A recent increase in the number of highly skilled and experienced independent children and family social workers should be seen as a major opportunity for social work to re-affirm itself as a strong and autonomous profession.
The advent of social work regulation and division between commissioning and delivery has proved a boon for independent social workers, writes Mark Willis
Twenty years ago the notion that independent child care social workers would be commissioned by both local authorities and the courts on a regular basis would have been unimaginable. Although freelance management and personnel consultants were being used occasionally there was no culture of procuring independent practitioners. In 1979 the British Association of Social Workers considered private social work practice “unethical”.
But times have changed. The widespread use of experienced self-employed social workers is no longer considered unusual. The reasons for this are varied.
First, over the past 20 years, many experienced self-employed child care social workers have gained valuable experience representing children’s interests in care proceedings working as children’s guardians. At the same time, these practitioners have developed independent portfolios of work providing expert social work opinions to the courts, local authorities and others.
In addition, and perhaps most significantly, the establishment of care councils throughout the UK in 2001 has ensured that, for the first time, all practising social workers must be registered by a regulatory body. This registration process includes enhanced CRB disclosure and employment checks. Re-registration requires similar rigorous procedures as well as evidence of continued professional development. These requirements are likely to have contributed to an increase in confidence of those seeking to commission the services of an independent practitioner.
Furthermore, attitudes within the public sector towards outsourcing specialist work have changed. The 2004 Gershon report reinforced the views of the prime minister in declaring procurement to be valuable from both a service delivery and financial perspective.(1)
The government has espoused the merits of the private and voluntary sectors contributing to the delivery of public services. In a speech to the Future Services Network last year the prime minister was unequivocal when he said partnerships between private firms, the public sector and voluntary organisations were a great way to deliver better-focused and cost-effective public services.
Importantly there appears to be cross-party consensus regarding the advantages of diverse public service delivery. Care Matters, the government’s green paper on looked-after children, has even gone so far as to propose independent social work practices, similar to the GP practice model, where dedicated services would be provided to children in care.
At the same time, the fallout from serious problems in the establishment of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) ensured that many experienced, self-employed social workers, previously practising as children’s guardians, have left the service. Many have since set up as independent practitioners providing a range of social work services within the child care sector.
While this exodus created a major headache for Cafcass, it also served to ignite a new way of thinking about the potential use of independent social workers, not only among local authority managers but also solicitors, who are increasingly commissioning independent social work opinion in the midst of complex, contested care proceedings. What has gradually emerged as a result is a whole new workforce of highly skilled self-employed independent practitioners.
The advantage for local authorities of commissioning out discrete pieces of work to independent social workers – so called spot purchasing – is that it frees up council social workers who juggle with a huge array of functions at the area office, many of which keep them away from front-line service delivery. Many managers see the financial benefits of using independent social workers in this way as it reduces costs associated with employed or agency staff. It can be argued that this approach provides flexibility in the way services are delivered and value for money.
Now that the division between commissioning and providing social care is firmly established, managers are looking to increase their options within finite budgets. The opportunity is there for independent practitioners from the private sector to contribute in a significant way to the delivery of core public services through their partnerships with local authorities.
For solicitors, the opportunity to commission an experienced independent social worker within care proceedings provides their client and the court with an expert opinion, either alongside or as an alternative to the more traditional experts such as psychiatrists and psychologists. While these disciplines offer a crucial service to the courts in particular circumstances, independent social work consultants are increasingly being seen as a valuable resource by the legal profession. The role played by children’s guardians over the past 20 years has also strengthened the image of the independent social work practitioner who is often seen as a confident, self-reliant and skilled individual.
Social work’s traditional strengths, such as understanding and interpreting relationships and protecting children from risk, are key components in the process of decision-making in the court arena. An experienced independent social worker can advise the court on a variety of issues such as information about a child’s attachment to their care giver, the risk to a child living within a domestically violent situation or who is exposed to physical or sexual abuse. They are also being asked to conduct kinship assessments with extended family, thus improving the prospect of children remaining with their birth family wherever possible.
Code of ethics
Importantly, independent social workers now have a professional association which advocates on their behalf and has established a code of ethics for independent practice. Nagalro (The Professional Association for Family Court Advisors and Independent Social Work Practitioners) developed a strong reputation for the way in which it challenged the chaotic emergence of Cafcass in 2001 and it continues to campaign for proper independent representation for children. It has also established a directory of independent practitioners which can be accessed easily by those seeking to commission an independent social worker.
In addition, BASW has established a similar web-based directory, and in 2002 set up the Independents’ Forum – a special interest group for independent social workers. The forum organises two events a year for its members and has recently published a book responding to the emergence of independent social work as a distinct workforce.(2)
As social work moves forward in an ever changing political and social climate the independent social worker is likely to play an increasing role in the delivery of services to children and families. The challenge is to ensure that best practice is maintained by those who work in the independent sector that core social work values remain integral to their role and that independent providers keep up-to-date with practice.
If these standards are maintained, the role of the independent social worker may become very significant over the next 20 years.
Mark Willis has more than 20 years’ experience as a social worker within children’s services. He is a former self-employed children’s guardian and has worked as an independent social worker for the past six years. He is co-director of WillisPalmer, an independent organisation that provides independent social workers to courts, local authorities and the independent sector.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
(1) Sir Peter Gershon, Releasing Resources to the Front Line: Independent Review of Public Sector Efficiency, 2004
(2) G Tucker, A Sambridge, H Ogilvy (eds), Independent Social Work – A Risky Business? Venture Press, 2006
This article appeared in the 8 March issue of the magazine under the headline “Independence day”