I was really taken with the Hackney ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ model. I have the mug and shopping bag proclaiming the model. I picked them up from conference exhibition stands and they are proudly displayed in my office. After all, what social worker wouldn’t want to ‘reclaim social work’ from tick-box performance reporting and the overwhelming focus on resource rationing and risk management?
Social work should also be about problem-solving alongside service users, often at a point of trauma, crisis and life change – the stages that have been called psycho-social transitions for the service user. And we need to reclaim relationships as a major tool in influencing and assisting the service user, be it a child, parent, or disabled young or older person.
But I am now anxious about how the Hackney model is being interpreted and rolled out elsewhere. I am especially anxious because champions for the model are in influential roles within the new fast-track Frontline scheme for children’s social work education and training, in the Department for Education and were advising on the Munro review of child protection.
And this is where my anxiety lies – the roll-out of the ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ model for child protection services. My anxiety is based on my experience, for two consecutive days every week, overseeing child protection improvement in four different areas of England, and having recently had key roles in relation to child protection in two further areas.
The model, as I understand it, has several key components. There is a consultant social worker, who is the case holder for all the cases and is assisted by one or two social workers, family therapists and a unit administrator. There may also be a clinical psychologist within or allocated to this small work unit. The unit works with families where there are children in need and children who need protecting, and the role is to work with the parents and other adults with caring responsibilities.
So what are my concerns? Firstly, the consultant social worker as case holder has both the direct case responsibility for a large number of children and families and also for the management and supervision for the other workers in their unit. This means the consultant social worker in some areas may be the named case holder for 60-80 children.
They are expected to prepare the papers for care proceeding and present evidence in court as a part of the proceedings. The consultant social worker is held directly responsible for the work with the family and the decisions taken, even though they may have had little direct contact with children and families. Their case-holding responsibilities may well override their management and supervisory responsibilities with other workers, who will be left unsupervised. The space for reflective supervision for the consultant social workers themselves could then be squeezed out or absent altogether.
Secondly, the small units of five to seven workers, with only one or two of each type, are not resilient. Someone leaves or is absent and the unit is not sustainable or viable in its own right. Work has to be shared with other units or backlogs will quickly build up.
Thirdly, this is a costly structure across a large authority with relatively large numbers of higher paid consultant social workers to be recruited. There’s also the issue of identifying enough consultant social workers able and willing to take responsibility for many cases, while managing and supervising their other unit workers. Some have found this impossible and unsustainable.
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Fourthly, in some places the consultant social worker-led small unit model, with its focus as much on seeking to achieve change within families, as risk-assessing and managing what’s happening for children, has been introduced at the initial assessment stage.
This is a time when the focus, as always, should primarily be on the child’s experience and their welfare and safety. It’s concerning that at a time when the key task is ensuring good judgements about the welfare and safety of children, the focus is on working with the adults and seeking to change their parenting behaviours, competence and confidence.
This should, of course, be embedded in all our social work practice with families, but if it’s in danger of compromising the case management focus on the welfare and safety of children, it may be better to provide the adult-focused change programmes separately from case management.
These concerns may not be held by others and may not reflect what is happening in Hackney. They’re not concentrated in, or specific to, any one area, but are general concerns arising from my experience overseeing child protection in different parts of England.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and a former director of social services