Kim Bromley-Derry has taken the helm of the ADCS at a time of increased demand for children’s services, budget constraints and political uncertainty. He tells Amy Taylor about the challenges
Kim Bromley-Derry’s first few months as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have been busy. After taking over the reins in April, the government produced in May its response to Lord Laming’s Safeguarding Progress Report; in June the ADCS made its submission to the Social Work Task Force; and this month brings the association’s annual conference.
Bromley-Derry, who is director of children’s services at Newham Council, East London, agrees that it’s a time of change for children’s services, but he seems unfazed. Bromley-Derry says child poverty and issues on safeguarding will be major priorities for the organisation over the coming year, but that the ADCS will also be thinking about families and looking at policy and practice in this context.
The double hit of the recession and the case of Baby Peter is leading to an increase in referrals at all levels in children’s services. In his report, Laming recommended protected local authority budgets for staff and training in child protection to guarantee government money reaches its intended destination.
The government has backed the proposal. But Bromley-Derry says expecting councils to protect money for child protection while other services are under pressure is unrealistic without more safeguarding funding, which has not been forthcoming.
“If you have a recession and greater awareness [of child protection concerns due to Baby Peter] at the same time as you are being asked to do a better job at protection it’s unhelpful for the government to say ‘we will ringfence money for intervention and protection and, by the way, it’s up to the local authority to sort that out’.”
The voluntary sector plays a key role in preventive work with families, often helping them to avoid local authority intervention altogether. But charities’ dependence on donations for at least part of their income means they have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
Bromley-Derry says that the voluntary sector’s role in safeguarding is often overlooked, and the government has not been forthcoming with a solution on this.
“People forget that lots of the work that goes into safeguarding, protection and intervention is by the voluntary sector,” he says. “They are probably suffering from the recession more than local authorities. The government has been very quiet on that.”
Some social care leaders expressed concerns that Baby Peter-linked reforms could be sidelined following Beverley Hughes resignation as children’s minister last month. For Bromley-Derry, it’s the possible change of government that is more significant. He says this is something the taskforce needs to guard against.
“Whatever the Social Work Task Force produces, it needs to be sustainable both between ministers and between governments,” he says.
The issue of high social work caseloads is unlikely to have been resolved by election time. Laming’s report proposed the development of national guidelines, setting out maximum caseloads of children-in-need and child protection cases supported by a weighting mechanism to try to tackle the issue in children’s services.
The government has backed the proposal and the taskforce is set to come up with guidelines on suitable caseloads in children’s and adult’s services in the autumn.
In its submission to the taskforce, the ADCS said it supported limiting the number of cases held by newly qualified social workers, including a cap on the number of complex cases, but failed to comment on Laming’s specific proposal. Bromley-Derry says that although the association backs the idea of a caseload limit for all social workers in principle, they do not advocate having the same numbers for each area or team.
“We support it in principle but we want it to be developed by people in the sector. It needs to be a local issue and we would rather have a framework than a specific set of levels. Work in a looked-after children’s team is very different to work in a duty team.”
Quality of social work degree
The ADCS’s taskforce submission also raised concerns about the quality of the social work degree. Bromley-Derry says the organisation would like to see specialisation in the last year of the course.
By contrast, Laming wants to see this in the second year, in order for graduates to develop particular experience while also being able to work with families not just children.
“Many newly qualified social workers are not feeling that they are prepared for the job,” Bromley-Derry says. “If they are saying they are not prepared, and employers are saying that, it would seem they are not getting enough experience or training on certain issues.”
Poverty target criticised
Last month, children’s charities criticised the government for setting its target of reducing the proportion of children living in households in relative poverty to 10% by 2020 rather than the 5% it had previously said.
Bromley-Derry says the ADCS fully supports the government’s aspiration to end child poverty, but says it will be difficult to achieve. While poverty is largely invisible, he explains that children’s outcomes are good indicators of poor households as they are greatly affected.
“How do you recognise if somebody is living in poverty? 40%-50% of children live in poverty in parts of London but you don’t see it,” he says. “You only start to see it if they are not eating properly, or if they are not able to access leisure opportunities.
“To say we are going to eradicate child poverty by 2020 is a great aspirational target. But the transformational change needed is to the whole system.”
Since the Victoria Climbié case there has been a series of initiatives aimed at demystifying social work for the general public and other professions, such as the government’s high profile social work recruitment campaign and the General Social Care Council’s social work roles and tasks document.
Bromley-Derry says that, despite this, most of the public remain confused. He argues that, unlike teaching, most people don’t have any experience of social work and therefore it’s essential that the profession takes a risk and opens itself up to the press.
“I don’t think there’s a greater level of understanding among the public,” he says. “It’s still difficult for them to articulate what a social worker does. The profession and ADCS need to do something about that in a safe way. We need to be more transparent and show people how hard the job is.
“We don’t expect 50 million people to want to experience a social worker. So the only other way to do it is through the media.”
Bromley-Derry sees the public empathy for police officers generated by programmes such as Police Camera Action! as an example of how taking chances can pay off.
“When the public see the police being abused by people who have had too much to drink they empathise with them for having to put up with that,” he says. “We have staff who put up with far worse things but nobody empathises with them because they don’t see it. They don’t see what it’s like to be told to f*** off and have a baseball bat put to you.”
This article is published in the 9 July 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Thrown in at the deep end”