Budget cuts are leading to higher thresholds for safeguarding cases, endangering children and putting great stress on social workers. Judy Cooper reports on practitioners’ mounting alarm
“I’m afraid these children will have to remain in animal-soiled beds, with hunger in their bellies, being abused by adults who are meant to care for them, crying themselves to sleep at night in fear and desperation because nobody will recognise how sad their little lives are due to a lack of money.”
These are the words of Denise*, a newly qualified social worker who responded to Community Care’s child protection survey.
The survey revealed that 82% of the 170 social workers who responded believe child protection thresholds have increased in the last year. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of those who said thresholds had increased say this is the result of budget cuts, with 60% of respondents reporting pressure to reclassify child protection cases as children-in-need cases to save money. While most councils claim they are protecting child protection services from cuts, frontline social workers say this is being undermined by cuts to early intervention and administrative support.
“Our children-in-need budget was slashed by 50% overnight,” explains one social worker. “Removal of reception staff means phones are going unanswered and messages left unchecked for weeks at a time. For a child protection team this is dangerous,” adds another. Many social workers told Community Care that cuts to local domestic violence, drug and alcohol services are increasing referrals to them.
Ali*, a child protection assessment team social worker in the East Midlands, says her team has already had to stop taking new referrals because it is overloaded, leaving other children’s services teams, such as those in looked-after children, and agency workers to handle new cases. No long-term solution has been proposed.
Managers in some teams are resorting to bullying and threatening behaviour to get social workers to toe the line, says Jane*, a child protection social worker in London.
“In one meeting we were basically told that if we didn’t like it, there was the door. There were unqualified workers holding caseloads and making unsafe referrals. We had cases being picked up three weeks after a referral had been made. There were no social workers to deal with children-in-need cases, so they would go to a family support worker. But if a family doesn’t engage, a support worker will simply close the case whereas a social worker will think that that is actually a concerning sign.
“I was starting to feel more and more incompetent as a social worker.”
Ali agrees: “What none of the policies on cuts take into account is the effect increased workloads will have on the emotional health of social workers. They will start feeling like the children they are trying to protect – believing there’s no hope and no point.”
Many in social care are hoping that Professor Eileen Munro’s soon-to-be published review into child protection will help tackle these issues. But she faces an uphill battle.
Munro has already indicated that social workers need to spend more time reflecting on their practice to improve their decision-making skills. But this requires social workers to have lower caseloads to enable them to spend more time with families, and as one social worker told Community Care, “at the moment, decisions are expected after only a 10-minute visit to a family”.
Meanwhile, Denise says she is considering leaving child protection due to the massive pressure on her to hold too many high-risk cases. “It is only a matter of time before something serious and avoidable happens on my patch. The only way to make children safe is to increase early intervention and the number of social workers, and that boils down to money,” she says.
* Names have been changed.
Child abuse: voices from the frontlline of those trying to provide support
“In one family there has been sexual abuse to several of the children by a family friend, However, the case has been downgraded to a ‘team-around-the-child’ case even though there are very complex, ongoing issues such as the mother having the cognitive ability of a five-year-old and the effect of the sexual abuse to the children not being managed well enough. The family is still living in the massively overcrowded house where the sexual abuse took place. This is impacting on the children’s self care; the children don’t want to enter the bathroom, where the abuse took place, so hygiene is now becoming an issue. It appears to me that rather than deal with the complexities as child protection concerns they are being seen as welfare concerns instead.”
“A lack of staffing on the assessment team meant a high-level, historic neglect case was reallocated to a newly qualified social worker. They closed the case and requested a common assessment framework instead. The family did not engage and there was clearly an inadequate assessment. Numerous complaints were made to managers to review the case. It was re-opened, reallocated and it is now in court proceedings to remove all the children.”
“I recently returned a 14-year-old to the care of her aunt after she had sustained injuries after being beaten with a bamboo shoot. It was not just the injuries that concerned me, but the overall treatment this child had received emotionally. She was treated as an outsider, expected to babysit her cousins all the time and afforded no leisure time. The child’s self-confidence is at rock bottom and all she needs is proper care. But it was not viewed as a protection issue in light of her age.”
“I worked a neglect case three months ago, which I considered to be extremely serious. Two children under three years of age were living in appalling home conditions, with no access to health or education services due to the closure of a state-funded nursery. One parent has mild learning difficulties, the other has alcohol dependency issues. The family have been known to services since the birth of the first child. The family recently had a house fire and, if not for the vigilance of neighbours, would not have come out of it alive. I am on a duty team and completed a core assessment with the recommendation that this case should proceed to initial child protection case conference. However, my recommendation was rejected. I was advised this was a level two family support case, which are currently being “stacked”, therefore are unallocated until crisis point. It was subsequently closed a week later by the family support team and re-referred. I escalated my concerns to management and was advised to attend one family support meeting with the health visitor and someone from housing and then close the case. It is absolutely appalling, my local authority’s thresholds have gone through the roof.”
“One young person was believed to be suffering from physical abuse from his mother and brother. The young boy was 10-years-old and regularly stated that he was tied to a chair and hit with a belt. This young boy displayed disturbing behaviour at school, for example, rubbing his faeces on the classroom wall. He physically attacked teachers and would abscond from home on a regular basis. Since mum denied this, the category of physical abuse was changed to neglect with a view to remove him from the child protection register within six months.”
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