A police sergeant went to a house with the intention of arresting the man of the house for shoplifting. Taken aback by the extreme poverty evident in the home, and in particular at the tattered and filthy state of the man's 10-year-old daughter, Lizzie, the sergeant decided that the shop's CCTV footage was not after all convincing enough to arrest him. Instead, he gave the man a ticking off and alerted Social Services to his concerns about Lizzie.
Aware that the police are accustomed to slices of life that the rest of us are seldom exposed to, the social worker reckoned that things must have been unusually bad for the sergeant to have made such a referral. As is usual, and contrary to some popular opinion, the social worker responded quickly and with considerable expertise, not only in getting whatever modest financial and other support she could get for Lizzie and her family, but also in seeing to it that they used it effectively. She was known for her hands-on approach and for being not at all shy about directing her clients when necessary. Consequently, it was not long before Lizzie was turning up in school not dressed in rags and not looking as if she had been dragged down a Dickensian chimney.
Now the social worker wanted to embed and extend this nascent stabilisation of Lizzie's circumstances by drawing-in other professional services she thought relevant for that purpose. To that end, she called a case conference about Lizzie. She invited six people to the meeting: the police sergeant, Lizzie's GP, me, the head teacher from Lizzie's school, and her parents. That's seven people including the social worker. Call it five people since dads and GPs seldom showed up – the GP in this instance courteously sending a note to the effect that she had nothing to contribute since Lizzie was a healthy specimen with no unusual medical needs.
In the event, 14 people turned up, the additions being my shadowing trainee, Lizzie's class teacher, a speech and language therapist, a physiotherapist, a psychiatric nurse, a paediatrician, a psychiatrist, a hospital-attached charity worker, and a minute-taker (the last now necessary because of the scale of the meeting). We had to hang around for a time while the social worker looked for a bigger room, which she eventually found in a different building, and which we all had to drive to.
Of those present, only the teachers, the social worker and the police sergeant had actually seen Lizzie. None of the others – including me – had even heard of her. The social worker's original invitation had seemingly escaped from the GP's surgery and found itself wafting around medical circles. For reasons unexplained, though possibly to do with a recent headline-grabbing case of child-neglect, the higher-status medical professionals had apparently decided they should attend, and had told those other attendees over whom they had authority that they would be going too. None had thought to inform, or, more courteously, to ask, the social worker.
It is often the case when people go to meetings to do with things that are important but not within their own areas of expertise, they feel uneasy about having nothing to say. So, they either say something about matters in which they have no expertise or they try to work their own areas of expertise into situations where it would not normally be considered necessary or even wise.
Thus, for example, the paediatrician proposed a reading scheme a friend had told her about, despite the teachers having noted that Lizzie's reading was just fine. As it happens, the proposed scheme was well-known in education to be no good. The speech therapist suggested having a look at Lizzie to see if her language development was okay. This despite there never having been any questions raised about her language development, which, incidentally, was also just fine.
The psychiatrist wondered if Lizzie was perhaps suffering from some syndrome or other, a matter which he deduced on the grounds that since she was ragged and sometimes smelly, she must be isolated and withdrawn. When the class teacher said that Lizzie was in fact outgoing and popular, he noted that in her circumstances that was itself a sign of something wrong with her. At this, the psychiatric nurse's eyeballs could be detected making a barely perceptible roll towards the ceiling, he possibly having spotted the circular reasoning necessary for such a deduction to have been reached.
And so it went on.
What was happening here is not uncommon. That is, the over- professionalisation of an obvious but difficult social problem, that problem being poverty in this case. Such an approach is perhaps understandable given that it is human to want to do something even if, as here, none of us – except to an extent the social worker – could do anything about the core issue. But sometimes the urge to do something makes matters worse not better. In Lizzie's case, she faced enough obstacles to leading an untroubled life without having hypothetical problems going on inside someone else's head relocated to inside her head.
In almost two hours of going around in circles, the social worker became increasingly exasperated. She was probably also aware that if anything were to go wrong, her profession would yet again be serving as the lightning conductor for the whole of the system's shortcomings. I could see she was on the verge of treating us all to the sharp side of her tongue – a matter in which she was known to have impressive aplomb.
In the event, the actual lashing was more severe than could have been imagined. What if, the social worker proposed, we all clubbed together and bought a washer-dryer for Lizzie's family? And if we gave enough, we could get them a fridge-freezer and some bedding as well.
As it happens, there was indeed the proverbial ensuing rush. But it was only towards the door as everyone simultaneously recalled other pressing commitments.