Familiar stories

known to social servicesReview by Charles Gibson

Book | Known to Social Services | Freya Barrington

This novel by Freya Barrington is not, in fact, written by Freya Barrington.

Barrington is the pen name used by a senior child protection social worker in a local authority in England. And while it is a work of fiction, Barrington clearly draws heavily on the many cases that have impacted her professional life.

Known to Social Services details the work of a social worker with a range of people living in a housing estate.

Common themes emerge as we meet parents struggling to cope: family violence situations, drug dealers and out of control adolescents. We encounter genital mutilation and child death.

The carefully planned approach of a paedophile is chillingly detailed. Having previously worked in an institution for children with a disability, he now focuses on ‘grooming’ a local church congregation. While he finds the worship services and the need to be ‘nice’ extremely tedious and demanding, he is prepared to endure all to achieve his ends.

The theme of the novel was particularly relevant to me. As a former child protection worker, senior social worker and case-planning chairperson in our child protection system in Victoria, I was reminded of families, individuals, police, support agencies and court officials who had been part of my life over the years.

The novel very accurately brings to life the relentless overload placed on the social workers in the child protection system. As the phone rings, there is always a new high-priority case to take on, followed by the anxiety about the children and families you are already responsible for who you are not able to see as frequently as you need to. Not to mention those who remain unallocated, similar to those whose operations are ‘bumped’ in the public health system by emergency cases.

Given the recent fatal apartment blaze in London, the book’s cover – which features three high-rise towers – is eerily evocative. Visiting similar towers in Richmond, Carlton, Kensington and Prahran was often physically, mentally and spiritually challenging.

I experienced similar life-threatening moments to those depicted in these pages. These inevitably occur when high stress levels and desperation meet. The cumbersome nature of the bureaucratic and court systems, their inability to assist timely interventions, and the lack of knowledge sharing among professionals all play out in this novel.

The stretched resources of early intervention and family support services repeatedly lead to unwanted outcomes. Inter-generational poverty and under-resourcing leap out as the key factors that perpetuate the sometimes desperate world of the housing estate.

When I took up social work, my mother was extremely concerned.

“Won’t that be very depressing?” she asked.

Indeed, on picking up this book my first reaction was to put it down again. Yet despite all the struggles outlined for the housing estate residents, the social workers and the broader child protection system, this was a page-turner. There are moments of hope and the book is engaging. The people and the life challenges they face draw you in.

You can see why the novel is a 2015 London Book Festival Winner and gained an Honourable Mention in the 2016 Paris Book Festival.

In recent times I have been involved in the UCA’s work to respond to the outcomes of the Victorian State Inquiry and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

For those who question the reasons why such measures are needed, the stories in this novel reinforce that every effort we make to keep children safe is time extremely well spent.

Charles Gibson is the former director of UnitingCare Vic/Tas.

Available at: faraxapublishing.com 

RRP: $9.22 (ebook) $19.99 (paperback)

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