by Sophie Ayers
You may be a child protection social worker who feels valued, supported and safe within your local authority.
Or, you may be a social worker who feels like you’re trapped on a ‘hamster wheel’; furiously running, trying to reach your destination, but never quite managing. What you find is your personal working capacity does not equal the ever increasing demands upon your time and energy.
The role has evolved so much. Technological advances (which can actually increase work); expectations for prompt intervention; significant changes in case law/legislation and reduced timescales within court.
There has been a notable increase in referrals to social care and cases progressing to court. Yet, some employers continue to retain the same expectations regarding a social worker’s capacity to manage.
I believe that being prescriptive about the number of cases a social worker should carry is a ‘red herring’ that enables organisations to be complacent regarding work provided: One size, really does not fit all.
There are times when one family can be all consuming and take up much of your time due to individual events, complexity and immediacy of risk. When this occurs, supervisors must take supportive action to assist with the management of your other cases. A blanket expectation to cope with your caseload under any circumstances will ultimately lead to risky practice.
I have previously had a caseload of 29 children, with five families involved in care proceedings but told that I had capacity to take on one more case as it would only be a quick piece of work.
When I tried to explain that I did not have capacity by writing a ‘to do list’ to demonstrate my impending tasks I was met with blank eyes and rapid blinking. A dilemma enfolds: do you refuse but know that your less assertive colleague will be over-burdened, or roll over and squeeze the assessment visit into your over-spilling diary?
So many factors affect the work required for each child:
How long does it take to travel to see this child?
Children can be placed anywhere within the country. If a social worker has to travel hundreds of miles to complete a statutory visit, this visit will clearly take more time than a child who lives two miles from your office.
How frequently does the child need to be visited?
Some children can be seen every six weeks due to the level of risk, whereas other children may require a visit every day.
How many professionals/family members are involved in the care of this child?
For every child, a dedicated group of professionals and family members follow. I have previously worked with a child who had sixteen professionals and family members involved in their care.
When the group of professionals and family members is sizeable and events evolve on a daily basis, it can be an extraordinarily demanding to ensure that everyone is aware of the most recent events.
What assessments need to be completed to ensure that this child is safe?
Assessments required for each child can vary widely, some children may require a generic social care assessment. However, others will require endless pieces of work that can become a full-time caseload for any one worker.
It is easy to see how social workers can feel overwhelmed and over-burdened.
Is there a clear understanding regarding the amount of time required for each composite element in child protection? Sadly, I believe that the understanding of an individual’s capacity has become lost in the discourse relating to practice standards.
‘The Standards for employers of social workers in England’ published by the Local Government Association sets out ‘safe workloads and allocation’. It highlights a number of sensible recommendations in terms of caseloads including “ensure that a social worker’s professional judgement about workload capacity issues is respected in line with the requirements of their professional registration”.
The document in it’s entirety provides many well thought out recommendations. If universally applied, I believe modern social work could be transformed.
However, this document is not mandatory, nor legally enforceable. The reality is that high vacancy rates and increasing referrals would make it very difficult to be achievable in the current climate that we practice in.
Supervision should explore the impact of your caseload but this is not always effective. Phrases from management such as, “can we look at how to manage your diary” or, “I think you should attend a time management course” blames the individual and exonerates the wider structural failings of the current child protection system.
I am afraid of trusts taking over child protection social work as a whole. However, I have less trepidation about the prospect of business analysts assisting local authorities in rethinking the role of social workers.
Could business consultants help us to understand what workers are realistically able to complete within ethical working hours?
The government’s route is to believe that authorities with ‘good’ Ofsted ratings should be the oracle in modern social work practice. However, I am concerned that ‘top down’ reporting prevents a true understanding of the working practice in local authorities (even with a ‘good’ Ofsted rating).
Independent and confidential analysis is required to understand the modern world of child protection social work.
I have yet to see a realistic document that provides even a rough ‘guestimation’ of time required for each piece of work completed by social workers. How can we dictate what a safe caseload looks like, without fundamentally understanding the hours involved to complete each individual piece of work?
Working with an unmanageable caseload feels like you are are failing everybody. You want to record an answerphone message simply saying “I am sorry”. When work is tough, I am free falling from the edge of a cliff with no trampoline to cushion my fall. You can find yourself in a spiral of self-loathing and despair because you cannot work to your own practice expectations.
There is a ‘cause and effect’ cycle which appears to be almost insurmountable. Many local authorities are not able to provide manageable caseloads and so workers leave: sometimes for a new post but sometimes from the profession altogether. This creates a cyclical problem whereby there is not enough staff and social workers become over-burdened and leave and so it continues.
There are not enough social workers willing to work in child protection at present to reduce caseloads adequately. However, it should not be for the individual workers to suffer the consequences and receive admonishment for doing the best that they possibly can.
Let us find creative solutions to reduce individual blame such as recruiting workers who do not have a social work qualification to assist. Cyclical I know, as ‘social work assistants’ were commonplace ten years ago.
Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker