Social worker who was ‘desensitised’ to family’s unsafe home conditions suspended

HCPC panel finds practitioner failed to spot significant safeguarding risks facing five children on her caseload

A social worker who said she became “desensitised” to the poor conditions five children on her caseload were living in has been suspended for failing to spot safeguarding concerns.

A HCPC conduct committee found the children, who were under child protection plans due to neglect concerns, were left in an “unsafe environment” for 18 months.

When the social worker’s manager visited the family home she was “extremely concerned” by the level of neglect and poverty she witnessed and shocked by the discrepancy with the social worker’s records, the panel heard. After the visit, steps were taken to place the children in foster care due the house being unsafe.

Assessment

The panel found the social worker took more than 18 months to complete a core assessment that should have been filed within six to 12 weeks. The assessment failed to record several significant safeguarding concerns.
These included the children’s inadequate sleeping arrangements, the lack of any working cooker or gas supply in the house and the fact that part of the kitchen ceiling had collapsed, leaving electrical cabling exposed.

During an internal local authority investigation into the social worker’s handling of the case she maintained she did not consider the home conditions to be of great concern. She said measures had been put in place to alleviate some of the issues, such as supplying new bedding for the children and hiring a skip to clear some clutter in the garden.

However, the panel found these steps were not adequate to safeguard the children and the social worker had failed to challenge the parents about their home conditions. When the social worker’s manager asked to see the children’s bedroom on her visit, the mother said the social worker was her “friend” and that “she never asked to see the bedrooms”.

Supervision

The panel said it found “no evidence” in supervision notes that the social worker raised concerns about the home conditions, and said she failed to recognise how “entirely inappropriate” it was for the parents to call her “a friend”.

In her written statement to the panel, the social worker said she was “distracted by other areas of concern and ‘desensitised’ to the home conditions”. She added that she had a “large number of cases” and found it difficult manage them all. She accepted she failed to file the core assessment in time, and said she did not mean to put the children at risk.

The panel found the social worker held around 30 to 35 children on her caseload. This was at the “high end” of average workloads in the service but the social worker did not indicate in supervision that she was unable to cope and these circumstances “do not excuse or explain” the safeguarding failures, the panel added.

“The registrant does not demonstrate insight into the significant adjustments that would be required to her own practice for her to practice safely as a social worker. She does not acknowledge that she allowed herself to be led by the parents, and that it was entirely inappropriate that they were describing her as a ‘friend’,” the panel concluded.

“The panel’s view is that the misconduct in this case is remediable. However, there is no evidence that it has been remedied. In the absence of remediation and given the Registrant’s limited insight the panel concluded that there is a risk of repetition and therefore a risk that vulnerable children are exposed to harm. The panel therefore concluded, on the personal component, that the registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.”

The suspension order will last 12 months.

26 Responses to Social worker who was ‘desensitised’ to family’s unsafe home conditions suspended

  1. Tom J February 7, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    Nice to see that Munro’s learning culture is alive and well! Problem with practice? Lets run you through the local authority disciplinary procedure and then just to be sure put you through the HCPC one also.

    There are some learning points
    1) We do always run the risk of being desensitized. Where I used to work issues of poverty where huge. I remember the head teacher telling me that she had sixty pupils who came into school hungry, homework not done and dressed poorly. I therefore thought well if there are 60 other children in the same situation it feels odd to target this one mother. However I also had to guard against this and ensure that there was not a ‘rush to the bottom’ in terms of where the ‘good enough’ line goes. One way for example is inviting other workers to come with you to gain a fresh perspective/alternate view (although perhaps don’t bring this manager along with you)

    2) Relationship based social work is vital and is something that is losing fashion with targets and drives to do everything within ‘the child’s timeframe’. However, I accept that the social worker needs to ensure that they do not lose sight of their role and purpose, namely- the child.

    3) Seeing the bedrooms- yes, not in a tick box way, but yes as recommended by Harry Ferguson you need to explore as much of the environment as possible.

    BUT there are also many other key messages that frontline social workers must take from this:

    1) If you have 30 to 35 children on your caseload. Do not assume the obvious that this is ridiculous to manage- you have to let them know, odd I know, but that’s the way it is.

    2) If a parent refers to you as a ‘friend’, act with horror and say ‘do not ever call me that again’. And if you hear a service user ever refer to another social worker as ‘a friend’ or ‘like a friend’ -report them to the HCPC, immediately.

    3) If you are ever put in front of the HCPC remember to repeat ‘I am a useless individual, all problems whether caseloads of 35, or any assessments out of date are completely my fault’.

    • LaShawn B Sparks February 7, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

      Very helpful information! I’m entering my second semester of MSW. This is an EXCELLENT case study for Ethics.

    • Chris D February 8, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

      Spot on Tom. Reporting high caseloads rarely ever works, a culture of overwork is sadly embedded in many LAs. The children bear the brunt of it as social workers struggle to keep their heads above water and end up relying on tick box automaton-like social work completing the bare minimum to get through. Family work and reflective practice goes out the window. Just stress. And social workers continue to be scapegoated for the failings of the local authority management and lack of funding

  2. Chris Mills February 7, 2017 at 11:47 am #

    Agree completely with Tom. Social worker was put in a position where she couldn’t succeed and then blamed for being there.

    • Philip February 8, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

      What happened to the manager and service manager who would have known this core assessment was due 18 months prior. Some concern raised there I see none. Where’s the council or housing dept mention of what they had done.. don’t we talk working together?

      And if there was a cooker who’s to say they would have used it? Half my clients would use take outs of microwave meals

      I’m not saying dromnthe sounds these kids had it bad it sounds horrific to be honest. Busy some questions need asking by the TM and LA for along a core assessment to be 18 months plus a case load of 30-34. Come on HCPC. Go be a Sw and hold that same – it’s a joke

  3. Pearlene Webb February 7, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

    No one can work 35 cases effectively, however being desensitised is not a valid excuse either for not seeing the children’s plight. I remember several years ago carrying out my first CP visit on a case at 5.30pm and being appalled at the home conditions. The children were sleeping on bare mattresses, no curtains to the windows, bare walls and floor boards. There was a huge TV in the front room and dad had his PlayStation while the children were given bags of crisps for tea and the home smelt like something had died in it. I asked the parents if they thought the children’s bedrooms and home conditions were acceptable for them and the mother said no while the father said yes. This was a case that I inherited, I rang my manager and told him that I could not go home and leave those children in the home and that if he didn’t believe me about the home conditions then I wanted him to come and see it for himself. He said that he trusted my judgement and that I could discuss with the parents alternative carers for the children that night while they sort the home conditions out. That night the children and their parents went to stay with a family member and we initiated court proceedings. None of the children, 4 in total stayed in their parent’s care following the court proceedings and were placed with extended family.
    I think we should always ask ourselves would we be comfortable allowing an animal to live in those condition and if the answer is no then it’s not suitable for a child either.

  4. John Smith February 7, 2017 at 4:39 pm #

    It seems to me that some commentators are more concerned that the social worker was subject to disciplinary proceedings rather than the home conditions of these children. (I bet this isn’t published because social workers can’t stand criticism. Non-publication will be taken as confirmation).

    • Tom J February 8, 2017 at 11:22 am #

      Not at all John. The concern is exactly with these children as well as all of the 3.9 million children in the country who are living in poverty at this exact moment*. Assuming that you are not a ‘bring every child who is living in an adverse environment into care’ person- social workers have to make difficult judgements everyday.

      What they need to do is to get the difficult balance right between support challenge, assessment and if needed;removal.

      However, if there is a unsupportive fear environment where if social workers gets anything wrong they are not supported but instead are blamed and paraded in front of the media and HCPC- trust me when I say it is not conducive at all for anyone when they knock on the next door of a family.

      * Reference: http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/policy-and-lobbying/child-poverty?gclid=CKSyy86ugNICFeqc7QodMTQBmg

      • Angie February 8, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

        Thanks for the info. I am considering SW but just graduated in Human Services and not sure what direction.

  5. Alex February 7, 2017 at 4:39 pm #

    What exactly does the HCPC think the employer would have said if the worker had complained about the high caseload?

    I actually believe the worker did ‘complain’ but like many managers they either fail to record such issues knowing given the power imbalance in their relationship the worker is highly unlikely to complain about this

    or

    the manager makes out the no one else was complaining in the team so the problem must be with with the worker.

    HCPC hearings are a joke! We need to get rid of the HCPC ASAP.

  6. Thomas February 8, 2017 at 1:04 am #

    Sounds to me a lot more like crap housing, shoddy management and sw being in over their head with no colleagues supporting them through co working… Surely sw wasn’t the only professional visiting the house until manager popped their head in?

    Bigger families with lots of issues… I miss these extra chaotic cases the most, with the challenge of prioritizing and balancing etc, but I felt more vulnerable to risk of becoming overly support to children/parents, not maintaining assessment and expectation etc. Desensitization around home conditions very easy in that position!

    Glad I got out after just 18 months cp and that I was also lucky with a good pm… Otherwise, after one or two bad weeks this could too easily have been one of my cases!

  7. Andrew February 8, 2017 at 1:45 pm #

    So the Core Assessment took 18 months to complete and her manager didn’t notice, or did so and took no action?

    When this came to light after the hearing I wonder if the employer took any action against the manager for incompetence? Maybe they had already got their victim.

    • Chris D February 8, 2017 at 8:05 pm #

      Well said.

    • Lucy February 8, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

      My thoughts exactly!!!

    • Peter Palladas February 9, 2017 at 9:22 am #

      My thoughts as well. With electronic recording there is simply no excusing a system – or the people who use the system – that does not red flag seriously overdue assessments. If that information wasn’t available to inform supervision sessions in advance then it should have been, and if it was, but not used, then I suggest the manager is at least as culpable as the social worker.

  8. Ann Edwards February 8, 2017 at 3:11 pm #

    Its regrettable that there are lower expectations for ‘bigger families’. On so many occasions teachers and other professionals and even grandparents have said to me when a child has regularly gone to school without socks or underwear or without warm clothing in winter, or not been taken to health appointments ( with long term implications for health), or not had a form signed to allow them to go on a school trip (even with no cost to parent) or where other children don’t want to sit by them or play with them because of their poor hygiene (so many issues come to mind) “Well, what can you expect when there are 4 or 5 (or 6 or 7) children.” I believe there are minimum ‘good enough’ standards that apply to all children including children from large families. It is not all about poverty and it is discriminatory to ignore the rights of this group of children not to endure insidious and damaging neglect, even though, as a previous contributor says, the families may be complex and chaotic.

  9. Sandra February 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm #

    Social workers are put under difficult and challenging situations at all times, not to mention employers and HCPC do not take into consideration the lack of funding and housing that makes our work much more difficult. I currently work in a local authority where we were told there was no more section 17 funding as the borough had over spent therefore we had no more money to give to our families but that we should seek or sign post clients to charities instead. Now where does this leaves social workers and their clients in a vulnerable situation. What HCPC fail to recognise is that since conservative government has been in power more and more families are now living in poverty.

    Yes I do agree to some level the social worker should have challenge the parents about the conditions of the home making sure it was clean and conducive for the children to remain. However, consideration to be given to the large case load she was responsible to deal with also the lack of funding and resources within social work.

    I also do not feel the social worker was supported by her manager, this is the problem we now have in social work rather than being supported we are being blame and penalised throughout. Social workers are now afraid to ask for help from their managers afraid they may be blamed and be seen as being incompetent.

    • Steph February 8, 2017 at 9:54 pm #

      Ive been a social worker through a number of successive governments, labour was as bad as conservative !

  10. Sandra February 8, 2017 at 3:46 pm #

    I wonder how frequent and what was the quality of the supervision sessions. Desensitization happens because there is too much trauma and emotional overwhelm which is not attended to, and there is no time or space to deal with social worker’s feelings. Ah well. I like the humility of the last commenter Thomas who had the wit to get out after 18 months, recognizing it could otherwise have been him.

  11. lucy February 8, 2017 at 7:25 pm #

    I have mixed feelings about this case as whilst no bedsheets is not evidence of significant harm – having no gas/electric (especially in winter) cooking facilities, and having the roof fall down with wires exposed is not meeting basic standards of expectations, and also raises health and safety concerns.

    However, the clue here is the unmanageable case load of 35 kids, and the place being so chaotic that it took 18 months to complete a core assessment! This indicates that this workplace is toxic, and not providing a safe or supportive workplace for their social workers. The social worker was probably barely keeping her hand in, and in all likelihood minimised the risk as she could not face the reality of having more work added to an ever mounting unmanageable pile.

    Its high time local authorities were kept accountable by the HCPC, instead of turning a blind eye to dangerous and unsafe workplaces, and it’s the children who suffer the most in the end, from having good workers get so burnt out they cannot cope anymore.

    After doing 19 years of frontline CP social work, it’s only by the grace of God I have survived, and have never had anything bad happened to any children on my caseload, but there is always the risk as nobody is infallible.

    I’m looking forward to getting out of this job, which is noble, yet so under-valued and appreciated!

  12. Amy February 8, 2017 at 9:38 pm #

    Another example why I got out of social work last year. I never had supervision for 7 months. It seems the HCPC look at what they are told rather then what the bigger picture is. It is apart of the hcpc guidelines to have regular supervision but yet this gets missed.

  13. Steph February 8, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

    I would love to see a time and motion study of the social work task… 35 cases… Assuming the sw works full time that’s approx 1 hour per child per week. How much can anyone achieve in that amount of time? the travel to and from a visit generally takes that long. I would love to see see anyone do a better job with the time and resources available. When will the HCPC start protecting the social workers who fund their pay? It’s about time local authorities are taken to task for the unreasonable expectations put on workers, perhaps then they will be able to better protect children… Rant over !

  14. Henrietta Coker February 11, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    The thing about this is how much were the living conditions directly a consequence of parental inaction? Did the parents live in poor private housing? Were the repairs reported? How affective are rules to enforce repairs?
    It is perhaps wrong not to see this within a climate of reduced social housing, many families such as those who are in the country illegally are locked out of decent housing by rules preventing landlords from renting to them.

  15. Stuart February 11, 2017 at 8:35 pm #

    Social Worker not completing core assessment within 12 weeks is fairly unforgivable but Manager not noticing & doing something about it by week 13 is even moreso.

    We only know a tiny bit about this case – we don’t, for example, know when the ceiling fell down, whether the landlord was in process of fixing it or whether the family (and social worker) had been afraid to complain about it for fear of generating a revenge eviction. We don’t know whether the mother was corectly reporting that SW didn’t look in bedrooms or was unaware that the SW did in fact do so, nor whether she had been told many times by her SW ‘I am not your friend, I am your worst enemy’ but just didn’t have the same command of linguistic subtitles as the (presumably) universiey educated dudes on the hcpc and we don’t know whether the SW was consciously and productively steering a careful path down the narrow road between making it possible for some sort of loving & caring relationship between children and (at least one) parent to be maintained despite severe poverty or one one hand & on the other tearing all asunder by having the children taken into care to be separated from each other as well as from their parents and friends. I could go on…

    What we do know however is that taking children into ‘Care’ is not and can not be a standard national solution to poverty – there are not enough foster carers.

    We also know that the hcpc love to blame social workers rather than address the systemic & societal problems because they have to be seen to do ‘something’ and that is what they find easiest.

    And we know that the latter has the potential to do far more harm than one social worker falling below her own normal standards in one case.

  16. Kashawna Taylor February 12, 2017 at 8:23 am #

    I’m studying to be a social worker at the moment. I don’t see why there is so much hostility towards the HCPC. We are taught that it is there to protect us as well as provide transparency around our profession. I am being naive then ?

  17. David David February 13, 2017 at 4:30 pm #

    Question: if the assessment was 18 months overdue, how were the children “under child protection plans due to neglect concerns”? What was being assessed if the children were already on CP plans?
    Question: the HCPC relies on manager’s supervision notes to say that the SW never raised the question of a high caseload as an issue. However, this is the same manager that allegedly failed to flag up the fact that the assessment was 18 months overdue. So, how can anyone rely on that manager’s supervision notes?