Children’s social workers are at risk of failing to prevent another Baby P due to high vacancy rates, rising caseloads and lack of experienced staff, Unison warned today.
A survey of 369 frontline children’s social workers by the union revealed that nearly six out ten staff were working in teams where more than one-fifth of posts were vacant.
Almost three-quarters of staff reported that average caseloads for children and families social workers had increased since the Every Child Matters reforms were initiated in 2003, on the back of Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbié.
And nearly 60% of social workers said that newly qualified or unqualified staff were now more likely to be doing child protection work with insufficient training or experience compared with 2003.
Just under half of staff surveyed believed the Laming reforms had led to improvements in safeguarding, Unison’s survey found.
It also showed that more than a quarter of social workers – 28% – believed they had less access to adequate supervision than in 2003, while half claimed that resources for social work had worsened since then.
The survey forms part of Unison’s response to Laming’s current review of child protection, sparked by the Baby P case, which is due to report next month.
Risk of violence and stress
A separate survey of 233 staff also published by the union today highlighted the risks to frontline children’s social workers. Just over a quarter of staff said they had been physically threatened and 9% had been violently attacked. The majority – 65% – reported verbal abuse and almost one third said they had been bullied.
A further 78% of staff said their stress levels had gone up in the last year, and a similar number reported an increase in workload.
Almost two-thirds did not believe they were paid fairly and 68% reported that they were actively looking for another job.
Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, said social workers were not being given sufficient time, resources or training to do their jobs effectively and warned of further tragedies like Baby P occurring.
He said: “There are not enough staff, caseloads are too big and social workers are spending 80% of their time on paperwork. That is a lethal combination that will leave children exposed.”
Unison called for a “rethink” of the way child protection is organised including ensuring all child protection visits are carried out by two practitioners, more resources and a complete overhaul of the integrated children’s system.
Margaret Eaton, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said the findings highlighted “real difficulties” for councils in recruiting and retaining children’s social work staff.
“People make a positive choice to work with the most vulnerable children because they want to make a difference, but, if we’re not careful, we’ll create a climate in which the costs of entering this area of public service so massively outweigh the benefits that we will force good potential entrants to the children’s workforce to think again,” she added.
Both of Unison’s surveys were drawn from staff from authorities within every English region, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The union represents 300,000 social care workers, including 40,000 social workers.
Haringey and Doncaster
The findings follow the recent highly-publicised child protection scandals at Haringey and Doncaster children’s services. At Haringey, the council responsible for Baby P, a joint area review after the tragedy found social workers faced heavy workloads, with some unable to act on all cases effectively.
Doncaster children’s services were rated “inadequate” overall by inspectors last year, who cited problems including a significant decline in the number of looked-after children with an allocated social worker.
Unison’s action plan
- Co-working on all child protection visits
- More social workers and support staff
- National standards on caseload management, enforced through inspection
- More resources
- Cull of bureacracy
- Re-establishment of homecare services for children and families
- Complete overhaul of the integrated children’s system
- Review of legal processes including care proceedings fees for local authorities
- Better support for practitioners
- Campaign to rebuild morale, confidence and status of social workers