Sallyanne Jones is cradling her seven-month-old baby on her lap, smiling at her little face. But how would she feel if she had to give her child up this afternoon, knowing she wouldn’t see her again for at least 18 years, and possibly never?
It’s not a question you would usually put to a new mother, but Sallyanne knows why I’m asking. She has spent the last 13 years as a social worker, much of it specialising in child protection. She’s been involved in hundreds of cases where children were removed from their parents’ care – and in cases where this led to their eventual adoption, the parents would have lost the right to see their child again until that child reached adulthood, and then only if they decided to make contact. So, yes, for her it’s a relevant question.
She shudders, and holds her daughter a bit tighter. “I can’t really imagine it,” she says. “I don’t even want to try.”
Sallyanne is at the centre of a new fly-on-the-wall documentary about child protection; in the heart-rending first episode, she’s shown working with a young couple, Tiffany and Mike, who are clearly struggling with the effort of trying to look after their three-year-old son. She and her team try to support the family, but when Tiffany gets pregnant with another child, the writing is on the wall.
First, the boy is taken into foster care and then the new baby, a girl, is taken straight from hospital to a different foster family. Later, despite the fact that she has left Mike, who the social workers regarded as the bigger threat to her children, Tiffany makes the momentous and shocking decision to hand both children over for adoption. “There won’t be a day when I won’t be thinking of them, but they’ll have a happier life where they’re going,” she says through tears.
As a viewer, you can’t help thinking that it’s a terrible indictment of our social-care system that a mother like Tiffany, who clearly loves her children very much, can’t be supported to care for them herself. But Sallyanne says she regards Tiffany’s decision as brave. She isn’t rude enough to say it, but I get the impression she has seen plenty of over-emotional, woolly liberals like me, who think removing children from their mother is almost always a tragedy.
The truth is, she says, that it is always horrendous – but when you have seen what she’s seen, and know the privations many children suffer, you know that sometimes adoption, even if it’s forced, is the right way forward. As to my protestation that Tiffany clearly loves her kids, Sallyanne has news for me: every parent, even those who abuse and neglect their children, loves their kids. “In 13 years in this job, I think I’ve only once come across a case where the parents really didn’t seem to love their child,” she says.
“So even in the most hopeless of cases, there is love. But it’s not enough. It’s simply not enough. What I have to do is dissect the family’s life and work out whether the child’s needs are being met across a range of requirements. Are the child’s basic needs being met – does he have a bed? Is he being fed? Is he going to school? Is he being cared for emotionally and are his parents engaging with him and interacting with him? Are they putting his needs before their own?”
Sallyanne has only ever initiated court proceedings when she was convinced that removing the child was the right thing to do and now that she has a child of her own, far from regretting any of the actions she’s taken, she thinks that children need more protection than she might have realised in the past. “Removing a child is terrible, and however long you do this job you never get used to it. On one occasion, I had to peel a four-year-old child’s hands from her mother’s, and that’s not something I’ll ever forget, or want to ever repeat.
“But appalling though those incidents are, they are not the worst thing about my job. The worst thing is when you know a child is at risk but you can’t do anything about it. For example, those occasions when a judge doesn’t grant your petition to remove a child from his parents, and you have to go home thinking, what’s going to happen to that child tonight? That’s very tough. This isn’t the sort of job you can switch off from – you take your worries home with you.”
Sallyanne says she agreed to take part in the documentary – filmed in Bristol, where she manages an eight-person child protection team responsible for the welfare of around 200 challenged children – because, like many social workers, she often feels professionally pilloried for work that is desperately difficult and which society would often rather ignore than confront.
“Often you feel damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she says. “The public just don’t understand social work – only about 5% of the population ever come to the notice of social workers, so unlike medical professionals or the police, we are hidden workers doing a job that’s mostly secret and often misunderstood.”
The daughter of a vicar, who grew up knowing she would like to work with children, Sallyanne, 35, fell into social work in her early 20s and loved it from the start. “You feel you can really make a difference – that you really can change children’s lives for the better,” she says.
It’s only in a minority of cases that children need to be removed from their parents’ care – more often, says Sallyanne, parents can be supported into making the changes that mean they can keep the child. “You never go to visit a family thinking, I’m going to have to remove the children. You go thinking: I need to understand this family.”
She says her work focuses not on removing children, but on keeping them with their parents – occasionally, against the odds. “I had one case where the mother had tried to kill her child. But she’d been through three years of therapy and rehabilitation, and I really felt that she could go back to mothering the little boy. But it was a difficult decision – even my colleagues in the office were saying, ‘Surely you’re not going to put that child back with that mother? What if she does it again?’”
That didn’t happen, says Sallyanne: “The child did return to his mother, and things worked out incredibly well. What helped in that case, and what helps in every case, is that as a child protection social worker you never make decisions alone – you’re always part of a team, and you’re always listening to the views of other professionals – people like paediatricians and psychologists, and you come to a joint decision.”
Of the four types of abuse children suffer – sexual, physical, emotional and neglect – the latter two are, says Sallyanne, the hardest to assess. “If a child has been seriously sexually or physically abused it’s usually easy to obtain direct evidence for a court. But it can take a long time to find the evidence for emotional abuse or neglect – often you suspect it from the start, but it’s hard to get proof and that’s why these cases can take a long time to progress.”
While she was dealing with Tiffany’s case, Sallyanne – like her client – was pregnant. “So I couldn’t help but connect with her, and couldn’t help but see things from her point of view,” she says.
“But what I saw with Tiffany was that she was making a choice for her children to have a different life from the one she could have given them, and I can understand that.”
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