Experience and independence crucial for YOI social workers

The numbers of social workers based in young offenders institutions has increased but issues around the independence of child protection procedures remain.

Pic: Action Press/Rex Features

Years ago, when young offender institutions were battling a series of deaths in custody it seemed an eminently sensible solution to place social workers “on the inside”.

Social workers would be able to pay more attention to the needs of vulnerable children, pick up on the signs of increased risk and ensure a smoother transition back to the outside world.

But as always what seems like a simple solution has been marred by complications, in this case a long running funding battle between the Youth Justice Board (YJB) and local authorities over who should pay the wage of the social workers in question.

At the end of 2009 more than half of all social work posts in  young offender institutions (YOIs) were vacant. Funding was provided on an ad-hoc and temporary basis. Unsurprisingly most of those in the posts were actively looking for other jobs. Turnover was high, stability low.

Designated social workers

The prisons inspectorate condemned the situation and last year recommended there be a designated social worker in every YOI with responsibility for looked after children.

Finally, the funding dispute was settled in May last year with the YJB agreeing to provide £3m of funding from April 2011 to Mar 2014 to fund 22 posts. At the time John Drew, chief executive of the YJB, said he would be surprised if the funding did not become permanent.

The sector breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yet of the seven inspections of YOIs conducted since September last year, social workers were only in place in three of them according to the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick.

Indeed the inspection of Wetherby YOI, and its flagship Keppel Unit, published last week, found that as of February this year there had been no social worker on site for over a year.

Considering this is a flagship unit housing some of the most vulnerable young offenders in the country, including at least 38 looked-after children, the finding seemed worrying.

This has since been rectified with not one but three social workers now in post at Wetherby, and a part-time position still being recruited.

Hardwick says they have been assured that of the seven establishments inspected they all now have social workers in post and the YJB states that 19.5 of the 22 posts have been filled. The YJB is also in the process of working out how and when the roles will be evaluated.

A real tension

Tim Bateman, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Bedfordshire, points out that the problems and delays in getting social workers in post means it is difficult to see what impact the role has had as yet, although the absence of social workers is often noticeable, he adds.

Hardwick maintains that when social workers are based in YOIs “we often see greater attention paid to the needs of looked after children and find there are closer links with local authority child protection services”.

However, Wetherby’s recent inspection report raised other issues around the independence of child protection procedures within a YOI and according to Bateman, this remains a real tension even if a social worker is on-site.

“It’s very difficult for a social worker who is a member of the staff in an organisation not to be influenced by the culture and to still remain independent. Or alternatively if they are very good at maintaining their independence they find it difficult to form relationships and get things done.

“There are concerns about how isolated it is as a role and the supervision aspects of it – particularly in smaller YOIs where there may only be one social worker. For that reason these posts need to be filled by very skilled and experienced social workers.”

As part of the national agreement on funding, local authorities are responsible for recruiting the social workers in YOIs and their supervision.

Andrew Webb, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, points out that at Wetherby for example, two of the social workers in post have been seconded from Leeds City Council – one of which is an advanced practice role- and are supervised by the council’s safeguarding unit.

“Local authorities, working closely with the YJB are doing everything possible to make sure that social work posts in YOIs are filled by appropriately qualified and experienced practitioners,” he maintains.

They will need to be. The Keppel Unit alone had eight young offenders admitted with serious histories of self-harm over a two week period in January this year. Two boys have already died in youth custody this year and last year there were 1,500 incidents of self-harm across the juvenile estate. The need for effective social work and risk assessment is only increasing.

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