A qualified social worker for 35 years, including the last 12 as an independent specialising in adoption support , Susan* is the type of experienced professional the sector needs. So why is she considering leaving adoption?
The answer lies in confusion over the adoption support services regulations 2005, which came into force last December and are supposed to improve professionalism in adoption support, but could in reality undermine this laudable aim.
David Holmes, new chief executive at Baaf Adoption and Fostering, (pictured), says the legislation may be having “unintended consequences.”
The laws, which enforce measures in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, mean that organisations and people offering adoption support services should register with the Commission for Social Care Inspection as adoption support agencies.
But the British Association of Social Workers says CSCI and the Department for Education and Skills are offering conflicting advice on how the laws apply to independent social workers, particularly those carrying out adoption assessments.
Assessment is just one of a lengthy list of adoption support tasks carried out by independent social workers, along with others including family finding, matching, life story work, and mediation.
The confusion over the regulations prompted Helen Ogilvy, chair of BASW’s independents’ forum, to write to the government calling for urgent clarification but, two months on, she has yet to receive an answer.
Ogilvy says that while the DfES had been telling independent social workers that the regulations did not cover adoption assessments, CSCI staff were interpreting the rules differently and applying them not to category of work, but to status of employment.
Those independents who contacted CSCI were told that social workers could only be employed or self-employed, and if in the latter category they must register as small adoption support agencies.
But these social workers are already registered with the General Social Care Council, meaning they would have to register twice.
Ogilvy warns that the costs of this double registration could deter some independents from working in adoption support, but says it cannot afford to lose such skilled practitioners.
“There’s a lack of appropriate skills and experienced people to carry out this area of work,” she says. “There will be a knock-on effect for local authorities and adoption agencies and a knock-on effect for children and families wanting to adopt.
“A lot of our members feel that if they register with the GSCC and are working through an appropriate agency, then surely there are sufficient checks and balances.”
Susan, who has not registered with CSCI, says she has not taken on any new work since the start of the year because she does not want to open herself up to future legal action under the inspectorate’s requirements.
She is only carrying on with work she had started before the regulations came into force because she has contracts to do it, and says there were “no transitional arrangements in place” under the regulations.
“I’m now in a very precarious position,” she says. “I can see a time in the very foreseeable future where I will not be able to practise unless this is resolved.”
Needs of children
Only this week she was approached to do some life story work with a child in a placement that she had initially assessed. “I’m the ideal person to do that, I’ve known the child for three years and I’m very familiar with the story, but I’m not in a position to do that piece of work,” she says. “The needs of children are being lost.”
She also feels there is a lack of awareness among independents about the regulations.
“A lot of people are practising who, given the situation, probably shouldn’t be until the government and CSCI have sorted it out,” she says.
Susan also says it is “onerous” for an individual to register with CSCI.
“It’s one thing if a group of independent social workers get together and have premises they are all going to work from,” she says. “But it’s different for somebody like me working from an upstairs office at home.
“There’s no way I could be compliant with requirements on disability access or health and safety. There’s also the ongoing financial commitment and the cost of registration would have to be passed on to commissioning agencies, plus handling fees.
“And would I want information about me and my office to be put on the internet for the world and his neighbour to see?”
Another independent social worker, who does not wish to be named, says she does not want to register with CSCI for much the same reasons.
She, too, has had to turn down work because she does not want to risk falling foul of regulations. But she says a council she regularly works with would happily put cases her way because, particularly for adoption assessments. “It can’t understand why there are problems” if she is not registered, she says.
To get around the problem, the independent social worker is looking at taking on short-term employment contracts with the council, so she is classed as an employed social worker, but is also considering taking on more fostering work as an alternative.
The regulations are not just affecting social workers. The British Psychological Society has also written to the DfES with its concerns, and is particularly angry that it was not consulted about the regulations before they were introduced.
It says it is not clear how the regulations would affect cases where psychologists offer counselling to people with general problems that subsequently turn out to be related to their adoption.
The ongoing confusion is also worrying adoption campaigners.
David Holmes at Baaf says he supports the intention of the legislation to professionalise practice but questions whether independent social workers need to be registered twice.
“It’s possible the legislation is having unintended consequences on particular groups,” he says. “The longer the uncertainty goes on, the greater the potential is for things not to work as we would have hoped.”
It seems that a solution is as far away as ever, though. A CSCI spokesperson says: “As far as we are aware we have been giving advice which has been consistent to the individual’s circumstances and the legislation.”
And the DfES will only say that the government consulted widely and held a number of consultation events on the draft regulations with people who work in the field before the rules were finally introduced.
Susan is in no doubt about the effect of the impasse. “It seems crackers,” she says.
“It will drive people like me out of the adoption field.”
* not her real name