I spent just 12 months as a postgraduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex in 1976/7. I had graduated with a degree in Applied Social Studies, which included the professional social work qualification (CQSW), at the University of Bradford in 1974. After graduation I worked as a social worker for Bradford Social Services. While nominally a generic social worker covering all client groups, my caseload, like all qualified social workers at the time, was biased very much towards child care cases. My degree gave an excellent grounding in psycho-dynamic and ego psychological approaches to social casework which were dominant in social work training at the time. When I finished the degree I was clear that I wanted to extend do some further study related to social policy and sociology and it was the MA in Social Service Planning which I studied at Essex.
What I really liked was that there were just ten students on the course from a variety of backgrounds. The culture of the department was very different to what I was used to and the focus of the MA was, in effect, the sociology of social policy. Every week we had small group seminars with some great staff – unfortunately many of whom are no longer with us; Peter Townsend, Dennis Marsden, Adrian Sinfield, Stan Cohen, Mary McIntosh, Duncan Gallie and a (relatively) young and enthusiastic Ken Plummer – all of whom either were professors or were to go on to become professors at Essex and elsewhere – and all of whom were, at the time, the leading researchers and scholars in the field. To be honest it is only in more recent years that I have come to appreciate the influence that the course and the wider department has had on my thinking and work – both then and in subsequent years. And some of this is quite mundane in the sense that it was the first time I had to study quite conceptual and theoretical ideas in any depth and to produce a series of longer and more ‘academic’ assignments. We had to write a 4000 word essay per month as well as produce the occasional seminar paper. This was the time I began to appreciate the value of a more disciplined approach to reading and writing.
One of the courses we studied was on Deviance, Social Problems and Social control and was led by Stan Cohen and Ken Plummer and introduced me to the American sociology of social problems literature and the journal Social Problems in particular where social contructionist approaches were dominant. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree and while I was a practitioner in Bradford I had become very aware that, following the public inquiry into the death of seven year old Maria Colwell in 1973/4 that the issue of, what was then called, ‘non-accidental injury to children and the activities of social workers had been thrust into the media in high profile ways and that this was having an impact upon the operation of social services in ways which was not envisaged when we were training to become social workers. I was intrigued about how this had come about and with what implications. However I had not anticipated studying this as part of the MA. But increasingly I found the sociology of social problems literature very persuasive and just at the time I was thinking how this might be applied to ‘NAI’ in the UK I came across an article by Stephen Pfohl in Social Problems(24(3),pp310-23) entitled ‘The Discovery of Child Abuse’ and this decided me to make this the focus for the dissertation which I needed to complete for the MA with Ken Plummer as my supervisor.
I was never really able to engage with ‘student life’ at Essex as much as I would have liked. My partner, Christine, and I lived in a small bungalow in Clacton called ‘Pixie Dell’ as she was working for social services in Clacton and I travelled about NE Essex on my trusty Honda 50. Then in May, just as I was about to start work for the dissertation, Christine was knocked over by a car and was very badly injured and spent the next 4 months in hospital near Braintree. So my summer was spent either sitting in the library at Essex trying to find relevant articles and analysing newspaper coverage of child abuse, interviewing a few key ‘informants’ who had some important insights into how the problem was ‘officially’ being handled or travelling to Black Notley Hospital (now closed). At the end of the course and after Christine came out of hospital we were keen to get back to West Yorkshire and I got a job as lecturer in social work at the, then, Polytechnic of Huddersfield, where I have worked – more or less – ever since. I got pretty engrossed in the work for the dissertation and Ken Plummer was always very supportive and this prompted me to write a much edited version of the dissertation for the British Journal of Social Work (9(4) 432-451) entitled ‘The Natural History of Child Abuse: A Study in Social Problem Definition’.
It was never my intention to spend so much of my academic and professional life studying and writing about child abuse and child protection – but that is how it seems to have worked out! In the early days I had assumed that the initial public and media interest in child abuse and social work would subside. But this is not what has happened. While the last 40 years have seen occasional lulls, overall the trend has been for an increase in both coverage and also an increase in, what I am now calling, ‘outrage’. Part of this reflects the growing awareness of the size and nature of the problem of child abuse and the terrible suffering experienced by a significant number of children and young people. But the ‘outrage’ is also very much directed at the professionals and managers, particularly social workers, who have been involved in a series of high profile cases and are, almost, seen as ‘responsible’ for the suffering. It is as if child abuse – or rather child protection – and social work are tied together by some sort of umbilical cord and that the latter has projected onto it much of the fear and anger experienced at a rather subconscious level by numerous sections of society. For many years I have been of the view that it is not possible to understand the nature and purposes of social work in the UK without understanding the nature and social reactions to the problem of child abuse. Increasingly I have been of the view that the way we respond to both child abuse and social work says a great deal about the kind of society in which we live and how this might be changing. My most recent attempts to provide a critical analysis of this will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in the spring of 2014 as The Politics of Child Protection: Contemporary Developments and Future Directions; and, in many ways, the seeds for this and previous publications were sown in the Department of Sociology at Essex in 1976/7.