Children’s social workers struggle with high caseloads

Many social workers have to cope with permanent case overload. Amy Taylor reports on the barriers to tackling this long-standing problem

Picture this scenario: it is Monday morning and you come in to find two files have been put on your desk containing two new cases. Your manager is off for the day and there has been no discussion with you before the work has been allocated. You already have more cases than the maximum officially recommended by your council and feel close to burn out. Sound familiar?

This situation reflects the reality facing social workers in a number of adults’ and children’s services departments in England. The issue of high caseloads may not be new -Laming made recommendations to tackle the problem in his inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié in 2003 – but it refuses to go away (see panel, below).

Last March, in his safeguarding progress report, Laming proposed the development of national guidelines setting out maximum caseloads of children-in-need and child protection cases supported by a weighting mechanism to ensure mixed loads. The government has backed the proposal, and the Social Work Task Force is set to come up withguidelines on suitable caseloads inchildren’s and adults’ services in the autumn.

Caseload limits

In some local authorities, caseload limits and guidance already exist. But these vary from area to area and are not always adhered to.

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social services, backs the government’s plans and argues it will give social workers much needed protection. “It’s something that we have been calling forfor a long time,” she says.”There are many local authorities that have some sort of caseload guide and mechanisms but a lot of them just go out of the window when there are staff shortages.

“There needs to be some shared ­understanding about what’s acceptable so staff know that it backs up their own ­judgements.”

Coming up with a maximum limit and weighting system will be difficult. Cases that initially appear straightforwardoftenbecome complex and the system will need to be flexible. There is little research measuring how long frontline social work tasks takeso the taskforce will, for the most part, have to compile its own evidence.

Quota system

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for England at the British Association of Social Workers, says that while excessive caseloads are a serious issue, social work is too complicated for a quota system to work. She sees guidance as more appropriate.

“We should have some principles but we are wary of coming out with a number because that could be quite meaningless,” Mansuri says.

Allocation clarity

In his 2003 report, Laming recommended that, when allocating cases, managers must ensure social workers are clear what has been allocated and what action is required. Yet, more than six years later,in some areas, this is still not happening. Pile says she has heard from many social workers that they are still being given cases with no discussion.

“People are saying cases are either dumped on their desk when they are out orare e-mailed to them. There isn’t even a discussion at the point they are being allocated so they don’t have an opportunity to say ‘I can’t take any more on’ and it’s very difficult, then, to try to get it taken off you,” she says.

Sarah,* a local authority social worker in southern England, says cases are always discussed before allocation in her current team butthis has not been her experience elsewhere. “I have worked in local authorities, particularly doing agency work, where you come in to find a case on your desk and there’s been no discussion,” she says.

Sheer volume

As well as this lack of conversation in some areas, the sheer volume of cases pouring into adults’ and children’s services departments is resulting insome going ­unallocated or being given to already overloaded staff. Mansuri feels a performance indicator on unallocated children’s cases is fuelling the problem for children’s services social workers and can lead to issues of ­inadequate resources being covered up.

“The pressures right now would suggest that team managers are trying to get as many cases allocated as they can because they don’t feel they have a choice,” Mansuri says. “The performance indicator is not helpful because the system is punitive. [Managers] should be able to report [having unallocated cases] to the inspectorate, but they are fearful.”

David,* a manager of a voluntary sector child protection service with years of experience in local authority child protection work, says children’s services managers are under pressure to allocate every case no matter what.

Pressure on managers

“There’s so much pressure on managers that cases have to be allocated if the work comes in, and if it’s not given to a social worker it’s the manager that holds it,” he says.”The pressure now is to allocate come what may so that’s why the thresholds are so high.”

Child protection social worker Ben* is one of many social workers feeling the effects of this pressure. In his career, he has never encountered any caseload management tools.

“I have a certainnumber of Section 47s and I can’t write them up quickly enough. It’s a roundabout and I can’t get off. I never thought that overload could stop the brain functioning, but it does. It’s scary,” he says.

“You get what you are given and in seven years I have never said ‘I can’t do that’. It keeps coming; I keep working.”

Caseload limit

A maximum caseload limit will be meaningless if employers can’t be held accountable. David says it’s essential for limits and guidance to have teeth. He has tried to develop caseload weighting systems three times but on each occasion run into difficulty.”The recommended caseload maximum comes out so small that, higher up, management really don’t want to know,” he says. “Caseload limits and guidance would have to be part of the inspection process.”

Laming’s progress report also recommends that the General Social Care Council’s code of practice for employers be reviewed and made statutory, and this has been backed by the government. Pile and Mansuriargue that it makes sense for the caseload guidance to be linked to the code to ensure it is followed.

But statutory caseload guidance and limits will only be fully effective if the profession has the confidence to use them.”We need to know what is the capacity of the system andpractitioners to take up the work, and if the capacity is not there that needs to be brought out into the open,” says Mansuri. “We are not helping anyone by managing the crisis.”

*Not their real names.

See how an initiative at Hampshire Council is helping child protection social workers manage their caseloads

Caseloads in Haringey

1999 By the end of August 1999, Lisa Arthurworrey had 19 cases, many of which involving child protection. One of these was Victoria Climbié.

Haringey’s guidance at the time stated that the recommended maximum number of cases was 12. Arthurworrey was also working a considerable number of extra hours and, by the end of that year, had notched up 52 days of time off in lieu to take.

2008 The joint area review of Haringey’s children’s services ordered by children’s minister Ed Balls after the death of baby Peter and published last December found “heavy caseloads” remained a significant issue at the council.

Published in the 11 June 2009 issue of Community Care under the heading ‘ Struggling under the weight of cases’

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