Social services departments – adults and children’s: life after the great divide

Breaking up is hard to do. Especially if it is a long-term partnership that, on the whole, has been successful. There is the issue of how things are divided and who moves out, while friends must decide to whom they owe their loyalty.

While these difficulties are true for personal relationships they are just as true for professional pairings, as social services departments have recently discovered.

The split between adults’ and children’s social services has been one of the most significant policy and practice changes to happen in social care in three decades. This structural and legal reorganisation is transforming the way local authority social services are planned, commissioned, financed and delivered to clients.

But what has the impact of this dramatic change been on services and outcomes for service users?

Dividing adults’ and children’s services into two separate directorates was first mooted after Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié (see “The background”, below). The idea was to ensure that all professionals working with children and their families operated from the same department, thereby making it easier to pool budgets so services could be funded more creatively and to conduct joint assessments instead of working in isolation.

But despite such laudable intentions, many in the sector had serious concerns about the consequences of such a move. The main worry was that children’s social workers could become more distanced from issues that affect parents, such as parental disability or mental ill-health, while social workers dealing with adults would lack input on issues relating to children and child protection.

Jill Baker admits she had her doubts. She has been director of children’s services at Salford Council since September 2005, and was the authority’s director of education and leisure for three years before that.

“I’m a converted sceptic,” she says. “I was worried about the weight of the responsibility and the whole agenda to be delivered. I still have concerns about the size of the task, but I’m convinced now this is the right way to go.”

Baker and her adults’ services counterpart, Anne Williams, began working on plans to divide Salford’s social services department in September 2004 and took on the roles of directors designate the following month. Doing this, Baker says, enabled them to work out how the two directorates would operate, what staff and services were needed and how they would continue to meet clients’ needs. The pair hosted meetings jointly and co-chaired the change management group, emphasising that “there won’t be any rivalry” between the two new departments.

This approach means social workers in each directorate still know what is happening with their ­counterparts, so any problems involving a whole family are dealt with, Baker says.

“We managed it because we had a year to plan and had good working relationships across both directorates going back years. Anne and I said whatever happened we were not going to fall out about it and we’d be open about our budgets and everything.”

Another area of concern was the potential for duplication of work, including multiple assessments, and a lack of co-ordination between adults’ and children’s departments.

Williams says this has not been Salford’s experience. She has made sure that social workers in her department know what their children’s counterparts are doing and vice-versa, and feel able to highlight any concerns about a client that do not fall within their remit, such as a child protection issue.

Williams, who is also president of the newly formed Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, says the group is working closely with the new Association of Directors of Children’s Services to address issues that span the different directorates. She says both bodies have made a commitment at national level to promote the message that working together can be beneficial.

ADCS joint president and Hampshire Council’s director of children’s services John Coughlan is equally enthusiastic about how well the division of adults’ and children’s services is going overall. He says: “It’s a credit to councils, staff, managers and local politicians that the split has been achieved with minimal pain and maximum effect for the outcome of service users.”

Coughlan is adamant that, since the split in Hampshire in August 2005, things have improved: “I’m not putting a gloss on it – we have far better services now,” he says.

Hampshire’s deputy director of adults’ services, John Clifton, says the authority is working hard to ensure clients do not slip through the gap – a major fear across the sector early on. Protocols are in place at the authority so that if a child’s parent has mental health problems then the child’s social worker is informed as well as the social worker dealing with the parent.

Initially, social workers did have concerns about where they would be working and who it would be for, Clifton admits. He says the greatest cultural change was experienced by those in children’s services as it merged with education, whereas adult social workers had often already worked quite closely with their health counterparts in the county’s primary care trusts.

According to Clifton, a major ­benefit is that vulnerable adults’ needs are clearer in the wider social care context now. “Previously child protection issues were at the forefront, but now adult protection issues are too because we have a department dedicated to it.”

But, despite all this, some sceptics of the new approach remain. Ray Jones, former director of social services at Wiltshire Council and former chair of the British Association of Social Workers, says one ­danger in having separate children’s and adults’ services is the risk of children not being seen in the context of what is happening to their families, despite local authorities’ best intentions.

“There are several hurdles, and departments have to make sure they communicate and do joint-working across adults’ and children’s services,” Jones warns.

He says his interactions with local authorities around the country have revealed a level of ignorance among staff about what their counterparts in adults’ or children’s services do. “Staff don’t even know each other and don’t have the means of staying in touch with each other.”

Jones believes that local authorities need to take positive action to mitigate any ­negative effects and consequences of dividing services. He stresses the importance of generic social work training as a good starting point.

“We need to push hard on social work training to remain generic across children and adults so all social workers have a general understanding of both client groups, which can be added to with specialist training post qualifying.”

Williams backs Jones on this, calling for social workers to continue to train together before they go on to specialise in a particular field. She also advocates that new directors communicate openly with frontline staff as the process of dividing departments takes place, and work to address any concerns.

Although breaking up may be difficult, in the case of adults’ and children’s services many in the sector are genuinely starting to believe that the new approach can and will help improve outcomes for clients.


The decision to split children’s services from adults’ services was announced in October 2002 by the then health secretary Alan Milburn, just before Lord Laming delivered his report into the case of Victoria Climbié.

Speaking in Cardiff to the annual social services conference for England and Wales, Milburn said fragmented decision-making was not “delivering the best” for anyone and it was time to develop more specialised local
organisations that pooled local knowledge, skills and resources in education, health and social services for children.

He told delegates he intended to create “specialist children’s trusts to jointly plan, commission, finance and – where it makes sense – deliver children’s services”.

The first council children’s services departments – overseen by newly appointed children’s directors – took effect from June 2003, with some councils creating adult directorates at the same time. The DCSF deadline for implementing the split is January 2008.

Contact the author

Anabel Unity Sale

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This article appeared in the 11 October issue under the headline “Finding the crossing points”

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