Duty calls

Claire Cameron is a researcher at Thomas Coram Research
Unit, Institute of Education University of London, where she has
been based since 1992 and gained her PhD in 1999. Between 1984 and
1992 she was a residential and then a field social worker in
several local authorities. She has conducted many studies of
children’s and young people’s services, mainly focusing on
workforce issues, gender and care work, and child protection in
early years services.

June Statham is a senior research officer at Thomas
Coram Research Unit.   

More than a dozen opportunities to help Victoria Climbie were
missed by professionals in the months before she died. The Laming
inquiry identified significant weaknesses in the organisation of
initial contact and reception arrangements in the social services
departments that came into contact with her.

In a recent study of referral procedures, the Thomas Coram Research
Unit found that the organisation and practice of referral-taking
varied considerably across English local authorities. The factors
that managers identified as important were the quality of the
individuals taking the initial calls, supported by sufficient
personnel, equipment and training resources. Clear procedures were
particularly important where screening systems operated to ensure
that those receiving calls can distinguish between general
enquiries and concerns about a child’s safety, and understand the
thresholds at which different types of action are required.

The past two years had seen several changes in the organisation of
duty systems, including the development of call centres. In
two-thirds of local authorities, there was a screening service in
place for daytime referrals, while in the others, support staff
simply took messages for social workers. It could be a centralised
social services duty system, where all calls went through the same
number and were directed appropriately. In other arrangements, the
worker had a role in decision-making and onward referral. For
example, in one unitary authority, referral co-ordinators worked
across children and adult services. They acted as a filter to
specialist teams, took all calls, gave advice and information, and
signposted callers on to other agencies. They were described as
“admin people, but with access to training”.

More than half of the managers reported working in a climate where
members of the public and other professionals had unrealistic
expectations of social services. They believed that fears of social
workers taking children away from their families was one reason why
they were sometimes not contacted by the public when there were
concerns about a child’s welfare. One respondent said the role of
social services as a child supporter, not a whistle-blower, should
be better promoted to assure the public that safeguarding children
was everybody’s business.

Another supported the idea of an emergency number equivalent to
999, dedicated to reporting concerns about a child’s welfare. A
common refrain was: “The biggest thing we need is more
clarification about what we areÉ we are not a universal
service.” But promoting social services could mean being inundated
with calls, each requiring detailed assessment from over-stretched

Government guidance says that all referrers should be told how
social services have decided to act or not on their referral, and
the reasons for the decision. But less than a quarter of managers
in our study said that they always provided feedback to callers.
Most said they did this sometimes. But nine respondents, mainly
managers of out-of-hours services, said that they rarely or never
provided feedback because they expected this to be done by the
day-time staff who processed the referrals.

Professionals were more likely to receive feedback than members of
the public, something that other studies have also
found.1 Even those respondents who said their local
authority always provided feedback did so only for referrals from
other agencies. Most of those who occasionally provided feedback
said that concerns about confidentiality meant that they gave only
limited information to members of the public or family members, and
often only if specifically requested.

But there was good practice. In Cambridgeshire, all referrers
received a response within 48 hours, either by letter or telephone.
This included the public as well as professionals, and also applied
to anonymous callers, who were invited to ring back within 48 hours
to find out how their call had been dealt with.

Asked to identify ways in which duty systems and referral-taking
could be improved, managers expressed concern about three main
areas: staffing, organisation and equipment. One manager described
duty teams as “the dying ground of burned-out social workers” and
felt that there was not enough status attached to this area of work
to attract good front-line staff. This was resulting in a move
towards using workers without social work qualifications for
front-desk duties. Problems also arose because newly qualified
staff with little experience of safeguarding work constantly needed
to check enquiries with team managers.

Many expressed a need for more screening staff, and more and better
training to help them distinguish between types of referral and the
appropriate responses. One respondent said that while the system of
having referral and information assistants worked well, team
managers had to have a system of checks on their quality of work. A
recent article in Community Care made a similar point
about the importance of training for staff in call

There were wide-ranging organisational problems, but managers were
not short of ideas about how the situation could be improved. Their
recommendations included: introducing more direct access to social
workers, adopting clearer guidelines on the difference between a
contact and a referral, and addressing problems with other agencies
over sharing information and assessments.

Fast and reliable access to accurate information held about
families and individuals is essential for a duty system. Efficient
computer, telephone and other information-handling equipment is a
key requirement for this.

But for a minority of the managers we interviewed, their
information-handling systems were not working well enough. They
described insufficient capacity on telephones, precarious fax
arrangements, insufficient information on e-mail referrals to make
adequate initial assessment decisions, and antiquated and
unreliable information systems. One manager was particularly
concerned about the inability of directory enquiry services to
provide callers with the right number, and gave worrying examples
of valuable time being lost in emergencies in which a child was at
risk of harm, because callers had been directed to the wrong police
or social services number.

This study highlights initial findings about the operation of duty
systems: what is now needed is a more in-depth study to explore
referral-taking practice in different types of front-desk
arrangements, and how effective they are in safeguarding


This article reports findings from a study of front-line
arrangements in social services for receiving and processing
information to safeguard children. The quality of staff receiving
initial calls from members of the public was critical to the
quality of referral-taking. Duty social workers said professionals
and public alike had unrealistic expectations of what they could
do. Staffing, organisation and equipment could all be improved.

About the research

Getting Help: A Survey of Reception and Initial Contact
Arrangements in Social Services Departments
, June Statham,
Claire Cameron with Elizabeth Jones and Kim Rivers, 2004. Available
at www.dfes.gov.uk/research.
Seventy managers were interviewed for the study, working in 28
local authorities in London, metropolitan boroughs, unitary
authorities and county councils, responsible for daytime and
out-of-hours duty systems.


1 H Cleaver, S Walker, P Meadows,
Assessing Children’s Needs and Circumstances: the Impact of the
Assessment Framework
, Jessica Kingsley, 2004. And J Thoburn, J
Wilding and J Watson, Family Support in Cases of Emotional
Maltreatment and Neglect
, The Stationery Office,

2 N Valios and K Leason “Ring for service”,
Community Care, 12 August, 2004

Further information

– The Department for Education and Skills sent the key findings
of the research to chief executives and directors of social
services in England in July, in local authority social services
letter (2004)7: Research into the Effectiveness of Different Child
Protection Referral and Reception Systems.

Contact the author

The authors welcome contact by e-mail:

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