. If we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, etc, etc. All that this censorship achieves is further fermentation of mad theories that derail constructive discussion. Into the void left by local authorities who won’t permit debate, comes people like John Hemming and Ian Josephs who have very little to say other than – leave the country/only people convicted of crimes should ever have children removed. Neither of which is a realistic or child focused proposition.

      1. ian josephs

        Sarah actually claims I have nothing to say ! Let me remind you Sarah of the following:-

        TWELVE REFORMS THAT WOULD END THE INJUSTICES:-[I have deleted this. It has been posted many, many times. I have answered it many, many times. He won’t engage, he just repeats stuff. It’s boring]

        This bit however is new – and I would welcome much, much more detail about it. Because I don’t accept its true. I am not aware of any other country that refuses to protect children unless and until their parents have committed a criminal offence, as IJ claims. But, as ever, eager to be entlightened.
        Most of the 12 reforms I suggest above already operate in France,Spain,and Italy which is why I advise pregnant mothers (who can be financially supported by partners or their families ) to leave the uk to save their babies from being snatched at birth for forced adoption !

  7. Angelo Granda

    I have no difficulty accepting that wild theories and over-zealous discussion whether right or wrong can set constructive discussion back. However,i don’t see much of that from parents on this forum.I have no doubt that the moderator(s) are to be thanked for that.
    I,personally,have never read any posts or articles by the ladies Sarah has named and whose assertions and opinions she derides with such zeal. I don’t see any accusations on the CPR about institutional sex abuse and satanic rituals.When i want to study that subject i shall visit other websites.Until then i shall not enter that debate.

    Having said that,readers. Lawyers and other professionals should not assume too readily that the General Public are all DUMB. We are not all vulnerable and soft in the head.

    The Child-protection system ( acting under the Law) and the family lawyers who fail to apply the Law strictly are infinitely more dangerous to citizens than madcap campaigners.Too regularly , the system fails to adhere to strict human rights codes and too often are our family rights abused.
    We at the CPR will be quite wrong were we to turn a blind eye to seemingly loony allegations.
    It is not child-focussed or productive in any other way to continually reply to shocking and unlikely allegations from non-professionals by asking ” where is your evidence?” That is not neutral professional behaviour at all.

    The very first comment on the home-page of this resource by Matt Harding and the second by Sarah stiil apply today. All allegations have to be investigated rigidly whichever side they come from. We have to be scrupulously impartial and we should never discriminate against those which may seem outlandish. That is why Saville and other abusers got away with it for so long!
    In the view of parents,the wildest unsubstantiated allegations and assertions are made by Social Workers. What can we do about it?

  8. Angelo Granda

    Regarding the CPR conference, are Guardians and expert medical witnesses discouraged from attending also or are they free and independent?
    Did they contribute last year?

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I don’t understand your question.
      Anyone could come to the conference, with two exceptions, see below.
      We had an expert medical witness as speaker.
      We had a senior representative from Cafcass.
      A variety of people contributed during the discussions in the afternoon.
      The only people who were barred from attending were Sabine McNeill and Belinda McKenzie for what I hope are obvious reasons.

  9. Angelo Granda

    Sorry if my questions are uninteresting to readers but can any contributor reply to the above question?
    As always,i want to be constructive and move forward. I understand that you have other things to do but————-please?

    1. Angelo Granda

      Thanks. I was wondering whether they were also forbidden from participating by their employers as Social Workers and foster-carers are.
      That was the reason for my question and i am so glad that they do,in fact,play a full part in the conferences.
      I am relieved they are not subjected to the same ‘madness’ as SW’s.

  10. Angelo Granda

    Thanks so much for your comment of March 27th,Helen Sparkles.
    The type of person who will blame the social work profession for all the flaws in the child-protection wholesale is not the type who will attend the CPR conference. Most other professions and especially most parents who comment on these discussion forums have every empathy with sw’s and understand what a difficult task they face.

    I ,personally ,blame the judiciary mainly . Ian Josephs has a vast amount of experience and he came to the conclusion decades ago that the main problem is that families cannot expect a fair trial in the family courts.
    Having said that , another big problem is that the LA will never accept the part it plays in injustices. Unfortunately ,the social services department is generally unfit for purpose because it operates extremely flawed systems, does not train its staff correctly and because it prefers, for whatever reason, to take children into care or for adoption rather than do its duty under the Children’s Act and spend money on supporting families and keeping children at home with their parents. The fact that they appear to lack transparency and discourage its staff from public discussion is bound to give rise to suspicion. Same as if a parent chased a social worker down the path and refused to talk or acknowledge concerns about children.
    Social Workers have a role in the system and must play their part ,admit to their faults and help solve systemic problems. At present, they will not own up to their faults.Most even argue about independent OFSTED reports where they have been assessed and judged by other social work professionals. They will not accept the referees decisions! Instead of blurring issues,why don’t they accept and be open and transparent about the obvious . SW’s should speak out about it everywhere and do their best to mend things not hide behind a cloak of silence and no comment. It is obvious that the LA’s often will not supply the funds for support services and ,as a consequence, CS plans remove children from home in situations when it could easily be avoided.

    When we can accept fundamentals we can progress.

  11. ian josephs

    The reality of “care” by the State !!

    Care home girl abused by 25 men in 2 years | Mail Online

    Last updated at 11:32 27 August 2006 … The horrific story of ‘Becky‘ is highlighted in a BBC programme presented by Fiona Bruce this week … allowed her to be used as a prostitute for fear their intervention might infringe her human rights A 14-year-old girl placed in a council children’s home was prostituted to a group of depraved middle-aged men because staff were powerless to stop her going out. The horrific story of ‘Becky’ is highlighted in a BBC television programme presented by Fiona Bruce this week which reveals how she was sexually abused by 25 men over two years – despite being known to social services and having been placed on the Child Protection Register. Even when she was put in a children’s home – six months after her earliest allegations of abuse -staff allowed her to be used as a prostitute for fear their intervention might infringe her human rights. [I have deleted the next paragraph as once again Mr Josephs is offering ‘advice’ to parents which will run them a serious risk of getting arrested and destroying their chances of ever being reunited with their children.]

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