Is social care now too clever?

I was recently called by the mother of a child I know well. She was
asking me to come to a family case conference. She read me the
letter. No fewer than nine professionals were expected to attend so
I asked why she needed me there as well. “Because,” she said, “I
want someone who is on my side.”

I thought it was sad. There was no reason to suppose that any one
of the nine professionals were working towards anything other than
the best interests of the family. That, however, was clearly not
the way it felt.

Very sad, but perhaps inevitable. How could any harassed parent
maintain relationships with nine professionals? You would need a
diary secretary just to manage the appointments. Perhaps you could
only make it work by meeting very rarely – so rarely in fact that
there was no real relationship, trust or confidence.

Perhaps too many were doing too little too infrequently when all
the family needed was a friend. Someone with unconditional time or
at the very least several hours a week. Someone who could see the
full picture, who could support reliably and consistently, who was
demonstrably on their side.

I wonder whether social care has become too clever and too
complicated. Suppose we reinvent the whole business. Perhaps we
could create a new profession. Community partners could be well
trained local people who work with just a few families. The
partners would be the only interface and they would be well paid
for a responsible job. Ultimately, however, the service would be no
more expensive than lots of people working with lots of families in
a superficial way.

We would have to break down the boundaries between social services,
housing, health, education, probation, the voluntary and statutory
sectors. There would still be specialisms but when the system
results in the kind of absurdity that my friend experienced, it is
time to think about doing it differently.

This is exactly what we should be trying if we are serious about
community care, innovation, neighbourhood renewal, joined-up
government, community empowerment and all the other fashionable
phrases that regularly appear but are still remote from the real
world of my troubled friend and her small child.

David Robinson is senior adviser at Community

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