The atmosphere is calm when you walk into the office of Coventry City Council’s child protection team. The requisite filing cabinets, banks of computers and cups of tea could belong in any office, anywhere in the country. There is no sign that the work of the people in this office is anything out of the ordinary – much less that they spend their days dealing with some of the greatest extremes of human life.
You certainly wouldn’t think, walking into the ordinary office in an ordinary leisure centre in the West Midlands, that just over a year ago a court case was underway that put the team at the eye of a media storm over the murder of a four-year-old boy.
When news of Daniel Pelka, a Coventry four-year-old starved, abused and beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend broke, the council was hit by the full weight of a media frenzy.
Although morale has moved on a lot since 2013, a recruitment campaign launched by the council earlier this month with the strapline “Do it for Daniel” has stirred up some bad memories.
‘Shock and dismay’
Claire Wood, a social worker in children’s services when Daniel Pelka’s death became known, remembers how it felt in the council at the time. “It was just shock and dismay that it had happened so close to home. We’d all seen the Baby P case in the news but to realise that this does happen and it can happen was shocking,” she says. She transferred to adults’ services in early 2014 and, having just returned to work with children and families after six months, is well-placed to notice the changes. “The council just seems a more welcoming environment – it’s just a much calmer place now. [Before] it was quite chaotic – people were running around like headless chickens.”
“It was horrible,” Jane Dunne, a team manager, recalls. “There was a very low mood everywhere. You’d go on visits and people would say, ‘why are you bothering with my family – what about the kids who are dying? What about Daniel Pelka?’ Keeping people afloat during that time was really difficult.”
Like others on the team, she is unsure whether or not using Daniel’s name to recruit new social workers will be a successful tactic. For one social worker, the campaign is “powerful, but for the wrong reasons.
“It almost feels like it exploits his death and we all felt that’s not something we want to exploit,” she says.
But questions aside, there’s no doubt that the team appreciates the effort the council is putting into filling vacancies. The recruitment of experienced social workers is a nationwide struggle but one that is inevitably made harder in the wake of a child’s death. At the same time, the successful recruitment of good social workers is the one thing that will ensure a council functions properly and is able to work to prevent harm in the future.
‘There are challenges everywhere you go’
Georgie Linnett is a newly qualified social worker (NQSW) completing her Assessed and Supported Year in Employment with the council. She wasn’t put off by the council’s reputation, but since beginning work in the council twelve months ago she’s seen the impact vacancies have had on the morale of the whole team.
“Staffing has been a big issue,” she says. “The team I was in twelve months ago looks completely different to the team I’m in now, which can be unnerving- you’re the newbie for about five minutes. Trying to build stability is what everyone wants and that will be the making of the team really.”
“It’s not to say I didn’t think about Daniel’s death or what it would be like to come into team that’s just been through something like that, but I think there are challenges everywhere you go. I don’t think you can look at a local authority that’s just suffered from a child death and say ‘I’m not going to work there’ because of it.”
‘Like turning around an oil-tanker’
All of the staff working in the child protection team are now acutely aware they’re working in the aftermath of a tragedy – everyone in the council has had to take a step back and look at what was going wrong. But such improvements are never going to be anything but slow progress – “like turning around an oil-tanker,” according to Tom, a social worker who has been with the council throughout its ups and downs for three years.
“It’s not like they were the bad old days and everything’s better now – some things have come to our attention that are now being dealt with, but it’s not like everything is completely different.”
“The drive to retain social workers is something they’re really trying to deal with,” he says. “It’s much easier said than done but I think it should always be your number one goal and, to their credit, they are trying to deal with that now.”
At the time of Daniel’s death, staff turnover was high and everyone was working beyond their means to cover the extra cases caused by these shortages. Agency workers would come and go, some staying for just a week or even a day, leaving unfinished cases to be picked up and creating even more work for permanent staff. Newly qualified and inexperienced staff were quickly thrown in at the deep end, picking up complex cases in the absence of more experienced practitioners. The referral and assessment service was in crisis. Some social workers were holding caseloads of 50 or 60.
After his death, a tripling in referrals saw a huge rise in child protection cases filtering through to the team – a double-edged sword as more children in need were being reached while social workers were being bulldozed by the unmanageable workload.
Now, slowly but surely, the team is being rebuilt and the council is doing everything it can to minimise risk. NQSW Georgie was surprised on arriving in the council to find that caseloads were capped, and struggling social workers would have cases taken off them or co-worked to ease their burden. Everyone in the team agrees it’s now easier to talk openly to managers about struggling or feeling overwhelmed, without fearing reprisal.
Lakeshia Martin, a senior practitioner, describes having “temperature checks” with her manager to make sure caseloads are at the right level: “Things have improved significantly, even over the past six months,” she says. “Morale was really low a year ago, but the council has put in more teams, more clusters within teams, more workers to cover cases.”
“The fact that we’ve seen them trying to make changes has boosted morale and it feels like we’re getting back to where we were. It seems like a long time before you start to see changes but we are starting to see those changes now.”
The recruitment drive is a key part of this as with more workers, caseloads can go down to safer levels and practitioners can have more time for direct working with families.
The impact of Daniel Pelka’s death will be felt for a long time, but the council seems determined to get back on its feet, launching new strategies such as a multi-agency hub (MASH) to improve communication between health and education, social care and the police – communication that was absent in Daniel’s case.
The social workers now all speak highly of the council’s management, the support available, the training for both new and existing social workers and their seemingly better than average ability to “grow their own”.
The team is optimistic. For Georgie Linnett,the overwhelming feeling is hope and confidence the council is doing the only thing that it can in this situation: “I think we’re getting there,” she says, “I do.”
This piece was published in partnership with Coventry City Council. Content is editorially independent.