Can there be a social work equivalent of a police community support officer? Corin Williams looks at a scheme that is pioneering work with children on the at-risk register
Volunteering has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. From the traditional pursuits of helping out at a homeless shelter or clearing a canal of rubbish, you can now pound the beat as a police community support officer.
Volunteering is central to the government’s thinking on community and many say that these unsung heroes are keeping the nation stitched together. But should there be an equivalent to a community support officer for child protection social work?
One scheme set up by Community Service Volunteers offers just that, and it looks like the idea is beginning to grow. After two pilot projects in Sunderland and Bromley, south London, came to an end last year, the organisation’s Volunteering in Child Protection project is being taken on by councils and has generated interest. The principle sounds simple enough volunteers are matched with families who are already in the child protection system on the “at risk” register and help out with day-to-day tasks and lend a sympathetic ear. Putting this into practice has taken a great deal of time and effort in order to avoid the pitfalls of working with some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
By the end of March 2007, volunteers in the pilots had worked with 29 families benefiting 102 children. As an ex-social worker, CSV’s project manager Jean Pardey (right) has a unique overview. “I worked in a children’s department and I was very well aware of issues around child protection,” she says.
“Thinking back, how refreshing it would have been to have had volunteers. Social workers often have difficult families to work with. With one family I had to visit every day. If I’d been a volunteer, I think it would have been very different. I used to turn up and they’d say ‘do you just want to look at him to make sure we haven’t bruised him overnight?’ And it was a horrible situation.”
Volunteers can offer support without arousing suspicion or having a “statutory overtone”. But do social workers have reservations about using volunteers and parachuting someone who has not had the same training into a delicate situation?
“When I was a social worker certainly, yes, because it was viewed as a profession and only professionals could do it,” Pardey answers. “People obviously do wonder whether it’s going to work – will it put the volunteers at risk and will they manage their boundaries? But what we discovered was that once people see the volunteers and the types of volunteers and the in-depth training we do, they start to realise it’s not a threat, it’s a managed and supported process.”
The pilot project was started in 2003. About 90 volunteers were recruited in all, each undergoing 25 hours of training. The candidates were urged to talk about their motivation and how they might cope. Pardey found that very few proved to be unsuitable. Next was the crucial bit, finding the right volunteer to go with the right family.
“With about 20 families in Bromley, we’ve only had about two where the chemistry wasn’t quite right with the volunteers,” says Pardey.
“I’m just so surprised that it works so often. You’re trying to find something that will be the spark, if you like. It may be something like the volunteer having children themselves, it may be the age – there was one family where the volunteer was in her sixties and there wasn’t a grandmother figure. For the children to have an older figure in the background was important. It was like having a granny.”
While there have been no problems so far, if the scheme goes national, it is likely a volunteer will at some point become caught in the middle of an abuse case. Some newspapers criticise police community support officers and the stakes could be even higher in child protection, but Pardey remains unfazed.
“A lot of our work is concerned with that kind of risk, we also work with serving prisoners. We talk a great deal to volunteers about not getting into collusive relationships and you have to have a good risk assessment process. But with all of this work there is always that possibility – all you can do is to show that you have done your best.”
CSV is thinking carefully about rolling out the scheme. They are negotiating with two councils and are in the process of recruiting staff for a position based at Lewisham Council. Their strategy has been to speak to those already sympathetic to the idea. “I don’t think we’ve been cautious,” says Pardey, “we want to be gradual to be sure we are picking up as much learning as we can from Bromley.”
Although Bromley Council was keen to carry on with the scheme and now funds a full-time worker, it failed to take root in Sunderland. “We had volunteers trained and ready to go, we just didn’t have the level of referrals required to embed it,” says Pardey. She said that in Bromley it was the “right time, right place. They already had volunteers involved in fostering and supporting looked-after children”.
Whether we get volunteers working in every local authority in the country will depend on the gathering evidence of their effectiveness. Cost savings of keeping children off the register by providing ongoing support may well be one of the most persuasive arguments.
“Bromley told us as that if you look at the whole panoply of things that go on, like case conferences, they were talking about £40,000 if a child goes back on the register. That was shocking because we’re talking with a full-time staff member of the project costing under £60,000. But at the end of the day, success breeds success.”
The Volunteer’s Story
Working with families where there has been abuse, and most commonly neglect, is going to attract volunteers with a strong commitment. John Cliff (pictured), who worked at Lloyds of London until his retirement, was one of the original recruits at Bromley.
“It was ground-breaking and I thought I’d like to get involved in something that is new, different and challenging,” he says. “There was nothing to go on as to how it all might work and what might be involved, which I found all rather exciting, to be honest.”
Cliff currently works with two families, and has seen a transformation in a family he has been with for over two years.
“When I first met the family there had been a lot of intervention,” he explains. “Mum was very depressed, had very low self-esteem and really wasn’t able to cope with anything herself. Today she’s considerably more confident, is prepared to make difficult phone calls to hospitals or schools or wherever it involves her children. That is the most rewarding factor.”
Volunteers’ contribution to health and social services
This article appeared in the 15 May issue under the headline “Walking the social work beat”