In a small room in Hertfordshire, Marisa Douglas is about to begin group supervision.
Amidst the chat about whether it’s cold in here (it is), and how the team of six forgot to all wear matching colours and how some are wearing their ‘social work scarves’, a shift in tone happens and Marisa, the team manager, asks her consulting social worker, Siobhan, to run us through the background of D.
D is a five-month-old girl who has been on a child protection plan since before birth. Her mother has an older child who was placed within the wider family some years before, and the concerns are her mother’s drug use and risk of domestic violence from the dad, who the domestic abuse officer is struggling to get to engage.
In the room is a team manager, social worker, adult recovery worker, domestic abuse support worker and domestic abuse officer. Throughout Siobhan’s rundown of the case each of them is called upon for their latest updates and insights. Claire, the domestic abuse officer, talks about how the dad has missed his last three appointments with probation, while recovery worker Jaya says that on some occasions the mother arrives at her drug test already intoxicated. Siobhan explains how she thinks the mother’s cooperation on some elements might be ‘disguised compliance’.
After a while, Marisa puts a question to everyone in the room: “I want to know what this means for a very small, vulnerable baby in this situation. D cannot pick up the phone and tell us, she is not at school and able to disclose any information, she’s five months old. What do we think this means for her?”
After the meeting, the team return to their shared workspace. This is a family safeguarding team, a blend of children’s social workers and adult professionals put together last year after Hertfordshire county council was awarded £4.8 million from the Department for Education’s innovation fund.
The difference? Marisa explains how, before the team was set up, the meeting I witnessed would have just involved the social worker and herself. They would have spent a lot of the meeting surmising what was happening in a case. After the meeting, it would have been Siobhan’s job to call around all the different agencies to try and gather the information they needed to stay up to date on the case.
“She’d walk away with a huge list of things to do,”, Marisa explains. She says this would pile more stress on to the social worker who has work to do with the child, but also has to collate information from different professionals. “She doesn’t have to do that now. I get their accounts straight off.”
Siobhan explains: “The onus is taken off the social worker in the most productive way. Instead of me flying around trying desperately to get all of this information, the ownership is now with Claire to get that piece about probation, or with the drug service, or with mental health. So it means I can keep my eye on the child knowing the adult workers are doing all the appropriate intervention to improve outcomes.”
“I can’t imagine how we didn’t do it like this before,” she adds.
The multi-professional approach prevents “tunnel vision” in how professionals handle a case, they explain.
“If they don’t agree, an adult worker will say ‘you can’t do that because of A, B, C’, or ‘you can’t do that because that’s not how adults learn’, or ‘this is how you deal with someone’,” Marisa says.
This also gives children’s services more control over doing pieces of work with the family. The case of D was moving towards legal planning, but this doesn’t mean the team stops working with the family.
“[Before] I would have no jurisdiction over whether a drug and alcohol service wanted to end their involvement, whereas now I can say ‘let’s do six more sessions’, ‘let’s try a little bit more while we are in Public Law Outline’,” Marisa says. She adds that working with parents throughout proceedings also helps evidence the local authority plan, as they have evidence of working with the parents right until the end.
What this group working means, Siobhan says, is social workers can view cases more holistically.
“When you’ve got people in the room like adult workers, experts within their field, they know the questions to ask whereas I wouldn’t have necessarily known which way to dig, which information was more relevant than others. The adult workers are more inclined to know the questions to ask and to recognise where the gaps are and then can go off and fill in those gaps and assist the overall decision making in this case,” she says.
On a personal level, it’s been beneficial for Siobhan’s individual practice as well: “I now feel more able to meaningfully reflect on where a case is going because I am not running around doing a bunch of things. I now, for the first time in my social work career, sit and plan an intervention of what all of my visits will entail, what I will be looking at, what I will be addressing.
“I find my job more rewarding because actually it’s more purposeful and there are clearer objectives in achieving the ultimate goal of safeguarding the children.”
In its bid to the innovation fund, the council said the model was to address concerns about “the unintended consequences of the specialisation of adult’s and children’s care services”, which the council felt “resulted in some families not being supported as well as they should be”.
The findings of the Munro review, which estimated social workers spend 80% of their time on administrative functions, were also integral to the council’s thinking.
“Through co-location we can reduce the time spent on recording, travelling, meetings and writing separate reports,” it said.
Across three sites in Hertfordshire, the services has established 26 family safeguarding teams. In its bid, the council made the case that through delivering services on a family basis it could address issues such as an insufficient knowledge among children’s workers about the impact of some mental health conditions, and difficulties in establishing the extent of parental substance misuse and domestic abuse.
Sue Williams, director of family safeguarding at Hertfordshire, explains that the change was is inspired by the fact that most of the work children’s social workers do is about getting parents to change to make lives safer and better for their children.
“Children’s social workers, in their training, only get a very passing knowledge of those complex and specialist areas and I don’t think there are training courses that teach you about the impact of those in combination,” Williams says.
Delay and bureaucracy can also be cut out by having specialist workers in the team. Williams says that previously, when social workers may have had to refer a parent to a drugs team, there might have been delays in when the appointment could be made, and a chaotic family would not have made it to the appointment.
“The substance misuse workers in the team often go out with the kit in their bag so they do it then and there. With the mental health specialists in the team now as well, they can tell us what level of risk that parent who either is suffering from psychosis or with a personality disorder is and also what’s the best way of working with them to reduce the impact of their symptoms. We wouldn’t have had that in a million years, a year ago.”
The changes in the council haven’t only been about structure. An investment has been made in social worker training, and children’s workers naturally find themselves learning things from the adult workers in the team.
Siobhan says the children’s workers have had help viewing things from an adult’s perspective, and that drug worker colleagues can now give them training. This included viewing things from the view of a client who is heavily withdrawing, and how scheduling meetings for a morning they “probably won’t be focusing on your meeting”.
“So it’s even tiny things like that, which make a huge difference,” Siobhan says. As part of the innovation funding, social workers have also received training in motivational interviewing, something both Marisa and Siobhan “love”.
“We use it in supervision, we use it with our clients, and we use it with each other sometimes,” says Marisa, laughing.
Motivational interviewing is a technique of intervention that focuses on engaging the client to change behaviour by motivation.
“It gives [social workers] an extra bag of tools for when you’re really up against it and a parent just isn’t communicating with you or you feel you’re not getting somewhere to just change the way you’re asking the question slightly. It’s amazing what you can then get from the parent. It just opens up the room to a whole different conversation and you get people walking away saying ‘oh my god, that’s amazing, I didn’t think I could get them to share like that’,” Marisa says.
After the grant money ends in March, the council and its partners will continue to fund this model as the council’s “business as usual”. Plenty of other councils are already interested in the model, which is being evaluated by the University of Bedfordshire.
“We’re about the size of three-four boroughs, if we could make it across [that]…there’s a possibility that other councils could do something similar, if they chose to,” explains Sue Williams.
For D, legal planning is about to begin as this group of workers continue with their respective interventions. These situations are fraught with risk; even after group supervision is formerly over Marisa is talking about how concerned she is. However, with this team structure in place, there’s a confidence the right decision will be made.
“There’s no miscommunication now. We’re all in the same room, we’re all sharing the same information, we’re all hearing the same and what it allows me to do as an overviewing manager is to ensure that all the right people are doing what they need to do in order to safeguard the most vulnerable people in our society, which are the children that we care for,” Marisa says.