Community Care‘s campaign to raise political awareness about the value of social work continues, with three MPs taking up our invitation to spend a day with social workers. Kirsty McGregor reports from the visits
Community Care recently invited newly elected MPs to spend a day with a frontline social work team to learn more about the vital work they do first-hand and raise political awareness of the problems facing the sector. Social workers in those teams had a unique opportunity to highlight concerns about high caseloads, staffing problems and the profession’s poor public image – as well as some of the social problems in their patch.
Caroline Lucas, centre, meets Brighton social workers Holly Kouridis and Paul Teverson
BRIGHTON AND HOVE: Caroline Lucas, Green Party
Brighton has a reputation for diversity, colour and good fish and chips. But the city’s unique character brings with it problems for social workers to deal with: high rates of substance misuse, teenage pregnancies and homelessness. So when Brighton and Hove Council’s central children’s team learned that Caroline Lucas, who won the Brighton Pavilion seat to become the Green Party’s first MP, had volunteered to spend a day with them, they decided to make full use of the chance to air their concerns.
After managers described some of the more general issues affecting social workers, they introduced Lucas to the team.
Duty practice manager Laurence Ramsey greeted her arrival enthusiastically. “Rarely do you get a director come to the office, let alone an MP,” he said.
“Our relationships with local councillors or MPs tend to happen because a constituent has broached a matter with them. There is a discussion and the relationship ends.”
Ramsey talked Lucas through a pile of referrals, which had come in that morning.
A white board showed the team had 91 open cases comprising 176 children, with seven unallocated. “We try to keep it down to 10 to 15 cases each. At the moment it averages at 10-17,” said Ramsey.
The volume of referrals in Brighton and Hove has risen sharply over the past few years. In August 2007, there were 154 children on child protection plans, says service manager Julie Dreher, which climbed to 417 in just three years.
“There has been no real increase in staff resources in that time,” Dreher told Lucas.
“It’s clear there is an extensive workload and already stretched services are being pushed beyond breaking point,” said Lucas.
Lucas moved on to meet a group of social workers across all levels of seniority, from newly qualified to management level, who raised concerns about a shortage of foster carers in the area.
“We need real resources for high quality foster placements,” said Francis King, practice manager. “Often we have to go to agencies and pay enormous fees for services that should be provided by the council.”
Part of the problem is the high cost of living in Brighton; many people who might become foster carers cannot afford a house with a spare room.
“Of all the issues people bring into my surgeries, housing is number one,” Lucas told the group. But she admitted she had not considered the impact of Brighton’s affordable housing crisis on social work.
Lucas vowed to keep an eye out for any legislation that could be amended in the light of what she had heard on the day.
“This has given me a lot of ammunition.”
Mike Crockart prepares for a home visit with children’s social worker Gillian Dawson
EDINBURGH, Mike Crockart, Liberal Democrats
Children’s social worker Gillian Dawson was supposed to be on holiday when Mike Crockart, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, turned up at her office. But she came in on her day off to tackle a mountain of paperwork.
“I couldn’t get it done otherwise, because of the number of reports we have to do and the length of time it takes to do them,” she told the MP.
“The sheer volume of paperwork is frightening,” said Crockart. “I struggle to see how you could keep up.”
Dawson listed 10 reports she needed to file in the next week, such as case conference and looked-after children reports.
“Sometimes I wake up at 4am thinking, ‘how am I going to manage this?’,” she said.
However, Dawson did find the time to take Crockart on a home visit, where he met a mother of six who had a history of substance misuse and had been evicted from her house. She and the children were staying with her own mother temporarily.
Dawson said this was a fairly typical case. “Our office is in south-west Edinburgh where there’s a lot of deprivation and drug use,” she said.
Crockart, an Edinburgh police officer for eight years before he entered politics, was already aware of many of these issues.
But he admits he did not realise the scale of the problems facing social workers.
“It was surprising how localised a problem could be,” he said. During the home visit, for example, he learned that the mother of six would have a greater chance of recovery if she moved to a certain street.
Crockart agreed to speak to colleagues in the Scottish parliament to raise awareness of the issues affecting social workers in the city.
Luciana Berger met teenage members of the local Children in Care Council
LIVERPOOL Luciana Berger, Labour Party
When Alison Sutton was asked to describe Liverpool, where she has worked in the council’s safeguarding team since February, one of the first words out of her lips was deprivation. “We are the poorest city in the UK,” she said.
Liverpool’s social workers have to deal with issues ranging from asylum seekers to high numbers of neglect and domestic violence cases.
Undaunted by this, Luciana Berger, Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, jumped at the chance to learn more about their work.
“I have seen a few documentaries about social work, but they tend to highlight the very best and very worst cases and nothing in between,” she said.
“I didn’t know about some of the particular issues children in care face, and the different care arrangements.”
During her visit, Berger met the teenage members of the local Children in Care Council, which promotes the views of looked after children and young people in Liverpool.
She was particularly struck by one group of children: unaccompanied minors from overseas, some of whom do not speak English.
“I didn’t know that a lot of children in care go back and have connections with their families later on, but for unaccompanied minors who come to the UK there are extra challenges because they have no family support structure,” said Berger.
Alison Chapman, safeguarding team leader, was pleased Berger came away with a better understanding of the complexities of the job.
“It was a good way to present the work we do on a day-to-day basis,” said Chapman.
MPs might hear complaints about social work services through their surgeries, she added, so this was a way to fight social work’s corner.
“People might well go to their local MP to complain, so it’s nice to put forward a positive spin. I hope Luciana will realise we offer a necessary service to her constituents.”
Berger came away making a pledge:
“I will certainly encourage some of my parliamentary colleagues in Merseyside to do their own visits.”
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This article is published in the 28 October 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Rarely do you get a director in the office, let alone an MP”