Is reunification of children’s and adults’ social services departments right for families?

Some local authorities are bringing adults' and children's social care back under the watch of a single director. It is not what Eileen Munro envisaged, reports Molly Garboden

Some local authorities are bringing adults’ and children’s social care back under the watch of a single director. It is not what Eileen Munro envisaged, reports Molly Garboden

One of the few prescriptive recommendations Eileen Munro made in the final instalment of her review of child protection was to keep the director of children’s services (DCS) post. Munro emphasised the importance of clear accountability, saying councils should not allocate additional functions to these department heads. This included, she said, combining responsibility for children’s and adults’ services into a single role.

The report said: “The review questions whether such structures would allow sufficient focus and attention to be paid to the most vulnerable children.

“The government should amend the statutory guidance issued in relation to such roles and establish the principle that, given the importance of individuals in senior positions being responsible for children’s services, it should not be considered appropriate to give additional functions (that do not relate to children’s services) to directors of children’s services and lead members for children’s services unless exceptional circumstances arise.”

Risk to safeguarding

Despite this call, after Munro’s report came out in May the Association of Directors of Children’s Services published a survey showing that one-third of local authorities had no DCS or were planning to change the nature of the role.

A major concern about such a shift is that education would be cut adrift from children’s social care because it has little overlap with adults’ services. Teachers are often a key source of referrals and can spot emerging problems better than any other professional but they need support, training and close ties with local social services to do so. This was a key reason behind splitting adults’ and children’s social care after the Victoria Climbié inquiry.

“Education being set aside is a potential risk to safeguarding,” says Nushra Mansuri, a social worker and professional officer for BASW. “When you have one director responsible for both children’s and adults’ services, you need a structure in place with specialist and senior management posts so that nothing critical is lost in the shuffle.”

Assistant director specialists

Hartlepool has taken the single director approach. “Having one director in charge of both areas isn’t about diluting one set of services into another,” says director Nicola Bailey. “To ensure this is the case, we have assistant directors the next level down from my role who are in charge of specialist areas. So there is an assistant director who is responsible specifically for education and all the concerns that lie within that area. We’ve made sure that nothing gets missed.”

Alison Michalska, director for children, family and adult services at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, says having strong staff on whom the single director can count is key to making the structure work. “There’s no way I can be as involved as I could be if I was in charge of children or adults only. You need a huge amount of trust in that second tier of management – it requires real depth in terms of leadership and skills.”

Bailey agrees: “Breadth is definitely one challenge that comes with this set-up. It’s a huge brief to manage and making sure we’ve got fantastic assistant directors is critical.”

Michalska says this increased necessity for highly skilled staff means that councils hoping to save money by implementing the single director structure will be disappointed.

“In theory, having only one director saves money that would go towards a second director’s salary,” she says. “But, to do it right, councils need a stronger and potentially bigger team below that single director, which can lead to more costs cancelling out that initial saving. Councils won’t be finding bucket-loads of cash by taking on this system. If they are, they’re not doing something right.”

Financial benefit

There is one financial benefit, however: namely that budgets across children’s and adults’ services are more flexible and easily shared under one director.

“Historically, there’s a fair bit of tension between adults’ and children’s services, sometimes making it difficult to work together with families,” says Michalska. “In my department, if there’s an argument about funding, I’m only arguing with myself so things are resolved fairly quickly.”

Bailey says it is the same in Hartlepool, where adults’ services funded renovations to a children’s respite unit so that a young man could continue to live there until he turned 21 and receive the best support. In many councils, Bailey adds, he could have fallen between children’s and adults’ services. With just one director making decisions for both areas, she says, the process was seamless.

Councils say there is a major benefit to the new structure (which is in fact replicating an old structure) and that is the ability to work with families in a more holistic way – an approach also strongly endorsed by Munro.

David Archibald, executive director for children and adults at Ealing Council, west London, gives the example of a children’s social worker handling a child protection case where signs are spotted that the parent has mental health problems. Referrals within a single department are quicker and more seamless but without diluting the individual considerations of each department.

“The most vulnerable children tend to have vulnerable parents and having our services closely linked means we’re able to have a broader family focus rather than looking at the child and child protection issues in isolation,” says Bailey. “It’s a much smoother approach – social workers across children’s and adults really do work together much more with this system.”

Working with agencies

Archibald adds: “All our social workers feel part of the same service, which means a lot more effective joint working. A lot of staff training is also shared and crossed over, which really promotes that joined-up effort. Every case is everyone’s responsibility.”

Bailey adds that the single director structure can also enhance working with outside agencies. “With me as a single point of contact for social care, everyone knows that the buck stops in one place,” she says. “This means other agencies are more likely to contact us about their social care concerns because they know where to go, even if they’re not sure what kind of case they’re looking at or who will ultimately be in charge of handling it.”

Michalska says one of the best things about her department’s structure is the way it alters the council’s consideration of social work. “I think it puts a focus on the value of social workers in the council because it means the department is that much bigger and more powerful,” she says. “We’re one strong body rather than two separate ones and that makes us a lot less easy to ignore.”

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