On this World Social Work Day, Jadwiga Leigh discusses the findings of her paper co-authored with Stephen Crossley on ‘The ‘troubled’ case of Rotherham’. This case had a huge impact on the creation of a culture of fear, mistrust and blame in social work. How did this happen and what can we learn?
“On the 4th of February 2015, Louise Casey published a report from an investigation she and her team carried out into the way Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (RMBC) responded to child sexual exploitation (CSE). Casey opened by stating that ‘terrible things’ had happened in Rotherham and on ‘a significant scale’.
We found it hard to disagree with this statement.
Terrible things had indeed happened and there was no doubt that substantial improvements needed to be made. However, on reading the report we felt that Casey’s findings were actually going to prevent us from fully understanding what did happen in Rotherham, why it happened and what we needed to do to minimise the chances of it happening again.
A conflict of interest
What we did know was that Casey had been appointed to lead an ‘independent’ inspection into RMBC by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Although Casey was independent of Rotherham, local authorities and children’s services because she had little or no experience in this area, she was not independent of Pickles or his department. As Director General of the Troubled Families Team Casey was already dependent on Pickles as he was, at the time, the Secretary of State and effectively the person she reported to.
Missing methodological information
Although this was a concern for us, there were other issues surrounding Casey’s appointment which also troubled us.
Although we know that three of the seven assistant inspectors came from Casey’s Troubled Families’ Team, there was little information about the methods used during the inspection. There was a ‘Background and methodology’ sub-section within the report but even though we were informed that over 200 meetings took place with various people and that over 7000 documents were reviewed, details about how these interviews were recorded, stored and collated was unknown.
“Very little at all was known about how the investigation … was carried out.”
We also did not know how the analysis was conducted and whether appropriate and robust methods were used when drawing conclusions. In fact, very little at all was known about how the investigation into Rotherham’s response to the appalling sexual exploitation of children was carried out. This was not the first time. Casey had shown a lack of interest in detailing methodology before.
Her influential Listening to Troubled Families report also made no mention of any particular approach to collecting and analysing information gained from speaking to families about issues which affected their lives. But the similarities did not end there. What was striking about the Rotherham report was the way in which it portrayed the local authority (RMBC) as the institutional equivalent of a ‘troubled family’ as individual failings were attributed to the organisation and where, at times, it appeared that RMBC was an active agent with a will of its own.
A flawed inspection
Using a critical discourse analysis framework we decided to analyse Casey’s report to get to the bottom of some these issues. We focused on the way in which the report was written, and then, using Steven Lukes’s three-dimensional power framework, we explored some of the issues that we had expected to find in the report but were not. What we did find was that although the Casey Report was presented as a well-resourced and credible independent inspection, it was in fact significantly flawed.
Despite a number of RMBC participants challenging the inquiry’s findings, Casey and her team did not use the inspection as an opportunity to explore whether their concerns held any merit.
Instead, through the use of emotive and affective prose, Casey diverted the reader’s attention away from finding out the truth by simply labelling participants’ inability to agree with the inquiry as a form of denial. This distraction technique enabled Casey to subsequently frame participants who were unwilling to accept her ‘truths’ as deviants and, in turn, persuade her audience that whatever people from the RMBC said, they were not to be believed or trusted.
“This tactic directed the focus away from central government, who were exonerated from all responsibility.”
This tactic directed the focus away from central government, who were exonerated from all responsibility in this case despite playing an integral role in allocating resources (to families and authorities) and establishing policy frameworks, legislative frameworks and systems of practice that affect child welfare. Austerity measures, cuts to local services and the wider programme of neoliberal reform were not discussed in the Casey Report.
Central government were instead positioned as largely benign as it was inferred that the only significant role that it played in the events that led to the RMBC’s demise was when it was necessary for someone to ‘step in’ and make the council ‘squeaky clean’ (Casey, 2015: 77).
What can we learn?
The Casey Report had a significant impact on social work as David Cameron’s response was to berate and punish the professionals he felt were to blame. This reaction did not address the problem of CSE.
It did however successfully contribute to the current climate that social workers face in practice today: a climate that is deeply affected by fear, mistrust and blame. Government ministers need to understand that there is a whole tier of politics operating at the local level and for progress to be effective then this needs to be acknowledged and dealt with fairly.
There are few who will disagree that it is vital for public services to face up to difficult tasks so that those in need are safeguarded but we feel this objective cannot be achieved without the support of a congruent workforce and a degree of sensitivity from those in Government.
Download ‘The ‘troubled’ case of Rotherham’ by Stephen Crossley and Jadwiga Leigh here. This article is published in the latest issue of Critical and Radical Social Work. The entire journal is available free until 21 April 2017 to mark World Social Work Day.
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