Benefit or burden?

Child protection social workers are in short supply. So, is
there a role that volunteers can play in the effort to keep
vulnerable children safe?

Bromley social services department, south London, certainly
believes so. Along with Sunderland Council, it is piloting a
project that will recruit volunteers to visit families where a
child is on the child protection register.

Each volunteer will be matched with a family and will be required
to carry out visits at least three times a week.

The Volunteers in Child Protection project is based on a similar
programme in California, which claims to have significantly reduced
the levels of child abuse (see panel, page 32). It will be run by
Community Service Volunteers in partnership with social

The Bromley pilot started advertising for volunteers in January,
and according to project development worker Cathy Worden Hodge, has
already attracted a lot of interest. More than 35 application packs
have been sent out and 10 completed forms have been returned. Yet
before being offered a volunteering role recruits will have to
undergo an intensive two-hour interview and 18 hours of training,
including one day on child protection that will be delivered
through the area child protection committee.

The volunteers are expected to commit for a minimum period of six
months but exactly what they do with their time will vary between

“It might be that a family doesn’t know how to engage with their
child, so it might be suggesting going swimming or reading a book
or dropping in to make sure the child has gone to school,” says
Worden Hodge. “Volunteers have to live close to the family to make
it work otherwise they will lose interest and drop out.”

Bromley social services has zero stars. Currently, there are 70
families on its child protection register, adding up to 122
children. However, not all of these families will be suitable for
the project.

“We’re not looking for all of those families to have a volunteer.
We decided to target families where the issues are neglect and
emotional abuse. We’re screening out sexual or physical abuse at
the moment,” says Julie Daly, who is responsible for Bromley
Council’s child protection service.

And not all of the suitable families will want to take part. She
says:”This is a voluntary arrangement with the families as well.
It’s a case of ‘here is something we can offer you, are you willing
to take up this offer?’ Not every family is going to say yes. There
will be some for whom it feels appropriate and some for whom it

She is very keen to stress that the project will not replace other
services. “This isn’t a statutory service and this does not take
away the responsibility and role of the social worker and other
statutory agencies. It’s an additional service. There’s a range of
other services and this will be seen as part of that menu.”

Volunteers will not be expected to make regular reports to
statutory agencies or to give their opinions on whether things are
improving in the family.

In terms of specific attributes, obviously the volunteers need to
be non-judgmental, but they also need to have some experience of
raising a family. Given this requirement, together with the time
commitment involved in the scheme, the likely source of volunteers
would be expected to be older, retired people. Apparently this
isn’t the case, it is people studying, or thinking about studying,
social work who have shown the most interest.

“It’s a very different sort of volunteering. A lot of older people
will volunteer to run charity shops and do stuff in hospitals.
We’re talking about something here that potentially has a lot more
emotional content. You’ve got to be aware of the issues you might
be coming into contact with,” says Daly.

Those behind the Bromley project may be passionate about its
potential benefits, but do others share their optimism? Some have
questioned whether the project could be an extra burden for social
workers, but Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of
Social Workers, says most would welcome it.

“There’s too much for social workers to do to be precious about
things. Children and families where there are child protection
issues have lots of other needs, and the more attention they can
get and the more resources you can bring to bear to support them
the better. Social work is about mobilising resources to help
people, not about doing it yourself all the time,” he says.

However, volunteers should not be required to do things beyond
their capabilities, he says, warning that there is a danger
volunteers could end up carrying out the social worker role. Using
volunteers in children’s services where there is a shortage of
social workers would be wrong. “Any attempt to do that would be
denying people the proper protection that you get from skilled
workers,” he says.

Needless to say, this is not the intention of the project and many
feel that such fears are unfounded. David Booker, head of volunteer
development at Barnardo’s, says that volunteers will not be able to
take over the work of social workers because of the legal framework
governing child protection work.

Instead, what volunteers have to offer is their life experience and
flexible approach. “Volunteers often get more time to visit and
help people. Volunteers are often able to provide a service and
support at times when professionals are not available,” he

However, it goes without saying that volunteers need to be properly
prepared and supported, and that an in-depth risk assessment is
crucial to prevent situations where they are without adequate
training and back up.

Booker sees “no reason at all” why volunteers could not carry out
this role, and thinks that eventually it could be extended to other
families where there are sexual and physical abuse issues.

Given the intensity of the relationship that the volunteer is
likely to build up with the family, it is crucial that they can
access emotional support. Andy Forster, head of policy at volunteer
development agency Volunteering England suggests a supervision
structure where volunteers can talk one-to-one with a volunteering
manager. In addition, he says that group meetings could be useful
for volunteers to share not only their experiences, but also any
strategies they have developed.

Most people are aware of the risks faced by lone workers, and
monitoring would be useful to record who is going where.
“Volunteers are very vulnerable and may be exposed to a degree of
risk. Who is going to be taking liability for that risk?” asks

What the volunteers will be doing is “perilously” close to the
tasks undertaken by trained professionals, but providing they can
offer something extra he believes that the project has potential.
And something extra that volunteers can offer as a group is
undoubtedly diversity.

“Most paid professionals in the social work and community care
field don’t necessarily come from the community they are
supporting. Volunteers can do that,” he says.

It’s impossible to predict how many volunteers will eventually come
forward to take part in this project, and it’s even harder to guess
how many will last the course. It’s difficult to argue against any
initiative designed to improve the support of children and young
families in need. But nonetheless, the same question keeps on
popping up: won’t the volunteers merely be doing what, in an ideal
world, social workers would have the time to do?

Staff selection and management

Good practice guidelines for using volunteers in vulnerable

Recruitment of volunteers

  • Have a clear and consistent recruitment policy.
  • Volunteers should not be recruited as a substitute for paid
  • They should not perform tasks or provide services that are the
    legal responsibility of someone else.
  • They should only be recruited where staff agree to the
    arrangement and welcome them.
  • They should be recruited from a broad cross section of the
  • There should be commitment to recruit volunteers who live
  • Out-of-pocket expenses should be reimbursed.
  • Select volunteers with as much care as you would paid


  • Must start before volunteers have a responsibility to service
  • In-service training should also be considered.
  • A training programme that includes all of the stakeholders
    including volunteers, paid staff and service users is most
  • Offer training and information on important issues such as the
    formal mechanisms for reporting concerns, record keeping, and
    health and safety.


  • Should be formal and recognised with decisions recorded and
    action taken.
  • Disciplinary and grievance procedure
  • Try to resolve problems before formal procedures are needed.
    Volunteers should be given training and guidance to improve their
  • Volunteers with a grievance need to show that they have raised
    the matter before the formal process can be invoked.

Source: Volunteering England

American model

The California Alliance for Prevention is a child abuse
prevention programme that began in 2000. It uses 379 “AmeriCorps
members”, who are recruited from the communities they serve.  

They provide child abuse prevention services via home visits or
family resource centres, which are “one-stop shops” where children
and families can access a range of services.  

The people targeted by the initiative includes families where
there is a teenage mother, substance misuse, or domestic

During its second year there was a 69 per cent reduction in
child abuse and neglect during the programme and a 44 per cent
reduction after the programme had been completed. In addition, more
than $10m (£5.6m)of child welfare services were saved.  

Each home visitor was assigned between 15 and 20 cases. More
than 12,500 home visits were carried out, with 2,176 families being
served. The average time for a home visit was 51 minutes.
Supervision was carried out by social workers. 

Eighty-six per cent of the AmeriCorps members were female and
nearly half were in their 20s; 19 per cent were over the age of

Source: The California Alliance for Prevention: Second Year
, March 2003

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