They will have to pay us more

The children’s green paper, Every Child Matters, has been
broadly welcomed for its vision of a system aiming at identifying
problems at their earliest stages, where children are helped to
reach their full potential and are better protected. However, will
the government commit to the required spending levels and will the
key difficulties faced by field social workers be addressed?

In recent years the workload in field work teams has increased and
the thresholds for involvement are higher. Reorganisations have
often masked cuts and, even when fully staffed, child protection
teams have been stretched to the limits. Stress-related absences
are high.

Understaffing is fundamental. Vacancies are hard to fill; agency
staff move on, breaking continuity for their clients, and workers
are recruited from overseas with little experience of child
protection work. Encouragingly, Every Child Matters pays
attention to recruitment and retention, discussing how the work can
be made more attractive. Better pay scales are crucial, as are
structures which enable skilled workers to develop and be promoted
without moving into management. It is a current frustration that
there are few opportunities for promotion while retaining face to
face work with children and families.

Turnover of social workers is high. There are few rewards but a
personal sense of a significant positive outcome achieved for a
child, with recognition from peers and managers, is enough.
However, when case loads are so high this is sadly lacking. Social
workers often just monitor families, either leaving children in
danger or removing them to safety without attempting the planned,
sustained work which could bring about real change.

No time to achieve
There is no time for the preventive, therapeutic, or direct work
with children needed to break the cycle of abuse or neglect where
children grow up to follow the same destructive behaviour patterns
as their parents. This feels unsafe and unrewarding and social
workers are choosing to leave faster than they can be

To promote the profession field work teams must have enough staff
to do the work that is needed, rather than the bare minimum. And to
retain staff the range of work must be wider, with opportunities
that recognise individual skills and expertise.

Working horizons can be broadened by working with other
professionals, and information exchange was cited as a key factor
in the Victoria Climbie Report. Every Child Matters
suggests multi-disciplinary teams to address this with core
training in child protection issues. Problems do arise from a lack
of awareness of different professionals whose priorities, quite
understandably, lie elsewhere. Social work is not the only
profession under pressure.

Information is withheld, not through malice, but through a lack of
insight into the issues. Conversely, there is a danger of
information overload due to anxious professionals fearing they are
negligent if they don’t share everything. Focused,
multi-disciplinary working with clear lines of accountability, good
supervision and enough staff to share the work will mean the right
information can be passed to the right people and the appropriate
services put into place for the child. Different professions need
to understand each other’s roles and how best to meet the interests
of the child together. This can be addressed by core training for
all professionals who have involvement with children. All this can
be achieved outside multi-disciplinary teams.

There is tremendous value in a peer group working together with
specialised supervision. Core training can address the need for
working together without losing the benefits of specialised teams.

Reorganising doesn’t resolve problems for families. This can only
come from the skilled intervention of well trained staff. Enhancing
the standing of child protection work is a long-term issue. But if
the funding can be provided for good staffing levels, with pay
scales that recognise what social workers actually do and its value
to society, and with strong, inter-disciplinary training, then a
good, protective service can be provided to children and their
families. This would be an attractive environment in which to work.
Social workers are a highly skilled, motivated group and need to be
properly rewarded.

Worrying comments
Comments such as the paper’s “using resources more effectively” and
Margaret Hodge’s “we can save money, we don’t need more money” are
of concern in terms of the government’s commitment to financing
these reforms. Front-line staff will not hold their breath for
sustained levels of increased funding. Working in a department
which has been consistently under-resourced for so long has bred a
level of cynicism which will be slow to evaporate.

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