Dear ministers, here is how you fix children’s social work

A children's social worker writes about the key areas a new children's minister should address

Photo: Jeff Tzu-chao Lin/imageBROKER/Rex

by Sophie Ayers

Following the shock end to Edward Timpson’s time in parliament, the new children’s minister has yet to be confirmed, but there are reports it will be Robert Goodwill, who was previously an immigration minister. While most of the social work world waits in great anticipation for this announcement, it has made me consider what we could hope for with new personnel.

The implementation of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 faced a great deal of criticism. One particular area that gained much opposition was the ‘power to innovate’ clause. Through successful campaigning and well-publicised condemnation of the clause by many industry leaders and academics, it was withdrawn.

The u-turn by the government on this particular aspect of the act indicates that somewhere in Whitehall, policy makers are listening to experts and high-standing professionals.

However, the Children and Social Work Act followed a one-dimensional path in terms of how policy for child protection social work is made. Examples include the government’s decision to develop the accreditation scheme and its proposal for a new regulatory body: Social Work England.

My dream is to extend the listening skills of policy makers towards those who work on the frontline and the families who receive our services.

With this aspiration in mind, I have set out points I feel the next children’s minister should address.

1. Recruitment and retention.

At present, the government’s focus appears to be upon finding bright new graduates to bolster a dwindling workforce.

I believe that the government is missing a trick by not finding new initiatives to celebrate and support over-stretched social workers.

I think that employment law could be used to shift the ‘blame culture’ from the individual frontline workers to the employers.

The Local Government Association’s Standards for Employers and Supervision Framework sets out clear expectations for social work employers in terms of providing a safe environment with manageable caseloads and an ability for social workers to escalate their concerns if they are being provided with too much work.

Leaving

However, there does not appear to be any consequences set out within legislation to protect workers if they are not treated in an appropriate or safe manner. At present, social workers can feel disempowered when they feel that their practice environment is not safe and compromises their ability to provide a consistently high standard of work.

There is options for social workers to explore the grievance process within their local authority. However, this process is often adjudicated by senior managers who have a vested interested in believing that their working systems are effective. Therefore, there are times when valid concerns about working pressures and unit systems are diminished and not heard.

I believe that as a consequence of many large organisations’ inability to respect and listen to frontline workers ,many social workers leave their positions and contribute to the recruitment and retention crisis. Social workers often do not want to leave their jobs but feel exhausted and powerless to change their working environment.

If the framework could become mandatory and realistic consequences were put in place for employers,  I believe that working conditions would improve and thereby social workers would be more likely to remain in their jobs.

2. Adoption is not a panacea for all children who cannot remain with their birth parents.

The past two governments have spoken favourably about adoption as a permanence plan for children. Adoption can be a positive option for children. However, it does not come without risks.

The previous government’s rhetoric appeared to diminish some of the very live issues children who have been adopted face. Even when placed for adoption from a young age, there is a strong likelihood that a child will question why they cannot not live with their birth family in addition to the intrinsic connection that they feel.

With the increasing availability of social media, the dilemma of contact with birth families has become a situation that requires much greater review.

The short-term care plans that are often completed by local authorities frequently fail to take into account the changing world of instant information.

Research

I believe that urgent research is required in this area and how care plans can reflect the inevitability of children finding a means to answer questions and seek contact with their birth family.

It is natural for adopted children to want to know who their birth families are. If we ignore the impact of social media, we are setting up a generation of adopted children to fail. It is not good enough to view that ‘no direct contact’ is in the child’s best interest or even enforceable.

In addition, the current arrangements for the assessment of alternative family members is not in line with assessments for adopters. On average, adopters are provided with a much longer period of assessment and significantly more training than kinship carers or special guardians.

The fact that a family connection exists does not reduce the significant task that these carers are taking on, either immediately after orders are made or during the lifelong commitment to caring for children that are not their birth children.

The landscape through legislation and case law regarding adoption has become increasingly confused and inconsistent. I believe that the whole issue of adoption and kinship care requires a detailed review to assess how the support and assessment times of kinship careers can be aligned with that of adopters.

3. The family court system is imploding.

Over the past 10 years there has been a noticeable rise in applications to the court to consider the long-term permanence arrangements for children.

I believe that the government needs to consider why this escalation in care cases has taken place. It appears that the increased level correlates with difficult and notable cases where children have died due to the negligence of a number of professionals. Many would say that child protection social workers have become risk adverse.

If this is the case, I believe it is crucial that a review takes place to look at implementing a system that works with risk, with increased funding and better resources

Reduced budgets

The second point is intrinsically linked with the first: is there something to be said about reduced budgets that children services receive and their ability to intervene with the right level of support at a time when change can be affected?

Anecdotally, I have witnessed the impact of reduced funding on frontline services and the general welfare state. In a country where it can be difficult to feed your family or heat your house, caring for your children in an adequate environment can been extremely difficult.

In addition, some of the more nurturing initiatives such as Sure Start and intensive family support have been reduced on a widespread basis to cope with funding cuts.

I know that there is not a ‘magic money tree’. However, without the interventions at the very start of the process being present, how can we expect the cycle to be broken?

Sometimes people make mistakes, sometimes people want to be loved by the wrong person, sometimes people are alone, sometimes people have had poor parenting models with no knowledge of how to care for a child and sometimes people are emotionally low. Without the cement in the paving crack, how do we stop the chasm becoming a sinkhole?

Funding cuts matter because without early intervention, families will not have the support or guidance to make the situation better. In these circumstances adoption – the most draconian option – becomes much more likely.

Timescales

The third point relates to timing. The 26-week timescale was introduced to reduce drift and delay for children. However, there are times when it has become increasingly difficult for cases to be completed within this timeframe due to complicated factors that arise.

There are occasions when more time should be afforded to a case but due to the strict timeline it is not permitted.

I do not want to go back to a time where court proceedings drift for years. This served nobody, least of all children.

However, there should be more freedom for judges and less emphasis on statistics by the government to ensure that a case can be considered on an individual basis rather than a generic rule of thumb.

4. The courts

The fourth factor relates to the availability of the courts: there needs to be enough resources in place to manage a child’s needs. Sometimes cases can be delayed because there is simply not enough court time to list a final hearing within an appropriate timeframe. The court’s availability should never be a reason to delay the planning for a child’s future.

5. Resources

The fifth factor to consider is the impact of legal funding in relation to private law matters that can sometimes escalate into the public law arena. Sometimes, if appropriate legal support was in place, the situation could be resolved prior to the situation escalating.

The sixth factor to consider is the actual capacity of child protection social workers. The courts need and require social workers to work in a timely and forensic manner. However, with increased caseloads and growing demands, many local authority social workers find it impossible to work in a manner that is fit for the court environment and complete the influx of work that accompanies the 26 weeks timescales.

I am sure that there are many other issues that social workers would like to discuss with you. I feel there should be a working party of frontline practitioners and service users, to finally help the government understand the realities of child protection social work.

Sophie Ayers is an independent social worker who works in children’s services. She tweets @sophieayers1982 and vlogs at weneedtotalkaboutsocialwork.

11 Responses to Dear ministers, here is how you fix children’s social work

  1. June Thoburn June 15, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    Thank you Sophie for this thoughtful analysis of what the new minister will need to take on board- and for doing it so quickly. Especially for emphasising the need for true collaboration between politicians, civil servants, parents and children needing services, social workers across the areas of practice and their managers and their professional bodies (BASW and ADCS especially) and social work educators and researchers, and the judiciary. (As happened with the 1989 Children Act and the Social Work Reform Board but has been lamentably absent for the Children and Social Work Act. I hope you are sending it directly to him as well as in Comm Care

  2. Chris June 15, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    Hi Sophie,

    This is such a helpful analysis and addresses so many areas where legislation and policy have increasingly conflicted with practice on the ground. It’s good to have articulated those issues we regularly face and argue about.

    I do hope this is taken on by ministers and is considered. My cynical self and long experience in social work says that it will only be the parts that chime with other economic agendas and/or influences which will be considered.

    Thanks

  3. HelenSparkles June 15, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

    I wasn’t at all surprised by Timpson going.

  4. David Ashcroft, AILC June 16, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    The context of a new government – perhaps more open to listening to the sector – and a new minister – means there is a fresh opportunity to ensure that new local safeguarding arrangements remain fully multi-agency; champion the interests of children and young people rather than merely oversee agency compliance; and are adequate resourced to hold partnerships to account. The revised Working Together now anticipated for the autumn carries a great deal of expectation to ensure that it sets high standards and a clear benchmark for the requirements that police, health and local authorities will need to deliver on. Our recent report on Ofsted reviews of LSCBs, and the growing number of good and outstanding Boards, shows that there is a great deal of current good practice that may well be at risk of a lowest common denominator approach that sees the removal of LSCBs as a no more than an opportunity to save money.

  5. Terry Unicorn June 16, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

    Too many councils are happy to let Services slip happy in the knowledge that they can blame the nasty Tories. This is not good enough. We know of children who haven’t had a social worker for 10 weeks. LAC visits aren’t happening. These are management issues. It’s not a case of working harder it’s a case of working smarter.

  6. Margaret June 16, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

    Well said Sophie !

  7. Sue Moore-Holmes June 16, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

    Thank you Sophie for highlighting these key issues. Let’s hope that whoever gets the job listens to practitioners and not politicians.
    I am a team manager and work with committed and talented social workers who are on their knees. We want to provide the best service to children and their families, but due to high caseloads and a lack of community resources we end up fire fighting. It is no coincidence that the numbers of Looked after children has risen, or the numbers on care orders at home. The 26 week timescale does not always serve children well.
    I am so proud that despite being tired and stressed social workers continue to do their very best to safeguard children, to listen to them, to scratch around to garner support for their parents, and to keep going.

  8. Lee Pardy -Mclayghlin June 17, 2017 at 7:06 am #

    Sophie thank you for this piece, it is clear: has clarity and captures the both the opportunities and challenges

  9. Anne-Marie Davies June 17, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

    Brilliant response, very much represents my thoughts. Thank you Sophie for articulating this so clearly

  10. Dave McCallum June 21, 2017 at 8:41 am #

    Thanks for this piece Sophie. Really thoughtful comments which are useful when considering the way forward. I particularly like the idea of an independent process for SWs to escalate when they are allocated an excessive workload. It seems crucial that the challenge of responding to the disconnect between workload and workforce should be a conundrum for leaders, not the front line.

  11. annie lloyd June 30, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    Thank you so much for you clarity. So much of it makes sense.
    As a psychotherapist now specialising for over 10 years (and with over 30 years of experience) in working with adopted children and their families as part of the Adoption Support Team, I have watched 7 team leaders come and go. In the past we have been able to demonstrate that it is the team around the child which is crucial to providing effective support and that innovative methods of working can be very effective.
    A year ago in consultation with two previous team leaders and the consultant psychiatrist of CAMHS, I put together a triage proposal and formed a think tank composed of therapists, paediatricians and social workers in the hope of gathering what frontline professionals have found to be the issues to be addressed as well as what actually helps. This has been endorsed by both Norman Lamb, our local M.P. – ex-Health Minister and Lorne Greene – Norfolk’s police commissioner with the commitment to exploring whether the triage proposal could be piloted and whether the think tank’s recommendations could be, at the very least, considered by the policy makers. Two directors of Childrens Service Norfolk have received letters from Norman Lamb encouraging them to consider this innovative and creative endeavour. And yet, there has been no real progress in real terms and with the recent ASF caps, there is less scope for gathering solutions that may actually help from the people who may have solutions. Quite simply, it is finance which dominates what can or cannot be done – it seems without any discussion. Interestingly, there seems to be little genuine costing of what failing to support these children involves in terms of NHS support – physical and mental, Youth Offending Teams, police, education and many other agencies with whom these children come into contact over their life times. There are resources out there but my question is the similar to Sophy’s. How do we get the attention of the policy makers and help them develop their listening skill/receptivity to begin gathering information about how to deal with the challenge that could well be hugely cost effective in the long run from those of us at the coal face?