Protecting Our Children

Monday 30 January 2012, 11:37

Sacha Mirzoeff Sacha Mirzoeff Series Producer

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Some television programmes take a long time to make.

If you want to show the most hidden human behaviour within our communities, you're going to need a lot of patience.

The BBC had good relations with Bristol Council after making Someone To Watch Over Me - a series about child social workers after the Victoria Climbié case in 2000.

After the Baby P crisis, the BBC commissioners asked my production team to make a new documentary about child protection services.

Protecting Our Children is a three-part series that closely follows social workers as they work with families who need help in bringing up their children in a suitable way.

Our crews would follow individual social workers and families over months to see how the social workers tried to make situations better for children at risk.

Shaun, one of the dads in Protecting Our Children

Shaun and his baby

Even with good historical relations, the sensitivity was such that took us over a year to agree a modus operandi with the council.

We finally established a working protocol drafted by a QC working with the council, amended by the BBC and finally ratified by the most senior family court judge in Bristol.

The crux, we all agreed from the outset was, the welfare of any child involved has to come first. The details of what that means in specific situations is complex.

Then we started filming.

It took months of hard work to try and persuade people to take part to show the real nitty gritty of the actual cases with families.

In the meantime all we could do was film the more straightforward parts that we knew would provide the 'glue' to make all the programmes piece together, like shots of the city, simple meetings amongst the social workers.

What was key was that everyone got used to us being around with our cameras, so when real action happened later we could film it, unhindered.

How do you even ask a family who are probably in the worst place of their lives whether they would like to consider taking part in a television programme?

It's impossible to build up trust and understanding when you first contact someone.

When we got to the point of spending time chatting to people face to face in their homes, it became somewhat easier.

Slowly with patience and consideration we got somewhere, but I can never imagine a more difficult ask for members of the public.

We were able to offer a very different way of taking part - a system called rolling consent.

That meant anyone being filmed could choose to pull the plug and decide not to continue at any point in the process - after the first day, after six months or after they had seen the finished film.

We quickly learned that the only way to progress was to be a fully open book - to be honest and clear.

We showed everyone who took part the final film and agreed to change anything factually inaccurate and listen carefully to other objections (which didn't include anyone's hair looking bad on a particular day!).

Slowly we found people did have reasons for wanting to take part.

Some people wanted to pass on advice to others in similar life situations. As Shaun, one of the fathers says in the finished programme "appreciate it, love your children best. Don't go my way - I made the biggest mistake. I've lost my children and I try and fight for them - you know stay strong, don't give up."

For some our presence acted as further encouragement to make progress at home. For others who were battling with social workers, they wanted their side of events faithfully recorded.

So eventually we gained access into people's lives and started to film with a small crew of two or three people.

The stunning aspect of observational filming over a long period of time is the course of people's stories changes in ways that you could never imagine.

We never could have predicted that whole families who appeared to be united would fall apart in a matter of weeks. As John Lennon stated: "Life's what happens when you're busy making other plans...".

As we got more involved with the people's lives, we got to understand what a privileged position we occupied.

Protecting Our Children: social worker Annie

Social worker Annie

We were able to speak to the families in confidence (as long as it what they said did not affect the welfare of their children). At the same time we would hear the inside track from the social workers' point of view.

When some of the hard decisions needed to be made about the future of the children, we found ourselves overcome with emotion and often reeling for months after.

Surprisingly the social workers themselves were also deeply affected by certain cases that they became ensconced in, despite their extensive training to maintain professional boundaries with families. Somehow I found that reassuring.

This series will live with all who took part for the rest of their lives.

After three years of work we are finally able to show three hours of television that gives an insight into a world many of us never get to see, but one that continues around us in all our neighbourhoods.

Sacha Mirzoeff is the series producer of Protecting Our Children.

Protecting Our Children starts on BBC Two and BBC HD on Monday, 30 January at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the episode guide.

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by the issues raised in this programme, you can visit the information and support page (available until 23 March).

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I have worked with social workers in child protection for many years and have the utmost respect and admiration for what they do. They are intelligent, caring and compassionate people who always work in the interests of the children and families in the short- and long-term. And work they do - it is an incredibly difficult task which one has to pour many hours and tears into if you do it properly.

    On the BBC News article at , it states:

    "This hostility was not a surprise for Susanne. Her wider family won't even admit they have a social worker in their midst. "I think it's the most hated profession in the nation," she said."

    I was disgusted to read that, and I'm not often moved to reach out and say something in this manner, but for every ill feeling anyone has against Susanne and her peers I hope the love that the rest of us have outweighs it.

    How sad the prejudice about social work is pointed against the very people who are saving lives. Should we not be looking towards the people involved in events leading up to local authority intervention?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Excellent programmes were shown few yrs ago about child protection team in Coventry. VERY COURAGEOUS OF FAMILIES AND SOCIAL WORKERS to take part in filming.
    In UK we have a society where many with massive responsibilities are likely to be vilified and underpaid, eg foster-parents and adopters.
    In private sector, if you make huge errors and are paid millions ( eg the swindles by HSBC and others in fraudulent selling of PIP), evidently the world owes you a living and you deserve colossal bonuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Social Work has such a bad press that when the council's money advice service(free debt counsellors) was merged with the Welfare Rights service we had to argue to keep the words "Social Work Department" off the headed paper. this was because people told the money advisors they would never have asked for help if they thought we were part of social work "in case you take my kids away"
    I don't like working in the area teams (Social worker teams) as its too depressing listening / overhearing part of conversations with the criminal justice or child protection teams. I could never do their job and the abuse that the admin staff in a social work office gets is unreal. One area team had metal shutters that came down when the panic alarm was hit because the admin staff had been assaulted so often.
    I can relate to the sentiments "Her wider family won't even admit they have a social worker in their midst" I never admit my team is part of social work especially to new clients - once you have their debts sorted out or benefits & support reinstated then you can admit your part of social work but only if they ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Social workers do have a tough job but they can make mistakes also. Most of the high profile cases in the past have mentioned failings on the part of the social services departments involved.
    My personal experience of social services have left me with a sour feeling. I have found them to be biased,easily duped and, quite frankly,nasty. They are self policed and cannot ask a disabled child a direct question.
    I will watch the programme and will keep an open mind whilst doing so but will I contact them again for my concerns? Definately not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    After watching the first series of which I felt was very artificial, I can assume that this is going to be the same, social workers on their best behaviour, access to certain cases only, no doubt behind the scenes discussions as to which cases would further public opinion towards social work.

    Perhaps if the producer looked elsewhere, found some of the real families, thousands of them that have been treated most heinously, lied about, lost their children through nothing more than simple opinion and lacking any evidence, we would see a different picture altogether.

    I have got evidence of 16 YEARS of failing by social workers in my own daughters case and am in the process of tearing apart the local authority who lied, perjured to steal my grandson from me, perhaps if the BBC talked with John Hemmings MP and asked him about social services and the crimes they commit, the BBC would get a completely different story!


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