The Sunday Times

November 25th, 2012

The first law of social work: politics trumps parental love

How could any public servant in her right mind snatch three children away from good and experienced foster parents, just because they belonged to a particular political party? Until last week I would have boasted to anyone that such a thing could never happen in this country. Common sense and political freedom prevail here; only totalitarian police states carry on that way.

But then it emerged that precisely this has happened to a respectable couple living near Rotherham. Better-sounding foster parents you could hardly hope to find: the husband was a Royal Navy reservist for 30 years and works with disabled people; his wife is a qualified nursery nurse. For almost seven years they have been approved foster parents to about a dozen children, and were described as “exemplary”.

A few weeks ago they took in three east European children in an emergency foster placement, and everything seemed to be going well. But one day they suddenly received a visit from a social worker and another official, who explained that the children would have to be taken away from them at once because they were UKIP members and UKIP had racist policies.

Whatever one may think of UKIP, it is a lawful mainstream political party, to which everyone has an absolute right to belong. Yet the strategic director of children’s and young people’s services for Rotherham borough council took it upon herself to decide that UKIP’s policies on immigration and multiculturalism were enough to disqualify these parents from looking after “non-indigenous” children. Clearly she has morphed somewhere in her career from social worker to political commissar.

“We would not have placed these children with you,” she said, “had we known you were members of UKIP because it wouldn’t have been the right cultural match.” The tacit accusation of racism is unmistakeable. But as the foster mother said, “We wouldn’t have taken these children on if we had been racists.” On top of the sadness of losing the children so suddenly, the couple feel that they have been stigmatised and slandered, and are afraid they will not be allowed to carry on fostering.

This senior social worker, Joyce Thacker, and the council as a whole are unrepentant. She now says that she does not think UKIP is a racist party (contrary to the foster parents’ account of their meeting), but “there are some strong views in the UKIP party and we have to think of the future of the children … If the party mantra is, for example, ending the active promotion of multiculturalism … I have to think about their longer-term needs.”

This is odd because she then went on to say — and this is the council’s main line of defence — that the children were placed with this couple only temporarily and “were never intended to stay with the family long term”. Why, then, in an emergency placement such as this, would she have to worry too much about their longer-term needs? This inconsistency suggests that she and the council are either muddled or insincere, and I know which I’m inclined to suspect.

Social workers are very often unfairly criticised. That does not alter the fact, though, that thoughtless, obstinate political correctness of the Joyce Thacker variety is rampant throughout social services. Many of them are highly politicised in plain party-political terms as well. It’s a national disgrace and a national disaster. In adoption, for instance, it is such misguided attitudes that make it so very difficult for a child in need to find adoptive parents.

Ofsted figures released last week suggest that only one in eight couples who want to adopt children is approved by social workers.

In the past year, according to Ofsted, 25,380 couples or individuals made adoption inquiries. Only 16% of them (4,145) went on to apply to adopt a child and only 3,048 were actually approved as prospective parents. This is an astonishing drop-out rate, and a terrible loss to needy children.

No one knows why it is is so high. The family policy expert Patricia Morgan pointed out last week that “we are not being told whether people are being turned down or put off. We don’t know what criteria are being used to approve or eject people … to what extent the decisions are being made on grounds of race, age, health or people’s opinions.”

The government’s determination to encourage adoption is unlikely to succeed without better information about what happens to people when they actually try to adopt. One can at least advise that they might do well to avoid Rotherham.

What happens to social workers? What makes them so politicised? One answer is fear. Again and again it emerges that social workers are afraid of being found insufficiently politically correct, lacking in racial awareness or multicultural enthusiasm or determination to assert gender equality. Their better judgment is clouded over.

Victoria Climbié’s obvious bruises and wounds were, famously, ignored by workers, who said later that physically punishing children was part of her family’s African ethnic tradition, which they felt they had to respect. And there are countless other examples of such muddled, fearful thinking. Thacker herself said in self-defence on Radio 4 that she had been criticised in the past for not making sure children’s cultural and ethnic needs were met.

Fear, however, is only a response to a deep underlying orthodoxy that feels fully entitled to impose itself. This orthodoxy is, or was the last time I looked into it, inculcated in social work training. Even if it is changing, the people trained in this ideological thinking are still in their jobs.

The textbooks I saw seemed less concerned with practical discussions of how to deal with social work problems and real people than with an explicit agenda of social change. This agenda is the usual politically correct stuff, not all of it undesirable, but what stands out is its emphasis on the role of social workers in implementing it. That is why a senior social worker actually thinks it is her job to express through her decisions her disapproval of, say, UKIP or of devoutly Christian foster parents, even when a child might be genuinely happy in such politically incorrect surroundings.

The government should take a long, hard look at the training of social workers. The damage is done from the beginning.