Are those best placed to make crucial decisions about child protection cases being prevented from taking them, asks Sally Gillen
It’s bad out there, it really is.” This is child protection trainer and consultant Perdeep Gill’s bleak description of the state of frontline child protection social work today.
In the month when the case of Baby P has dominated the news, prompting urgent government action and a much publicised House of Commons row between the prime minister and the opposition leader, Gill’s assessment of the deficiencies plaguing frontline child protection work give an insight into how such a case has happened.
Although she doesn’t know what specifically went wrong in this instance, Gill has come across endless examples of frontline social workers who, one way or another, are not practising as they should.
Not since Victoria Climbié died in February 2000, following months of abuse at the hands of her great aunt and her boyfriend, has a child death generated such a public outcry. Like Victoria and other children killed by their carers, Baby P’s short life has swiftly become defined by a set of grim statistics. He died with 50 injuries on his body and was seen 60 times by professionals, including 18 visits by Maria Ward, a social worker from Haringey social services. But she never discovered the true circumstances of his life and, crucially, that two men – who were this week convicted of causing or allowing his death – were also living in the house.
The serious case review executive summary, published by Haringey local safeguarding children board, offers little more than a chronology of events and is short on detail about what went wrong. Only the handful of people privy to the contents of the full report, including children’s minister Beverley Hughes, have any in-depth information about the interventions of Haringey children’s services. Just hours after the report landed on Hughes’s desk, her boss, children’s secretary Ed Balls, ordered an investigation into the children’s department, suggesting there are serious problems.
Although Haringey Council was apparently protecting the 17-month-old boy, who died in August 2007, initial reports seem to suggest that its “monitoring” amounted to little more than superficial safeguarding.
Little is known about Ward’s experience and why she made the decisions she did. Having trained frontline social workers across the country, Gill says she frequently comes up against an “ask the manager” culture, whereby analysis and decision-making are taken away from frontline staff in direct contact with families and placed, instead, in the hands of those who have never met the people they are making decisions about.
“I’ve been shocked by the number of times I’ve presented scenarios to social workers and asked them what they would do only for them to say they would ask their manager,” she says. “There is now a high level of management control over individual practice, which means that some social workers have no sense of being professional. They have no critical skills at all.”
Phillippa,* a Midlands-based child protection social worker with 23 years’ experience, says: “The ‘ask the manager’ culture is very significant. This didn’t use to happen anything like it does now. Managers are more autocratic and less likely to trust social workers’ credibility.”
Gill says that micro-management by senior staff is a significant part of the problem. “Social workers who contact me for advice feel bullied by managers to change their findings on cases. They are not being allowed to make any decisions based on their assessment and are being stripped of their skills.
“Managers will change their decisions if they do not agree with them and different managers use different thresholds, which means social workers do not know where they stand. There is an oppressive ethos where social workers are just robotic.”
Gill says there is also a significant issue about the fundamental quality of social workers. “Many are lovely people but their analytical skills are just not good enough,” she says. “Countless times I have asked a social worker what an analysis is and they have told me it is a summary. That’s how poor things are out there. We are in dire straits.”
She says that social workers need to be able to think intellectually and be analytical, while having the social skills to engage with people.
Paperwork is a major issue, says Anna Gupta, lecturer in health and social care at the University of London. “Form-filling has become end in itself rather than a means to an end, replacing the more anxiety-inducing task of thinking and reflecting.”
Phillippa agrees: “Paperwork is a real problem. I spend two-thirds of my time at a computer. I spend 37 hours at work and just eight of those in direct contact with clients. A lot of time is spent at meetings, case conferences and on the computer. For each child we have a core group meeting – it lasts an hour and takes me three hours to record all the information electronically. We are frustrated by the software because it’s not written for purpose – a colleague recently spent three hours completing a ‘child in need’ review only to find she could not cut and paste it for the five other children in the family.”
Harry Ferguson, professor of social work at Nottingham University, has argued that in many child death cases social workers have failed to engage with children. Despite her many years of experience, Phillippa acknowledges the hesitation social workers may feel in this area. “There is an awkwardness when it comes to going and touching people’s children. This is maybe because of a failure to focus on the child. We can get tangled up by social niceties. You are shown in and sat down and it can be difficult to move.”
A target-driven culture not only diverts social workers’ contact with clients but encourages them to give priority to paperwork deadlines, says Gill. “Social care organisations are obsessed with targets and meeting deadlines as prescripted by government. In one borough they were saying social workers must complete the core assessment in 25 days but what is the quality of these assessments going to be like?
Over-emphasis on procedures
“The over-emphasis on procedures and timescales means that the culture in social work has lost the focus of working with children and families,” she says.
“Social workers going on visits with laptops and going through core assessment forms means that the obvious as well as the nuances of what is happening are likely to be missed. This all leads to social workers unwittingly disengaging with family members and that is why sometimes the obvious occurs – the child is seen but the harm is not. We might as well just post the core assessment forms and ask families to fill them in.
“Social workers don’t need prescriptive forms but key areas to explore and probe. Perhaps if social work was about spending 80% of the time with families and 20% on administration then we might put quality back into child protection.”
- Serious case reviews: why aren’t lessons being learned?
- Child death overview panels: how have the pilots performed?
- Expert guide on child protection
This article is published in the 20 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Who’s making the decisions?”