The 1980s saw the surfacing of a deeply disturbing phenomenon in the U.K. It revolved around what became infamously known as “Phantom Social Workers” (PSW) or “Bogus Social Workers” (BSW). They were strange and terrifying characters who, on more than a few occasions, reportedly tried to kidnap babies and children. Peter Rogerson said of the mystery: “The stories of the phantom social workers, the strangers who know everything, who appear out of nowhere and disappear after acting in a strange irrational manner, more than echo the motif of the Men in Black. None are caught, no car number plates are recorded.”
The U.K.’s police were quickly on the trail of the PSW – despite their overwhelming elusiveness. The reason why the authorities urged such vigilance was because the wave of PSW reports followed in the wake of a 1987 “satanic abuse” scare that exploded across certain parts of England, including Rochdale, Nottingham, and Manchester. There were outlandish tales of babies being sacrificed, and even eaten, in abominable rituals to Satan and his demonic minions. Tales of aborted fetuses used in similar infernal rites, in darkened woods, and at the witching-hour, abounded too. Major inquiries were launched, but nothing ever surfaced to suggest the hysterical rumors were anything other than that: hysterical rumors. It’s hardly surprising, though, that the public and government agencies – and particularly so the police – were on edge.
Patrick Harpur is the author of an excellent book, Daimonic Reality. In its pages, he commented on a wave of PSW activity that broke out in the U.K. in 1990. Of these emotionless characters, who Harpur described as “vaguely menacing strangers who turn up in the vicinity of nefarious goings-on, but who are unfailingly ineffective,” he said: “Reports poured in to the police, describing ‘health workers’ or ‘social workers’ who called to examine or take away children, but who hurriedly left when the householder became suspicious. The visitors were mostly one or two women, but sometimes a woman and a man. The women were typically in their late twenties or early thirties, heavily made up, smartly dressed and of medium height. They carried clipboards and, often, identification cards.”
Mike Dash, who has made a noteworthy contribution to the Phantom Social Worker controversy, has investigated yet another report from 1990; this one involving a woman named Elizabeth Coupland, of Sheffield, England. It was a winter’s day when two women knocked on Coupland’s door. Dressed in a fashion that suggested authority, the pair identified themselves as coming from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Such was their manipulative skill, Coupland allowed the pair in, and even let them examine her children – one aged two and the other not even yet six months old.
According to Mike Dash: “The visitors soon left, and Coupland assumed that she would hear nothing more of the matter.” Coupland was wrong. Dash notes that a couple of days later, one of the women returned. But this time with a man. Coupland was shell-shocked to learn that her children were to be taken away from her and to be placed into care. The terrified mother, now very suspicious, loudly said that she was going to call the police, at which point, says Dash, “…the social workers beat a diplomatic retreat.” It’s hardly surprising – but disturbing – that the real NSPCC knew nothing of this highly worrying state of affairs.
Paul Meehan, who has researched the British PSW phenomenon, too, says: “A typical case occurred on the morning of October 10, 1995, when Mark Dunn was alone in his home in Manchester, his wife and children out of the house, and a visitor came to the door. It was a well-groomed, official looking woman of about 35, who claimed to be a social worker with the Manchester City Council investigating alleged mistreatment of his younger child. When Mr. Dunn demanded to see her identification, the woman told him she had to retrieve it from her car. Dunn observed her retreat to a parked car in which two men were waiting. The woman then got in and the car raced off.”
Moving on…in 2001, and in an article titled “Bogus Social Workers Hunt,” the Scottish Daily Record newspaper reported the following: “Police were yesterday hunting two distinctively dressed bogus social workers who made a suspicious call at a house. The man and woman rushed off when challenged for identification at the property in Southside Road, Inverness, on Friday. Social work bosses said they had no staff in the area at the time. The man was described as 40 to 45, 5ft 10in tall, stockily [sic] built, with short ginger hair, goatee beard, wearing a green tweed sports jacket, check shirt, bright red tie, bottle green trousers and dark rectangular-framed glasses. The woman was 30 to 40, 5ft 6in, with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a green coat and brown shoes and carrying a briefcase.”
Thirteen years down the line, in 2014, the U.K’s Daily Mail was carefully following the apparently never-ending PSW affair. On April 25, the newspaper’s Damien Gayle noted that: “Parents have been told to be vigilant after a bogus social worker called at a house and examined a baby. The woman, who claimed to be from Gloucestershire social services, tricked her way into the home in Quedgeley with fake ID and listened to the child’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. She told the mother there were concerns for the welfare of her four-month-old son.”
Detective Inspector Andy Dangerfield, of Gloucestershire Police, assured the press that the woman had at no time come into physical contact with the baby, but added: “We don’t know what the motivation for this was but clearly it is very concerning. Our inquiries are ongoing. We have visited houses in the area to warn local people and would urge everyone to be vigilant. Remember, do not accept people into your house unless you are 100% sure you know who they are. You can always tell them to stay outside until you have made your own inquiries and if you are suspicious in any way, then call police. We have liaised with our partners at Gloucestershire social care services and they have alerted their staff to this incident.”
Such cases continue to occasionally surface. Definitive answers, however, are in very short supply. Theories put forward by the police – from the 1980s and right up until 2014 – included potential burglars scoping out the properties; gangs of pedophiles; private detectives (possibly involved in marital disputes and child-custody cases); self-appointed child abuse vigilantes; psychologically damaged women whose children had died and who, while spiraling into the depths of mental illness, were trying to create new families; real social workers who overstepped the mark in terms of their approach; and even – bizarrely – gangs of visiting Mormons. Of course, and as Peter Rogerson noted, there are certain, distinct parallels between the PSW and the Men in Black. The PSW also resemble the strange, so-called “census takers” that John Keel investigated in the 1960s. The mystery remains a mystery.