Epic Fail,  Grooming Gangs,  Racism

Social Work’s Monstrous Failure: the Grooming Gangs Scandal.

By Muncii

UK Social work is largely a practical, problem-solving activity; it is not about achieving ‘social change’ whatever that might mean. Despite efforts by its academics and theorists, it will never be ‘mainstream’ in the way that the state education system, and the NHS, are an integral part of peoples’ lives. It will always be marginal – most families will not come across social workers. This is not to argue that it is unimportant. Its mission is to protect the most vulnerable in society. But it has been captured, over many years, by attempts from various quarters to assign to itself more grandiose, ‘progressive’, aims. These have had, and continue to exert, a malign influence.

I think its practitioners should not need to know much about post-modernism, French intellectuals , Social Justice, the social construction of truth, or the evils of capitalism and Empire. Foucault’s musings about the mentally ill might be interesting, but are of no use to those who actually work with such clients and who have to understand and apply relevant legislation. Nor is it helpful for practitioners if they are told to reject illness and disability as disempowering labels, applied by overweening medics intent on abusing their power and authority (see Pluckrose et al). It is not helpful for practitioners to be told, by lecturers keen to show how ‘right- on’ they are, that society is nothing other than the powerful versus the powerless, and clients are always the latter – victims of an excluding, capitalist society. In particular, clients from an ethnic minority must be characterised as victims.

But the grooming gangs don’t fit this narrative.

Social work students and practitioners are mandated to be ‘non-judgemental’ and to be wary of any ‘abuse of power’. In fact, they are taught to mistrust the state apparatus of which they are an integral part.

Add identity politics and  anti-racism to this already toxic climate, and you have a recipe for serious confusion and institutional paralysis.

In the UK, qualified social workers, and specifically those at the sharp end in child protection, are largely employed by local authorities, where, over the last 30 years, the very same ‘values’, interests, and directives regarding anti-racism, commitment to diversity etc., which they encountered in academia, are replicated and enforced equally dogmatically. And where, if you fall foul of these rules, you risk losing your job.

How might all this be relevant to the grooming gangs ? Notably, the fear of being accused of racism is a common denominator in all the reports and investigations of the grooming gangs. This fear crippled police, local authorities and particularly social workers.

In a telling vignette, Maggie Oliver, former detective constable with Greater Manchester Police, who was investigating the Rochdale grooming gangs and working with the victims, described a Case Conference, in which the mother of one victim, who was pleading with the authorities to take action, said ‘It’s the Pakis that are doing all this’. The Chair, a senior officer, replied that that sort of language was not acceptable, and told the mother to leave the meeting. Such was the priority of local authority staff. Language must be policed. Never mind the harm going on under their noses, or their duties under child protection legislation.

The obsession with ‘race’ and racism is not an import from US academia: UK social work theorists and academics started the trend 30 years ago, and it has developed momentum and influence accordingly.

As long ago as 1988, Lena Dominelli, University of Stirling, wrote  Anti-Racist Social Work – A Challenge for White Practitioners and Educators’, a book which ‘explores the racism endemic in social work theory and practice’.

Dominelli’s magnum opus, ‘Anti-Oppressive social work, theory and practice’ 2002, became a key text for all students, and has run several reprints.

‘Anti oppressive practice is transformational because its comprehensive orientation espouses social change through holistic practice, the elimination of structural inequalities…… (it) challenges ..views of professionalism in which a neutral expert exercises power over a client and workers lower down the labour hierarchy through rules that call for deference to those in ‘superior’ positions… it seeks to understand and deal with the structural causes of social problems and addresses their consequences by altering social relations at all possible levels, from the macro level to the micro level… it encompasses all aspects of social life – culture, institutions, legal framework, political system, socioeconomic infrastructure and interpersonal relationships which both create and are created by social reality….’

(Dominelli, in ‘Social Work – Themes, Issues, and Critical Debates’ first edition 1998
Adams, Payne, and Dominelli, eds)

Yes, social workers can take on the world. But this heady stuff does not help them carry out their main task – protecting the most vulnerable. It could be argued that this type of inflated theorising actually serves to undermine social workers’ ability to recognise reality and accept their responsibilities. If everything is ‘society’s fault’, or a ‘structural problem’, then no-one is held accountable.

In the case of the grooming gangs, it was too easy for social workers to characterise white working class girls – who may well have exhibited ‘challenging behaviour’ and were probably difficult to engage – as ‘slags’ . And everybody knows that teenage girls sleep around these days, so what’s the problem ? One Rochdale social worker told her white working class 13 year old client to learn Urdu, so that she could ‘relate better’ to her ‘boyfriend’.

(I should perhaps mention that I don’t think this was a case of snooty middle class social workers looking down on working class families. Most social workers and students I have known were solidly working class)

The careless dismissal of the pain and suffering of the victims is astonishing, but given the context, not too surprising.

These girls were not seen for what they really were – victims. Following their indoctrination in anti-racism, social workers were, instead, likely to perceive the grooming gang perpetrators, because they were men of colour, as victims.

So there was a terrible inversion of reality: the real victims, characterised as manipulative and seductive, and being white, became the oppressors.

Conversely, the perpetrators, men of colour, were seen as victims of a white, excluding, racist society, not to be judged, not to be seen as having agency. Taking action against them would be a misuse of power, and – if one follows Said – a deliberate ‘othering’ of people of a different faith and ethnicity from the majority.

Indeed, this argument was not unknown to the perpetrators, and it was used by the defendants in the Rochdale trial. They claimed they had been seduced. They were victims of white Islamophobia.

Social workers could have written their defence.

My impression is that the world of social work has not reacted with appropriate contrition for these terrible failings – as usual, there have been appeals for more resources and complaints about under funding. These may be important, but I think it is the mindset which needs changing. Instead, I fear that the current climate of ‘woke’, and cynical theories, will only entrench bad ideas and bad practice.