Developing social work practices for looked-after children

It’s clear that, despite the commitment and skill of social workers, looked-after children are poorly served, writes Cathie Williams. Social workers and children feel undervalued – and the fact that both groups feel this is no coincidence.

Children and young people are clear about what they want from their social workers. This includes: consistency, someone they get on with, someone about whom they have some choice, and someone who is not so stressed that they leave to be replaced by agency staff.*

While social work practices might not provide all the answers, it has to be worth piloting different ways of delivering social work.

Four key themes emerge which sum up what social workers and managers like about the proposed practices.

First, the idea of ownership, particularly co-ownership with trusted colleagues, is a key motivator. Second, the chance to develop social work practice and have the focus and space to do this. Third, most social workers do the job to make a difference, and joining a practice might be a way of achieving this. Finally, social workers can see that it works better for children and young people and for social workers themselves if decision-making is closer to both of them.

And what might a practice look like? Imagine children and young people not going to the council offices, but to a building that is designed for them – perhaps one they have been involved in choosing or fitting out.

Social workers who are interested in developing the pilots have several issues to consider including what you want to achieve with looked-after children and with whom would you work to deliver this? You need to think about how you would develop social work practice, and forge links with providers of training and development and universities.

The support of a number of key players is needed: the local authority and business experts who can help develop a business plan and ensure the practice is financially viable.

Underpinning social work practice pilots will be an outcomes framework. This will be based on the five Every Child Matters outcomes along with a goal of achieving stability and continuity. Part of the payments made to social work practices will depend on achieving these outcomes which will be measured by using local authority performance indicators and by gathering the views of children and young people.

No one knows whether social work practices will be able to make the difference that is needed for children in care. What we do know is that children in care don’t have the sort of life we would want for our own children – not only in their material circumstances but in the care, attention and stability they experience.

It’s time to take a radical look at how we might change this.

Cathie Williams is a freelance consultant working with Impower and the Department for Children, Schools and Families on the preparatory work for social work practice pilots.

* About Social Work, CRD 2007


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