Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship Award winner Corina Modderman took a break from social work in Wales to study the effects of a shake-up of child protection services in her native Netherlands. Jon Hanlon reports
Think of the Netherlands, and the images that spring to mind are no doubt resonant of the country’s famous liberalism – royal dignitaries on bicycles, and relaxed drug laws. In the world of social care too, social workers have altogether more freedom in their professional lives than their counterparts in the UK.
Corina Modderman has recently returned from a working trip to the Netherlands after successfully applying for the annual Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship. Since moving to the UK three years ago from the Netherlands she has been working as a senior practitioner for Conwy Council in north Wales. She left her homeland just as major changes in the social work system were about to be implemented.
“There had been a couple of major inquiries, similar to the Victoria Climbié case in the UK, involving the deaths of two children,” she explains. “In one of the cases, the social worker involved was charged in a criminal court. She was not convicted although they said she had neglected her duty. This was very shocking for social workers in the Netherlands.”
She adds: “When I left, the government had decided to re-shape the structure of social services and a new working methodology was introduced, with pilots in four youth care offices in 2005. I was interested in applying for the fellowship so I could go back and see what kind of effect it had.”
Modderman spent a week working in a children’s social work team in Gouda where she witnessed the impact of change.
“I met several families during my time there, did some planning with the social workers and parents, and met some youngsters. People were very open.
“I also spent a day with a team in training. Social workers talked to me about how they experienced the new system. They were positive about all the changes, but still felt they couldn’t reduce caseloads as much as they would like to.”
Nevertheless, recent reforms seem to be making positive in-roads, including increased funding, improved training, better client engagement and a more proactive approach to dealing with potential risk.
Modderman explains: “Following those two cases, the Dutch government made a conscious decision to improve services and minimise the risks to children. They put a lot of money into it. Now residential placements in the Netherlands are well funded. They have high quality therapy and care.”
All social workers need to be qualified under a new training scheme, called Managing Change. In some respects, the Netherlands is behind the UK in terms of co-ordinated social care services, but she finds much to admire in the day-to-day nature of the job.
“Social workers in Holland are a lot more free. They work more independently – in small teams of four or five social workers, with a psychologist as team leader.”
Modderman praises the proactive working style in Holland. “In the UK, we wait a long time before we intervene. In the Netherlands, things are more straightforward in some ways because people are more willing to speak their minds.”
She adds: “I also found that social workers engage more with clients. There’s an emphasis on building on strengths of the family and outcome-based planning. This gives you tangible evidence of what has changed when cases are reviewed in court.”
Here lies a crucial difference between the two countries, claims Modderman, with Dutch social workers playing a far more authoritative role in the decision to place a child in care. “These court orders are made for a year at a time in the Netherlands. So social workers only have to go to court once a year, when there is a review. Their views and expertise are taken very seriously in court, which I found impressive.”
However, many practitioners remain unhappy about the caseload they have to deal with, she says. “Each social worker only has a maximum of 16 cases to deal with – equivalent to child protection register cases in the UK. But many still struggle with the workload,” she says.
“Also there is a strong emphasis on outcome-based planning in the Netherlands, which is a good thing because it provides more time to reflect on the best strategies of helping a child. However, it is a predominantly verbal process, and practitioners find this can present problems when dealing with members of the increasing Moroccan and Turkish immigrant population.”
While much positive change has been generated from the deaths of two children, Modderman believes there is still more to be done.
“They could certainly learn from the multi-agency approach in the UK and work much more closely with other agencies such as the police, schools and health services. I like the freedom and proactive approach that individual social workers have in the Netherlands, but when it comes to ensuring the best outcome for the child, sometimes there is no substitute for consulting and sharing expertise with other partners.”
About the fellowships
The IS Travel Fellowships are bursaries which enable social workers to travel abroad and examine good practice, with the aim for the experience to inform their own practice in the UK. The fellowships commemorate the life of Isabel Schwarz, a social worker in Bexley, Kent, killed by a mental health client in 1984.
This article appeared in the 17 April issue under the headline “Dutch have courage to change”