EMMA MCNEILL asks if anxiety about paedophilia and failures in the UK’S social services have helped resurrect a bogeyman (or woman) of the 1990s
In the 1980s and 1990s, families in the UK – and to a lesser extent the US – faced an unusual threat: the Bogus Social Worker (BSW).1By the late Nineties, though, these strange visitors were becoming less common. A 1995 police investigation into the phenomenon concluded that there had been only a handful of genuine cases and that the majority of reports were the result of misunderstandings and a subsequent panic or mania.2
Today, BSWs are apparently on the rise again.3 Although many still identify themselves as social workers, they’re now claiming to be health visitors too. I became aware of this variation when a friend announced on Facebook that her own health visitor had warned her about a Bogus Health Visitor (BHV) in Cardiff.
The basics of an encounter today remain the same as in the Nineties heyday of the BSW. An unrecognised person calls on a family and says they he or she is from an official child welfare service and claims to be looking for signs of abuse or neglect. The caller is normally a woman, sometimes working with a “colleague”. She may have an odd appearance, such as wearing a wig or unusual clothing. There is an examination of the child or children and in some cases an attempt to take the child away. After the visit, the parent realises they have been duped and that the authorities have no record of the caller. After an initial isolated case there may be a wave of similar reports. A couple of weeks later, cases dry up.
Over the years a number of explanations have been put forward for the phenomenon. One possibility is that no one has ever been visited by a BSW. South Yorkshire’s Operation Childcare, which investigated reports of BSWs, found that salesmen, canvassers, researchers and even genuine social workers had been misidentified. A few researchers have concluded that BSWs don’t exist in concrete reality at all and are folkloric figures, like phantom clowns and the Men In Black. Some, like Patrick Harpur, have suggested that the BSWs are actually dæmons or tricksters.
The possibility of factitious reports is also worth examining. Some parents may be lying about these visits. This could be as a form of attention-seeking – perhaps similar to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.4 Or, as in one horrific case where a woman murdered her foster child, to conceal actual abuse. 5
But what if unidentified individuals really are visiting families and pretending to be from the authorities? Who could they be? Thrill-seekers who enjoy the power trip? Pædophiles trying to gain access to children? Or, perhaps more plausibly, are they self-appointed child-protectors or vigilantes who believe that by visiting these families they will prevent abuse that would otherwise be overlooked by the authorities.
When BSWs first emerged, the extent of child abuse in society was gradually being recognised; but, at the same time, moral panics about such abuse were also leading to false allegations against parents, as in the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandal of the time (see FT57:46-62). This, in turn, led to a mistrust of social workers, who had both ignored genuine cases and accused parents wrongfully. Perhaps this might have led some people to believe they had a duty to take matters into their own hands. Similar circumstances might explain why BSWs are on the rise again. There have been a number of high profile failures of social services – most prominently, that in Rotherham – and a growing awareness of pædophilia, including new threats posed by the Internet. People are also discovering that well-known celebrities from their childhoods were sexual predators hiding in plain sight. As in the Nineties, society is alert to both the possibility of child abuse and the inefficacy of authorities in dealing with it.
The increase in people turning up on doorsteps claiming to be health visitors can be explained simply: the expansion of the health visitor system has made them a familiar feature of family life. Why would a parent doubt that the person on the doorstep is the real thing? Parenting forums are full of people wondering if they can refuse to see the health visitor and being warned that this will bring up child welfare red flags. I can see why parents would feel obliged to let anyone claiming to be a health visitor into their home.
While most reports may be misunderstandings, the ones that aren’t are worrying. Isn’t being concerned about BSWs and BHVs a good thing? We can be alert without descending into hysteria. And even if they are just modern bogeymen, as forteans we know that just because something is an urban legend doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Just ask anyone who bought a poodle at an Argentinean market.6
1. I use the word “bogus”, used by authorities and many researchers. “Phantom” is also used, but puts the phenomena in the realm of folklore excluding more concrete explanations.
3. See my book The Angel of Mons (Wiley 2004) for a full discussion of Machen’s sources and his clashes with those who believed in divine intervention such as Harold Begbie, author of On The Side of the Angels (1915).
For reports of Bogus Social Workers since 1990, see FT57:43-45, 61:36, 66:48-49, 77:36-38, 87:18, 98:14-15, 270:10-11, 273:11, 281:11, 315:24.
EMMA MCNEILL is a freelance writer with a lifelong passion for forteana who can’t believe she actually gets to write about weird stuff. She lives in County Down, Northern Ireland.
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