Out-of-hours social work is a common expectation, but I won’t sleep in my car again

A child protection social worker talks about the unrecognised danger out of hours work can be for social workers

Photo: peych_p/Fotolia

by Sophie Ayers

Every social worker knows the scenario. The call comes in at 4:55pm: “I have a child with a bruise and they’ve disclosed deliberate harm against them”. Cue tonight’s chaos.

With funding low for out of hours systems in children’s services, usually known as ‘Emergency Duty Teams’, there often isn’t capacity to take on dramatic scenes of the day. As a result daytime social workers, already having worked long hours, need to respond to situations that require a lot of work at a time when fatigue has already set in.

It’s a general ‘fait accompli’ that the social worker who has started the child investigation will continue on the job until a safe resolution can be found.

From a service user’s perspective, continuity is important. I’m always mindful that our service users are encountering stressful and potentially life altering situations. However, the current system too often leads to social workers working exhaustive hours, with potentially dangerous repercussions.


Child protection investigations (or s47 investigations) are complicated, time consuming and resolutely challenging. The worker must be able to investigate whether a child is at risk of harm within a short timescale and with minimum resources available. Think of having to find a cure for cancer, but only having penicillin at your disposal.

When a child protection enquiry requires a medical investigation, a complicated series of events come to pass. You might have to plead with a paediatrician to be seen. They tell you that there is a slot in the next half hour. You tell them you’re more than an hour away. Finally a compromise is struck, you run to your car with the pace of an Olympian and race to pick up the family.

Practical factors are at the forefront of your mind: can I fit the number of children present within my car? Do I have the appropriate car seats? Can I drive for an hour, keeping the parents calm when you are (potentially) accusing them of harming their children? Long forgotten is the fact that you arrived at the office at 7am and are driving a family to an unknown situation at 7pm.

Daily mileage can be brutal

A significant part of the working life of a child protection social worker is spent in a car. This can vary widely, but within large authorities, the daily mileage can be brutal. In the last year, I completed 13,000 miles alone for work.

This presents another element of risk where social workers can become fatigued. Across the country, there are tired workers (not just social workers) under pressure to finish the job, driving on busy motorways and A roads. If an accident was to occur, whether due to tiredness or challenging behaviour from passengers, we are the only ones responsible.

If you’re a lorry driver, EU rules state you must take breaks totalling at least 45 minutes after no more than 4 hours 30 minutes. I struggle to comprehend why similar guidance does not exist in some form for general drivers using their cars for work in the pursuit of everyday compliance.

With urgent child protection enquiries, we invite adults and children into our own car, without knowing the potential risks to ourselves or other road users. We do not argue – we ignite our engine because we know that the job must be done.

It can be very difficult to assert your position when you are aware of the pressures for your team manager. There are times when many workers take on work that is beyond their capacity because there is no-one else available to respond.

Unrecognised danger

However, a situation I will never repeat is one which was an unconscionable request of my services. I became aware that a child required immediate medical intervention due to severe neglect. The first hurdle was taking the child and her parents to the hospital. It was almost 50 miles from their home and at least an hour and fifteen minute drive.

By the time we arrived at the hospital it was 5pm. Four hours later a decision was made that the child needed to be admitted to hospital. It was agreed that the mother would remain on the ward and the father would go home to collect crucial items. The problem was that the father had no way of getting back home.

I became a taxi driver. No other solution was available at this time of night. Eventually, I dropped the father at home for 11pm. I was two hours away from my house due to the sheer size of the county. I knew that I would have to collect the father at 7am to take him to the hospital, and also make it to court in the same city for a different case.

The resolution: I slept in my car. I knew to drive further would be dangerous and foolish. I also knew that there would be no acceptance from the father or the court if I did not provide the taxi service required, or I arrived late.

The burden of ‘out of hours’ social work, particularly within large counties is an unrecognised danger for social workers. The risk amongst those who have the responsibility of driving and fulfilling their daytime deadlines is not commented upon.

Most social workers will appear tired, but their true fatigue is a serious debate to be had amongst politicians and local authorities. Without transformation and clear risk assessments being completed there is a strong risk of accidents and social workers will ultimately burn out.

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17 Responses to Out-of-hours social work is a common expectation, but I won’t sleep in my car again

  1. Andrew Foster September 7, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    Yes, harrowing times. What was the line manager doing?

  2. Celia Parker September 7, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    No line manager or team support? Extension of hot desk to hot car? Breach of health & safety on many aspects.

  3. LongtimeSW September 7, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    This is not acceptable for any worker whatever the profession – manager or not. What used to be give and take by social care employers has now been reduced to take by them. I wonder what would have happened if social care workers were paid by the hour with overtime rates? I suspect that a solution would have been found once the impact on budgets come in to play

    However in the above example what should have happened is that the social worker could have gone home at 11.00pm, not expected back in again until late pm at the earliest, if at all, the next day – EDT could/should have been asked to arrange transport for the dad – line manager should have gone to court for the worker – if required to give evidence then time slot requested from the court.

    Nothing will change however until we as a profession begin to make a stand and go home on time, not work at weekends and late into the night – if you face disciplinary measures, carefully document your workload and related demands and do some simple maths divide up your contracted hours between the tasks you have – that is evidence that could be used in a tribunal – finally DON’T FEEL GUILTY- BOOK AND TAKE TOIL

  4. Bianca September 7, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

    What about booking a taxi? Why would the social worker need to take the father home? And a hotel or B&B for the night, with mobile internet it would have been easy to look up some accommodation.

    • LongtimeSW September 7, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

      I guess the question is why should the social worker have to spend an unplanned night away from home – after a 16/17 hour day would you really want to be ringing round at 11.00 – 11.30 at night trying to find somewhere to stay (with no guarantee you would be successful )into the early hours?

      Who cares for the carer’s if we don’t look after ourselves properly?

    • Sophie September 8, 2016 at 8:09 am #

      In a time of significant austerity cuts we are rarely allowed to use taxis if a social worker is there with a car. A request for a 2 1/2 hour round trip taxi ride was firmly denied.

    • Martin Porter September 8, 2016 at 8:32 am #

      “What about booking a taxi?”

      Exactly the question anyone in the real world would ask. Why pay a Social Worker £20 an hour (plus mileage) for a round trip that could be accomplished by taxi for a fiver?

      The answer is usually because applying for money for taxis, accommodation etc is something that takes weeks at the best of times and is not guaranteed to be successful. We can’t even claim money back for First class stamps! A colleague of mine once had to book a private ambulance on his personal credit card as there was no other way of moving a vulnerable client into respite.

      It’s hard to explain to someone not in Social Work that I can arrange for someone to spend the rest of lives in a care home, but can’t claim for a cup of coffee if I work ’til midnight.

  5. SSM September 7, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    I think I want to work at Andrew and Celia’s local authorities.

    In my team if they tripled the number of social workers, they would still be running on the good will and dedication of the social workers and team managers.

    The only thing I can say is Sophie where the heck did you get penicillin from……….. I am using an elastoplast (that I had to purchase myself!)

    We are terribly funded, although I have never slept in my car, I have worked 20 hours solid usually which writing reports……. not because I want to, but because there was no other option.

  6. Lilybright September 7, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    This is a criminal state of affairs. You should not be doing this. It is not good practice. You are endangering your own health & welfare, & that of the adults and children concerned, as well as breaking health & safety legislation ( 1/2 hour break after 6 hours, 11 hours between shifts etc). A call that comes in at 16:55 properly belongs with EDT. That is what we’re here for. And actually, if things have to wait, they really do have to wait. None of us has martyrdom written into our contract of employment.

  7. MF September 7, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

    I agree SSM. You lose the will to do anything except sleep after working like that. Finding a hotel is one effort too far. As a manager I’m pretty sure my staff have never had to sleep in their cars but that’s only because I harass them until I know they’re home…a style I recall isn’t that common.

  8. MM London September 8, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    Shocking!!! This is clearly how mistakes happen…working alone when tired and unable to make safe decisions.
    I would agree and add that a taxi should have been arranged for dad to and from the hospital.

  9. Gemma September 8, 2016 at 10:35 am #

    I have been in similar stressful situations however since I have had children refused to work like this. Can I ask what did the father need to collect, surely some pyjamas and a toothbrush could have just been bought from the nearest supermarket? This could have been cheaper than the mileage?

  10. LongtimeSW September 8, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    “In a time of significant austerity cuts we are rarely allowed to use taxis if a social worker is there with a car. A request for a 2 1/2 hour round trip taxi ride was firmly denied.”

    This goes to your conditions and terms of employment. Join a union. (Not a staff association!) – before all the usual stuff about ‘being useless’ ‘doing nothing’ etc – at the very least the union have lawyers who are well versed in employment law who will fight on behalf of their members and can take on the employer who bullies, intimidates, employees into thinking that they will lose because they are individual against a large organisation.

    • Mel September 8, 2016 at 10:02 pm #

      Yes. Stand together and demand better conditions for you all before someone makes a grievous error.

  11. lonelyworker September 8, 2016 at 10:25 pm #

    I get fed up with the expectations of managers (on promotion they quickly forget or ignore what the reality of being a social worker is like) who expect far too much, but as well as this, I’m fed up with the workers who are quick to moan about the expectations on them but will do nothing to stand up for their own rights. I am one of a very few who do so in my whole office and as everyone else will unhappily work extra hours for nothing and do weekends of extra work, as a result am targeted and look as if I am not pulling my weight. As a mother to a very young family, I am expected to work late, take paperwork home and basically miss out on what’s happening in my own children’s lives. I once called from the hospital having spend the night there to say I would not be in and the question asked to me was would I be back that day/week to complete paperwork for court. How can we as a profession help others when we can’t even help ourselves?? United we stand, divided we fall!!!

    • LongtimeSW September 9, 2016 at 12:11 pm #


      Resistance is NOT futile.

  12. Jan September 12, 2016 at 9:29 am #

    In all my 18 years of being a day time adult social worker I have never had to endure this and I suspect that this is not indicative of a typical day in the life of a social worker – I say that based on my own experience and that of the other responders.

    On one level I can see that taxis could take a significant chunk of the annual budget and that paying car mileage expenses instead is a way of reducing costs, however what is less easily quantifiable is the human cost of excessively pushing social workers, not only to themselves but also their families and the organisation itself. Losing and recruiting good social workers, absent social workers, managing mistakes created due to overload, all have huge hidden costs.

    The average number of years that a social worker leaves the profession is 8 years. I lasted 11 years and ended up coming back- This real life story is not indicative of my experience since returning 4 years ago – I start work at 9/9:30 and finish at 5/5:30 and never take work home – despite there being a lot of work and it’s challenging, yes rarely there are urgent out of ours tasks which are promptly passed to EDT. Perhaps the fact that I have young children can help to assert boundaries – and a good manager helps too. Working smart is essential and having a good sense of what is realistically possible in a caseload and asserting that to ones manager, and if necessary proactively highlighting the risks to self and others – there should be a list of intolerances too – e.g no use of taxis during working hours only, that in itself might still prove to reduce the taxi bill.

    At a time of ongoing budget reduction risk taking should not be at the expense of social workers health and safety – instead we should stick with our good sense that valuing and supporting social workers even more at such times because, treated and utilised well, they are the organisations best and most efficient asset.