It’s been a year since social services closed my case and I still feel shaken by what happened. I was accused of emotionally abusing my daughter. There was no evidence, just opinion and speculation and random quotes about how children whose parents have a mental health condition “could” be affected. Sarah had always been a confident girl who made friends easily but middle school was a shock. Right from the start she was bullied. I spent so much time making phone calls and trips to the school, without success, that it began to take a toll on my health as well. I visited the GP with symptoms of stress and anxiety. Worried about the impact of this on my daughter, I asked social services for help. In three years, we had five different social workers. Maybe I was unlucky but our experience with the first four was not positive. Chloe, the fifth, was different.

Our expectations for Chloe were low because of what we’d already experienced. I assumed she would be judgemental of my health and indifferent to Sarah’s struggles. I was wrong. The first meeting was a tricky one. Sarah was polite to Chloe but gave nothing away. I had as many misgivings as my teenager but chose to be as open as possible, mindful that I was being watched, I felt, judged on what I said and how I said it; how I sat, stood, held a mug. After the visit I waited for her notes to agree that I was a bad mother. After all, that’s what the child protection meeting I’d previously attended was about, or so I had come to believe.

I was blown away by what I read. It was clear that while Chloe was in no doubt that beneath our formal politeness lay deep mistrust, far from judging she appeared to be respectful of this. She had surprisingly good things to say about me and my role as a mother and no mention was made of how I had held my drinks mug. But what was even
more heartening to read was the write up of her one-to-one interaction with Sarah who, it seems, had not only asked to read Chloe’s notes to make sure she “got it right” but also insisted on pulling out her own pad and pen and writing up her own case notes as well. That captured so much about Sarah: her lack of trust, her need to take control but also the little things she does which aren’t good or bad but just Sarah all over.

It was strange to have Chloe in our lives. No mother wants to have a social worker around because they’ve been deemed a risk to their child. I didn’t want a social worker. Sarah didn’t want one. But Chloe changed our opinion. She was on time for every meeting, she listened and seemed to have a genuine interest in Sarah.

When I first made contact with socialservices it took months of phone calls before we saw our first social worker. I have absolutely no memories of any conversations or meetings with her. After about a year she left and our case was passed to another, Jenny. During a Child in Need meeting at Sarah’s new school, Jenny announced that not only did I have “severe mental health problems” but also that I was an alcoholic, and “drank two bottles of wine every day”. Horrified, I immediately questioned the source of this information. “It’s in your notes,” she said. “Surely,” I pointed out, “you can see that is a mistake. How would I be able to function?” She shrugged: “It’s in your notes.”I tried a different approach. “You have just announced private information about me, to a third person, without first checking that it’s correct and without asking for my consent.”My complaint about breeching confidentiality remains unanswered to this day and therecords were never amended.

Sarah wasn’t happy with Jenny either: “She doesn’t listen and she speaks to me like a five-year-old,” she told me. Every meeting followed the same pattern. She ignored my wishes, ignored my daughter and appeared to have no plan to support us. I asked for information about courses and childcare but never got a response. I compared the notes
Jenny had written after each meeting and saw they were identical. She was clearly cutting and pasting entire paragraphs and I complained to her manager. My mental health was now so bad that with no certainty of why I was doing it, I took an overdose. Meanwhile, things were getting worse for Sarah at school. She was being singled out constantly, teased, taunted and even physically attacked.

My complaint to social services remained unanswered. My frequent phone calls were ignored. Things finally came to a head when Sarah refused to return to school, having been punched and threatened by another pupil. I left a message with social services that I had taken her out of school and was considering a period of home schooling. My second letter, like the first, went unanswered. There followed a period of four months where we heard nothing from social services, no visits, no phone calls. I left messages frequently but concluded that we were better off without their involvement.

After months of trying, I finally spoke to the manager. She agreed to close Sarah’s case and we thought that was the end of things. But just one week later she informed me she was passing our case to a third social worker, Rick. We neither wanted nor needed another social worker but a meeting was arranged at school. I saw it as a chance to wrap things up and close our case for good. I was shocked at what happened next.

Five minutes into the meeting and even before meeting Sarah, Rick announced: “This is a child protection issue.” My heart was pounding. Everything was better now – my mental health had improved so much I was going to be discharged from the services. My daughter had settled in at school and made friends. When we were struggling and asking
for help, they had ignored us. Now we were fine, better than fine. Why child protection? A meeting was planned, a report was written. Supposedly about Sarah but most of it focused on me. It was horrifying: I was emotionally damaging my daughter. I was not capable of putting her needs before my own. I was abusing alcohol. I had failed to engage with support services and, crucially, social services. How? When? My letters remained unanswered, my phone calls had been ignored. The woman portrayed in the report was nothing like me. The trusted few people I showed it to agreed it was both malicious and untrue. I had worked so hard to make things right for my daughter that it had cost me my health. All that time they had done nothing –and now they blamed me.

The child protection meeting was the most dreadful experience of my life. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not my worst enemy. Rick, who had seen Sarah twice, referred to her in the report as “emotionally damaged”. I voiced my horror at the unprofessional use of this antiquated expression. I questioned whether Rick was qualified to make such a mental health assessment. This was just his opinion, he assured me, so it was allowed.

My mental health worker was happy I hadbeen stable for months and was closing my case. Sarah was happy in a new school and had made friends. The nurse had no concerns. The police officer had nothing to report. Only Rick was sceptical and I found other professionals deferred to the social worker. Ours was now a child protection case
and it was passed to yet another social worker, Moira.

Moira arrived half an hour late for our first appointment, without apology. After ten minutes, she got up to leave. “You have to look at Sarah’s bedroom,” I reminded her. “Oh, I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said. “Yes, it is,” I told her, “It’s in the plan.” She flicked her head into the bedroom. “Fine,” she sniffed and left. A month later she missed a home visit. “She’s left,” they told me at the office, “She was only temporary.” And so we prepared to meet our fifth social worker under no illusions this one would be any better.Eight months after meeting Chloe our case was closed. I was both happy and sad. Happy because in many ways it was all over. Sad because things could never be the sameagain. I am divorced from Sarah’s dad – we separated just after the child protection meeting. It wasn’t the cause but it was the final straw.

I am about to move in with my new fiancé and Sarah has recently started high school. My complaint to social services was upheld. I received an apology for the way our case was handled and the manager has left. But my confidence as a mother took a heavy blow. It was decided my daughter was at risk from her abusive mother. It will show on her records until adulthood and until then I will remain wary. Perhaps one day, when she turns 18, I will finally be able to move on.

I have shredded every single document except one. The one that said there were no concerns and Sarah’s case was closed. I genuinely believe that had my family been assigned a social worker like Chloe in the firstplace we would never have ended up anywhere near the child protection register. I hope we never have need for a social
worer again – but if we do, then I hope it’s Chloe…

Source: Professional Social Work • February 2017

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