They’re often on the front lines in domestic situations. And they’re the ones who are called in when children may be at risk. I’m talking, of course, of social workers. They have a thankless and sometimes dangerous job, but the vast majority of them do their very best. There’s a high turnover rate among social workers, as you can imagine. The pay isn’t good, they often have a very much heavier caseload than anyone can reasonably be expected to handle, and they’re not always welcome at homes where they pay visits.
Yet, their work is vital, and can save lives. We do hear occasional horror stories of social workers who are incompetent or worse. But, as I say, the vast majority are hardworking, conscientious individuals who care.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of social workers who make appearances in crime fiction. It’s a natural fit, if you think about it. And they can add an interesting perspective to a crime story.
For example, in one plot thread of Jonathan Kellerman’s Blood Test, we learn of five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes. He has a treatable form of leukemia, but his parents refuse treatment. Instead, they want to choose holistic and other non-medical treatments. This could be fatal for Woody, so his doctor, Raoul Melendez-Lynch, asks a former colleague, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware agrees, and Melendez-Lynch puts him in contact with Beverly Lucas, a social worker attached to the hospital. She’s worked with the Swopes family, and Delaware is hoping that, together, they’ll be able to make some progress. Instead, Woody’s parents remove him from the hospital. Then, he disappears. Now, Delaware and Lucas must find the boy while he still has a chance to stay alive. Then, his parents are found dead. The only link to the family is Woody’s twenty-year-old sister, Nona, who has her own serious problems. In this novel, Lucas shows how important social workers can be when families have medical crises.
In Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House, DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson takes up his new duties at Tradmouth CID, in Devon. He’s no sooner settling in when word comes that the body of a young woman has been discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. The CID team begins the work of identifying her and trying to trace her killer. The trail leads to a local caravan of travellers and young man named Chris Manners, who may have some information. When it’s discovered that he has a little boy, Daniel, living with him, Social Services gets involved in the form of Lynne Wychwood. Among other things, she has to assess whether the boy is safe and living in an appropriate environment. And, if possible, she has to do that without alienating Chris; it’s going to be much easier if he sees her as an ally rather than The Enemy. Lynne doesn’t solve the case. But her work with Chris and Daniel proves very helpful, and it’s interesting to see how social workers try to be flexible and do what’s best for the child when they can.
Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In Exile, the second in the series, Mauri is working at a Glasgow shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. When one of the residents, Ann Harris, goes missing, not much concern is raised at first. Residents are free to come and go as they wish. But when Ann doesn’t return, Mauri begins to get concerned. Then, Ann’s body is found in the Thames a few weeks later. At first, Mauri is convinced that Ann’s husband, Jimmy, is responsible. But his cousin, who runs the shelter, insists that he’s innocent. So, Mauri tries to trace Ann’s last days and weeks. The trail leads to a London solicitor’s office where Mauri meets social worker Kilty Goldfarb, who’s also Scottish. The two strike up a friendship, and Kilty turns out to be helpful in this case. She returns in Resolution, the last of the trilogy, and her experience in social work turns out to be useful in that novel as well.
Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night introduces readers to Delhi social worker Simran Singh. At the request of a former university friend (who’s now Inspector General for Punjab), Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur. She’s there to work with the police on a very difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for murdering thirteen members of her family, and then burning the family home. There is evidence against her, but there is also the possibility that she, too, was a victim who managed to stay alive. The police can’t determine Durga’s role in the tragedy, because she hasn’t spoken about it. The hope is that Singh will be able to get the girl to open up and talk about what happened. At first, Durga is unwilling to say much of anything. But, bit by bit, she begins to trust Singh, and starts to talk about her family. Little by little, we learn what happened that night, and the dark secrets that led to the deaths. Among other things, this novel shows how social workers sometimes have to be creative when it comes to doing their best for the children they are charged with protecting.
Social workers take on a wide variety of roles. For instance, In Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, we learn that Chapman (who is a baker) works with the Soup Run, a Melbourne group that provides food, (non-alcoholic) drinks, blankets, and sometimes medicine to Melbourne’s street people. One of the other people involved with the Soup Run is Jen, a local social worker, who
‘…can wedge a client into a lodging house with pure force of character.’
Admittedly, Jen is not a main character who helps solve mysteries. But she shows the dedication that most social workers have to doing their best for those in need.
There’s also J.M. Green’s Good Money, which introduces Melbourne social worker Stella Hardy. When one of her clients, an émigré from Africa, is found murdered, and then a neighbour disappears, Stella starts looking for answers. And she finds that the truth is a lot more dangerous than she thought. I admit, I haven’t (yet) read this one. It was just too good an example not to mention. Want to know more? You can read terrific reviews here and here on Fair Dinkum Crime, the source for Australian crime fiction.
There are a lot of other social workers who appear in crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glasvegas’ Geraldine.