TV review: Protecting Our Children: Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't

Social workers are much maligned, says Gary Day, but all they do is try to help those who need it most

February 9, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Apparently bankers have a rival for the title of most hated profession: social workers. This was the extraordinary claim made in the first of the three-part series Protecting Our Children: Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't (BBC Two, Monday 30 January, 9pm). They are seen as either "interfering home-wreckers" or "ineffective do-gooders". The programme tried to give a more rounded picture and, in the process, showed us a part of Britain that would make even the characters in Shameless blanch.

Newly qualified social worker Susanne hopped on her bike to visit Mike and Tiff, parents of Toby, a three-and-a-half-year-old who has a developmental age of between one and two years. He was still in nappies and hadn't learned to speak. He made noises on a scale between a squeal and a scream. The family lived in a small flat. Outside was a concrete slab with a supermarket trolley. Inside was filth and clutter. Toby shuffled around on newspapers laid down so that the dog could do its business, which it did in uninhibited fashion.

Mike, who said that Toby was the only surviving child of his previous seven, claimed that Susanne was there to break up the family. No, she wasn't. She was there to help them cope. "Did Toby brush his teeth?" "I don't brush mine, why should he brush his?" snapped Mike who, in fairness, didn't have many teeth left to clean. What these social workers didn't realise, said Mike to the camera, was that Toby was very difficult. He didn't know the meaning of the word "no". He also ran around a lot bumping into things, which explained the bruises, obviously.

Neither Susanne nor Sally-Ann, her team leader, was convinced that Mike and Tiff were really attending to Toby's needs. He still hadn't got a bed. Tiff was honest enough to acknowledge that she had few parenting skills. Her own mother had abandoned her. The viewer wanted to hear more but there was a blank where a life should be. And then Tiff got pregnant. She also got pre-eclampsia, a condition that, you sensed, made her feel important for once in her life. Mike had to care for Toby while Tiff went into hospital. The experiment was not a success. The couple broke up. Toby went into foster care and, after much heart-searching, Tiff put her newborn baby up for adoption. She wanted her little girl to have a happier life than she could provide. Susanne also thought that it was a good opportunity for Tiff to come to terms with her past.

Expecting Trouble, the second programme, differed from the first only in having a soundtrack, presumably making sure that if the story didn't depress us, the music would. It's hard to believe that a song with the title Ooh La La could be anything except jolly, but I know better now. This week's castaways were Marva and Shaun. Both had had children removed in the past, in Shaun's case seven of them. But he had managed to keep hold of a vicious-looking dog. That was just one of the reasons Annie needed two security men to accompany her when she visited. Marva, who was pregnant again, suffered from depression and drank rather a lot. So did Shaun. But he wanted you to know that he loved his kids, wherever they were, he really did. Marva didn't say much. She wanted to change and be a good mum can guess the rest.

Both these films restored some dignity and credibility to the term "reality TV". They brought into focus a Britain seen out of the corner of the eye in shopping centres, at bus stops and along the street. Not a pretty sight. Rainer Maria Rilke said that "everything that's terrible is something that needs our love", but he was a poet. The most we can hope for is to correct some of our most cherished social myths. And the one that Sacha Mirzoeff, the director of the series, laid bare was that individuals are responsible for their own destiny. If they are educated, come from a loving home and have been well supported on their journey to autonomy, then yes; if not, then no.

Shaun was beaten from a young age and thrown on to the streets when he was 14. He, and others like him, need help. Social workers try to provide that. What they can achieve is limited because they are dealing with the symptoms and not the causes. One cause is a market economy that generates huge inequalities of wealth, and another is a system of values that flings acid in the face of anyone who holds out a hand to those floundering at the bottom. The couples in these films have some excuse for being the way they are, the writers of poisonous headlines have none.

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