Directors urged to invest in social work to improve adult safeguarding

Advice note for directors raises concerns about practitioners' legal knowledge on and whether insufficient training resource has gone into developing social work skills.

Adults’ services directors must invest in social work to ensure better outcomes for people experiencing abuse or neglect, says guidance published by council chiefs.

The social work skills of assessment, analysis and managing and mitigating negative risks were crucial to ensuring the adult safeguarding system improved lives, said the advice note for directors from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and Local Government Association.

However, it also said that, while councils had invested significantly in training, most of this had gone into basic awareness raising or training in policies and procedures, at the expense of improving more specialist social work skills, said the guidance written by Adass’s joint safeguarding lead, Mike Briggs.

Care management, not social work

Briggs told Community Care that a “care management approach” to safeguarding, focused on processes and meeting abuse victims’ needs through increased services or monitoring, had grown in recent years at the expense of a social work approach. However, he said that it was only through good social work that outcomes could be improved for people.

“The fundamental principle of social work is empowering people and that’s the outcome we are looking for when working with people who have been vulnerable or abused,” he said. “What we are saying is ‘don’t let process take over, put the emphasis on outcomes for people and put the social work back into safeguarding’.”

He said councils and adult safeguarding boards should conduct a skills audit and work out where training gaps lay, if they had not already done so.

Legal knowledge gap

But he said practitioners’ legal knowledge was an area for improvement, saying councils and their partners were failing to make full use of existing legal powers in safeguarding cases.

The recommendation comes with the government considering whether to introduce a new power, allowing social workers, with court authorisation, to enter homes where abuse is suspected but a third party is barring entry. Briggs said the case for such a power was finely balanced given the underuse of existing powers.

“We have found that many of these [powers] are underused and practitioners are not as aware of them as they ought to be,” said the guidance. “Directors should therefore make sure your staff are legally literate, that is they know what these powers are and how to use them in the best interest of the person at risk of harm.”

The guidance also said social workers needed to have legal advice available when they needed it. Briggs said his recommendations need not cost councils significantly as there were a lot of resources already available to help them improve safeguarding practice (see below).

Managing rise in safeguarding alerts

The note also addressed concerns that rising numbers of safeguarding alerts and referrals were loading significant workload pressures on to professionals at a time of shrinking resources. The number of safeguarding alerts received by councils rose by 24% on a like-for-like basis from 2010-11 to 2011-12, according to data published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

The advice note said that analysis of alerts showed that many could have been dealt with through alternative routes, such as disciplinary action against staff, complaints or contract management of providers by councils. 

Briggs said the rise in alerts reflected the good work councils and safeguarding boards had done to raise awareness of adult abuse. But he warned: “With limited resources you’ve got to prioritise. There are areas who have got good systems to sift out those alerts that are not going to become [adult safeguarding] referrals and those that are going to need to be investigated right away.”

Forthcoming legislation

The guidance is designed to help shape adult safeguarding services between now and the implementation of safeguarding legislation, in 2015 or 2016, under the forthcoming Care and Support Bill, which is currently in draft form.

Briggs said that councils continued to see adult safeguarding as a top priority and were maintaining investment in it, in part because of the publication of the draft bill and the impact of recent scandals such as Winterbourne View.

Good practice resources highlighted in guidance

Safeguarding adults at risk of harm: a legal guide for practitioners, Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2011

National competence framework for safeguarding adults, Bournemouth University, Learn to Care, Skills for Care and Scie, 2010

North East safeguarding threshold guidance, North East Adass region, 2011

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Practice issues in adult safeguarding at a time of cuts

Five years on from Steven Hoskin has safeguarding improved?

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