Child protection workers 'don't shrug it off in the car on the way home'

Published date30 June 2021
Date30 June 2021
In reality, most of the boys resident in that school, numbering 700 in 1954, the year he was born, were committed there because of parental issues or outright destitution. They were the sort of children he was to encounter throughout a 40-year career in child protection.

Now he has written a memoir, Hanged If You Do ...Reflections from a Career in Child Protection (Orpen Press), to give the general public an insight into what social workers like him do.

Inevitably, perhaps, ghosts of sad cases haunt these pages. First up is the lifeless baby girl he held in a mortuary chapel, starting down at the bruised lump on her head. "I grieved for the baby I had known for each of the six months of her six months of life. And I worried for myself, guilty that I hadn't foreseen this and troubled about the consequences. Someone had killed this child."


A review of the case, which had never been considered high risk but rather a young, first-time mother needing support, concluded that the tragedy was unpredictable, "which was a let-off for me", he writes. The woman's boyfriend had been seen as an asset because he moved in with her before the birth and the couple seemed charmed at the baby's arrival, never unduly stressed and then devastated at her death.

However, accounts by the mother and father of events leading up to the fatal injury differed. Then, just as gardaí were preparing to interview the father a few days later, he took the boat to Wales.

Harrison's belief that public expectation of his profession is very high, unrealistically high, is reflected in the title of the book. "Social workers are expected to protect all of the children all of the time. That is definitely the milieu they work in," he says over a cup of outdoor coffee. "There is no forgiveness for getting it wrong and, bearing in mind it is a risk business, it will go wrong sometimes."

The independent oversight of the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) plays a valuable role in keeping services on the straight and narrow, he acknowledges. However, "Hiqa has to identify risks, social workers have to take them, that's the difference."

Harrison's book also sums up the fundamental dilemma in child protection when, as he puts it, applying Solomon's wisdom. "I had to determine, on the balance of probability, if the forcible removal of a child from his or her family was the lesser of two evils.

"The first was to leave the child in a dangerous situation, where their health or wellbeing was likely to be impaired. The second was to remove them from the danger, in the knowledge that this too would cause lasting psychological damage to the child and other family members."

'Miserable childhood'

The rule of thumb he applied very early on, he says, was that it was not his job to make children happy but it was his job to make them safe. "The consequence of that is that they may still have a miserable childhood but they might as well have it at home, as be miserable in care, once they are safe. They may go hungry the odd time and they may not be as clean as the teacher might want them and all the rest of it, but their primary attachment is still going to be to their parents. You want to think...

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