Councils have failed to allocate social workers to more than 8,000 vulnerable children across the country, a Community Care investigation has revealed.
Fear has been expressed for child safety after Community Care’s Freedom of Information request to English councils found that no one was monitoring the cases of almost 80 children on protection plans, 448 children in care and 7,811 children in need.
Of the 89 councils that responded, 6% had failed to allocate some child protection cases to any professional and a further 3% had allocated child protection cases to professionals other than qualified social workers. Some councils, such as Sunderland City Council, told Community Care that it’s seven unallocated child protection cases were the result of cases being “in transit between teams”.
Nearly one in six (16%) had looked-after children cases either unallocated or allocated to a professional who was not a qualified social worker.
Failing to allocate either of these types of case to qualified social workers is in breach of local authorities’ legal duty to vulnerable children set out in the Department for Education guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children.
In addition, almost half (49%) of all councils had unallocated child-in-need cases.
While some councils had all cases allocated, a significant proportion of these were allocated to non-social work professionals. For instance, out of a total of 407 looked-after children cases in Portsmouth, 132 were allocated to non-social workers. Brighton and Hove had 132 out of 404 cases allocated to unqualified staff.
Overall, Birmingham was one of the worst offenders, with 58 child protection cases and 644 looked-after child cases unallocated to a social worker, and 736 child-in-need cases unallocated to any professional.
These figures suggest the situation at Birmingham has deteriorated since August when Community Care reported that the council had 232 looked-after child cases unallocated to a social worker. Birmingham has not answered Community Care‘s request for comment.
Other councils with high numbers of unallocated cases had yet to respond as Community Care went to press. Among those with significant problems was Leicester with 8% of child protection cases unallocated. Barnet Council had 18% of looked-after children cases unallocated and Derbyshire Council had 29% of child in need cases unallocated.
Social work trainer and consultant Martin Calder, said that despite breaching their legal duty, these councils may actually be acting more responsibly than others.
“Many elected council members have no tolerance for cases remaining unallocated – this displaces the responsibility downwards and can lead to cases being allocated for the sake of it. In these circumstances the cases might be allocated but they are not necessarily being effectively worked because of social workers’ heavy caseloads,” Calder said.”Although allocating these cases to unqualified professionals is on one level unacceptable, it may actually offer a form of active input on a case. It’s certainly better than allocating it to a qualified professional who has no space or potential for working it.”
He said issues of experience and support for staff needed to be considered, even when councils had to step outside the agreed framework stipulating that child protection cases needed to be allocated to qualified social workers.
Jonathan Hoyle, chair of care leavers’ body A National Voice, argued that there were cases in which looked-after children were better off being allocated to professionals other than social workers.
“The biggest problem is that care leavers receive tokenistic services from social workers,” he said. “Local authorities are concentrating very much on what is statutory and this means that more and more care leavers are allocated to an ever decreasing number of personal advisers while being ‘held’ by suitably qualified social workers. As such, they receive an inadequate service.”
Colin Green, chair of the families, communities and young people policy committee at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Where there are insufficient qualified social workers to undertake the work, clearly the local authority should prioritise recruiting more of these staff, where possible. But, in the meantime, allocating cases to unqualified support workers, managed by a senior social worker, is better than cases remaining entirely unallocated.”
Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, said the figures on the number of children in care without social workers meant a significant proportion of children were being let down.
Finlayson said any local authority that found itself with more than 10% of its children in care not having an allocated social worker needed to take emergency action to prioritise recruitment and retention of social workers.
A spokersperson for the Department for Education said: “”It is concerning that there are a significant number of cases left unallocated. We know that social workers do a difficult and demanding job and that the child protection system is not working as well as it should. High vacancy rates, unnecessary bureaucracy and high workloads mean social workers are not getting the time they need to spend with children and make well-informed judgements. Professor Munro’s review of the child protection system is looking at how we can improve the way that referrals and assessments are handled, and get a better understanding of what is driving the increase in referrals. The Social Work Reform Board is also implementing long term changes to the training of social workers, to raise skill levels and improve recruitment and retention.”
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