Megan, Rochdale and a serious loss of direction in our professional moral compass

Whilst the cases of Megan Stammers and the five Rochdale girls  might appear very different the underlying issue of underage sex, and those in authority being well aware of this fact, pose very serious questions of a number of professionals across a whole host of organisations (social services, education, health, the police, CPS).  

Who did what and when will come out in due course, and if it is anything like previous serious case reviews the ‘blame’ will not lay at any one door, but at many, with structural and organisational issues at the fore.

For me the response of the agencies and professionals involved also needs to be viewed from a values perspective,   particularly in the Rochdale case.    I cannot believe front line workers were happy with the situation, my gut feeling is that their concerns will have been somehow downplayed at a higher level by those above them.   From practice experience I know how easy it is for those not in face to face contact with individuals on the ground to move a social workers practice in a direction the worker is unhappy with,  it’s much easier leaving people in a vulnerble place when you have never met them face to face.  However, regardless of how mature we might think a 15 year old is, or whether a 15 year old is making a rational choice to engage in consensual sexual activity, the last time I opened a law text book it told me that an adult having sex with someone under the age of 16 years was illegal.  Why is this disregarded, and if ‘we’ choose to disregard this law what others laws should we ignore, who makes that decision, and on what basis?

Two weeks ago I sat with a group of qualified social workers in a classroom and we had a debate about professional values and ethics. I used the well known ‘torture’ scenario.

You have a terrorist who says they have planted a bomb in a city in the UK and  it will explode in 4 hours and many thousand will die. If you torture the terrorist you have a chance of finding the bomb  and saving many thousands of lives, would you torture?

The response from the group was similar to every other time I do this exercise,  the minority say no they would not and the rest, yes they would torture (or get someone else to do it, I have been asked on occasion could it be painless torture!) .  Whatever the answer the students are taking well known philosophical positions on values.  The first answer is taking a ‘deontological’ approach i.e. torture is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified under any circumstances.  The second answer is taking a ‘consequentialist’ approach i.e. torture may generally be a bad thing, but under these circumstances it is justified because  the suffering it will cause is out wieghed by the suffering it will prevent.

Deontological theories are based on the idea that there are certain things we should, or should not do, irrespective of the consequences.  Whilst, there are several deontological approaches the one we are probably most familiar with, in terms of practice in health and social care, is based on the concept of human rights, and a duty to respect the rights of others. The concept of inalienable human rights is in fact a classically deontological idea.

The alternative to a ‘deontological’ approach is ‘Consequentialism’. This is a collective term for a group of moral theories which are based on the idea that what determines rightness or otherwise of an action is whether the consequences of that action are favourable or unfavourable and for whom. Therefore, in this approach we tally up the good and bad consequences of actions and see whether the good consequences out-weigh the bad. This probably is the approach most used in the public sector, the greatest happiness for the greatest number principle which is usually how resourcing decisions are made.

Going back to our example regarding torture, what might your response be?  Some believe it would be justified to sacrifice the rights of one person for the sake of many. However, others feel concerned that if you were to ignore an individuals’ rights this time this might lead to the ‘slippery slope’, where  the disregarding of rights could become common practice.  So, for example,  accepting a 15 year old having sex with an adult is okay, leads to accepting its okay for 14 year olds, or 13 year olds, or ………..

I take  no moral stance on the age of consent and there are many factors to be taken into consideration, however, from a professional values standpoint it is about adhering to the law, and the danger of what happens when ‘we’ decide to ignore it.  My gut feeling is , disregard for this law has become such common practice,  that when agencies are presented with some cases of underage sex they go onto automatic pilot rather than looking at the case on an individual basis.

We all know professional values are important, whatever approach yon take, its adhering to them that’s the hard bit because what ever we do there will always be consequence for others from the decisions we make.

About digalpin

I gained my social work qualification from the University of Southampton and worked for 14 years in mental health, disability and older people services. I am currently a senior lecturer in post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University and am conducting research on government and societal attitudes and responses to the mistreatment of older people in health and social care provision for my doctorate. My views are my own.

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