(Trigger warning: contains child-abuse)
Jaws drop, heads lower, expletives bounce off the personality-free walls of the Local Authority office. Not a single Social Worker in the room can believe what they are hearing, and behind the curse words are distressed hearts. You see, trauma travels between and within us.
It’s 4pm on a Thursday and two Duty Social Workers are in the midst of a search for a foster carer for an eight year old girl who needs to come into care that same day. A Safeguarding Manager across the aisle is on her mobile to the Safeguarding Social Worker out at the girl’s house. Other workers at rows of desks carry on their phone calls or writing reports. It could just been seen as a ‘typical day in the office’.
The dropping jaws and pierced hearts are in response to overhearing the Manager’s conversation, a one-sided debate which implies that the police want to take a different legal route to get this girl into foster care, one other than immediate removal.
The lowered heads are silent statements of “what more evidence do they need?!” The referral was harrowing, inhumane, heart-breaking. An eight year old girl locked in her bedroom, made to toilet in a litter tray, forced to scrub it clean, every door inside her house locked and alarmed, light-globes removed, punishments of endurance. Dark, horrific prison; a faeces smelling bedroom and urine stained little girl, quiet yet articulate, with too-thin legs. This: her family home, her only experience of what life is.
Every worker in the room had felt their skin crawl, their stomach churn, and there was multiple responses of “I’ll take her home”, the urge to wrap her up in a comforter on a safe sofa immediate around the office.
And yet, questions by the police as to whether to issue emergency protection orders the same day?! They have their legal logic. Still. Jaws dropped, expletives bounced.
The Duty Social Workers continue their phone calls to carers to see who could take her in tonight. Their day had already included placing two babies, and a so-far fruitless search for another eight year old who needed to move placements. The list of twenty or so other children in need of care, but not so urgent, sits untouched. The babies were safely en route to their temporary homes, and the focus shifts to the search for the girl. The Manager is heard supporting the field Social Worker to challenge police view, with clear questions of whether back up is needed in the field, are the family looking like they will “kick off”? The office inhales and holds its breath.
The Duty Social Workers simultaneously listen to the Manager’s conversation so they stay updated, while needing to block out conversations so they can focus on finding a safe bed. Emotional and strategic multi-tasking at its best. They begin the child-carer matching-tetris game…considering carer experience, location, other children in the house and their needs. They attempt to unwrap practical barriers and pull out their best negotiating voices. Another worker begins an out-of-county search as Plan B. Nobody wants this girl to move too far around the country, but available carers are thin on the ground.
The Placements Manager is asking for updates every half hour, as he will need to give approval to fund an independent fostering placement if no Local Authority carers can take her. One of the Duty Social Workers feels the heat of her other cases breathing heavily down the back of her neck, solicitor emails with updated court deadlines fly into her email inbox and she turns off her email notifications to lighten her own breath.
The office chocolate tin is quickly emptying.
If you walked into that office, all you would see is ordinarily-looking adults sat at computers, typing away or on the phone, the occasional blue or bright pink hair in the sea of auburn, brown and blonde. If you could mute the room like a television you could be fooled into thinking that these folk were pen-pushing, paper-shuffling, risk-avoidant, pension-waiting, Local Authority clock-watchers, abundant cogs in a paper-chain of red tape.
But they are far from that.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, if you lift the volume, these people are agents of love in a world of horror; people who face others’ pain daily and come back for more, their motivation strengthened by the simple fact that they may be able to do something to help girls like that, anything at all. Like, by working with the police to remove the girl to a safe place, or by calling every possible foster carer until a warm safe home is found.
This time, the Duty Social Workers get lucky, the third local foster carer called can take her, at least for a week while a longer term option is found, and extended family members considered. The police issue the emergency order, and the girl is driven to a foster carer’s house later that evening. She is somewhere tonight where they will offer her a night light if she wants it, clean sheets as a basic, and the chance at recovery.
The office exhales, and heads lower this time in relief.
This little girl is somewhere safe tonight.