Social workers struggling with emotional impact of child abuse cases, finds NSPCC

NSPCC and Coventry University research finds social workers want more training and better supervision to deal with child sexual abuse

Photo: Rex Features

Social workers are struggling to deal with the emotional impact of child sexual abuse cases and do not feel adequately trained to help children at risk, an NSPCC report has found.

Published today, the report – which interviewed social workers, managers and safeguarding board chairs in six English councils – highlighted that a social worker’s confidence to deal with these issues is affected by their access to training, supervision, peer and managerial support and previous experience of managing cases of child sexual abuse (CSA).

Sexual abuse guidance on CC Inform

Community Care Inform Children has lots of expert guidance for social workers dealing with cases of child sexual abuse.

This includes guides on understanding developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour, how to work with children waiting to give evidence in sexual abuse trials and on therapeutic assistance for children and young people recovering from sexual abuse.

Social workers interviewed by researchers broadly agreed that they “had not undertaken CSA specific or in depth training as part of their qualifying programme”, while some were unable to complete any training due to their teams being overworked.

“There was an acknowledgement that qualifying training provided social workers with the theoretical knowledge that enabled them to contextualise and understand CSA but their courses had not specifically prepared them for the work involved,” the report stated.

Some social workers also said their local authority did not require them to undertake any specific CSA training, with individual social workers taking responsibility for their own professional development.

High caseloads also impacted on social workers’ ability to maintain their own wellbeing.

The report, commissioned by the NSPCC and carried out by researchers at Coventry University, found social workers “undertook the work with a strong sense of commitment and concern for children”.

But they were also emotionally affected by the cases of sexual abuse they were managing and found high caseloads and managerial pressures ate into their own time for self-support. Social workers were also less confident when working with forms of abuse where grooming, trafficking, internet abuse and other types of exploitative behaviour were identified.

Social workers involved in the research called for less emphasis on the procedural elements of working with victims, in favour of more focus on direct work with children, multi-agency working and supporting children and their families after a disclosure of abuse.

They argued for more training on the healthy sexual development of children and for training to be more interactive and participatory.

The report concluded that social workers were, “frequently operating without the support, time, knowledge and training they needed to ensure the identification of sexual abuse and the protection and well-being of extremely vulnerable children”.

Annie Hudson, chief executive of the College of Social Work, which was tasked by the report to develop practice guidance for social workers, said the research shows “the undoubted negative impact of workload pressures” on practitioners.

“There are complex variables which shape whether or not social workers feel capable and confident in what is a very emotionally demanding area of practice,” she said. “These include initial and post qualifying training, peer support, attitudes of managers, as well as caseloads.”

She added that social workers must have access to excellent training around child sexual abuse at every stage of their careers.

Jon Brown, head of the NSPCC’s sexual abuse programme, said social workers need greater support to keep up with a “rapidly changing environment of sexual abuse.”

“They expertly adapt their responses to ever-evolving risks, but also need bespoke training to tackle issues such as internet-based abuse, grooming and child sexual exploitation.”

The report also recommended that educators should collaborate to achieve greater consistency on teaching CSA during qualifying training, while Local Safeguarding Children Boards were told to monitor responses to annual training needs analysis of social workers.

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