Children’s social workers want return of patch-based teams

Three quarters of social workers prefer to work in small areas rather than out of centralised offices

Most child protection professionals want a return to “patch-based” working, according to a Com­munity Care survey on bureaucracy for the Munro review.

More than 70% said working in smaller, specific geographical areas was preferable to operating out of centralised council offices.

Patch systems were common in the 1980s and some councils have reinstated them in recent years.

Many survey respondents said patch-based systems allowed social workers to be more aware of services available locally and made vulnerable families easier to identify. Relationships with local partners such as schools and the police were also stronger.

Others made the point that suspicion of the profession would be reduced if social workers were seen as part of a community as head teachers or GPs were.

One respondent wrote: “One is reminded of the anecdote how one district experienced more problems identifying children at risk when social workers moved office and no longer visited the local bread shop. Previously informal information had been gained there from people who might not otherwise have felt able to refer to services.”

Many pointed out it would save on the time and money spent travelling to visit families. But some said such a move would lead to huge inconsistencies of practice within a council and less experienced social workers ­losing the support and guidance of being in a large social work team.

The short survey, focused on social work bureaucracy, was compiled by Community Care after Professor Eileen Munro’s request for feedback from social workers to help inform the third instalment of her review of child protection services.

Although opinion was divided on whether core assessments or initial assessments or common assessments should be scrapped, 73% agreed that headings on assessment forms ought to be simplified.

Others suggested that only small alterations were needed. “Each assessment should automatically reach a conclusion as to whether further actions are required,” said one respondent. “If so, then a clear case plan should be formulated with time­scales, listing who is responsible for implementation and the date to be reviewed.”

Another wrote: “Make them easy to update so it’s an ongoing document, rather than having to start a new common assessment each time. Common assessments are the ‘now’ for the family and a historical document. If you made them ongoing documents they would be an extremely valuable tool.”

However, some of the comments indicated that reducing bureaucracy might not be the panacea to social work’s problems the government is hoping for.

“Without forms it didn’t work, with forms it isn’t working. Is it the training and experience of social workers that is the issue?” said one.

“The forms are not really the issue. Too much information is gathered for little analysis,” another said, while a third added: “Don’t confuse bureaucracy with huge caseloads. Caseloads are the problem, not the demands of accountability.”

The difficult task Munro faces in cutting bureaucracy was illustrated in the debate over family files versus individual files for children.

One respondent pointed out that individual files were supposed to ensure a focus on each child but most social workers simply “cut and pasted” reports for all the children in a family. Another pointed out that, although a shift to family files made sense, social workers were no longer dealing with nuclear families, but with lots of half-siblings and separated parents.

It was also emphasised how difficult it is for social workers to chair meetings, take minutes and help make key decisions about a child’s future.

Interestingly, 56% did not want a reduction in the number of meetings between multi-agency professionals, pointing out that face-to-face contact was valuable, but some called for meetings to be better organised and prepared. This included examining which professionals needed to be there and meetings arranged only when it was clear any previous child protection plan was not working.

Key survey findings

73% want to return to working a geographical “patch”

51% want core assessments to be scrapped

73% want assessment forms to have fewer and simpler headings

72% want ICS systems to be improved to produce chronologies

58% want family files to be created instead of individual files

80% want minute takers in all meetings

55% do not believe case reviews can be done via email

56% do not want a reduction in the number of multi-agency meetings

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