Chief social worker: ‘Together, we can drive improvements in adult services’

Lyn Romeo has been tasked with leading the reform of adult social work at government level. Here, she sets out her top priorities.

Lyn Romeo
Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults

When the identity of England’s first chief social worker for children services was finally revealed on Friday, it made the national radio, TV and print news. But that was in stark contrast to the announcement two days earlier that Lyn Romeo would take up the equivalent post in relation to adult services, which hardly got a mention.

“Children’s social work gets a much higher profile and coverage,” Romeo acknowledges. “There’s a lot more concern about the complexity and risk involved in child protection work, a lot more anxiety around it.” And that, Romeo says, will be one of her key priorities; to give adult social workers a much higher profile, banging a drum for the value, impact and influence they can have. “I don’t think that’s talked about or lauded enough. I don’t think enough people understand.”

Romeo has a breadth of experience, first as a frontline social worker and then a manager. She started off 35 years ago in generic social work teams, before taking up roles as a residential social worker and approved social worker (since replaced by the role of approved mental health professional). Her first challenge in her new role will be to get the office of the chief social worker up and running within the government. Romeo says she will work closely with her children’s counterpart, Isabelle Trowler. “Both of us need to be on message that there are core professional values, skills and knowledge all social workers need. Beyond that there will be areas of specialism social workers develop through continuing professional development (CPD) and qualifications.”

Driving improvements in the field

She points out that a lot of work has already been done to improve the profession, particularly by the Social Work Reform Board, so her main role will be to support the ongoing implementation of those recommendations. “I think the reform board pretty much summed up what needs to happen around education and CPD and the requirement for employers to provide good supervisory arrangements, time for reflective supervision and practice, less focus on lots of form filling, bureaucracy and paperwork. The role of the chief social worker is to build the relationship between central government and driving those improvements forward in the field.”

She agrees with the College of Social Work that the profession needs to be more explicit about the role social workers have in relation to safeguarding and risk and dealing with capacity, deprivation of liberty, the complexities of loss and grief and the relationships between people who need support and their carers. In 2010, sector leaders produced a statement on the role of social workers in adults’ services, but apparently that did not go far enough for some. Care services minister Norman Lamb recently said the chief social worker for adults services would “develop a clear definition of social work within adults’ services”.

“It should be a good, solid, regulated role, which has standards and accountability, so that people can be assured that they’re being dealt with by professionals that meet certain standards and have certain capabilities, particularly around vulnerabilities in relation to risk, capacity and deprivation of liberty,” says Romeo. “That’s a key area we need to think about, social workers being recognised as the lead professionals in adult social care.”

‘It’s not just about being smart’

When asked whether she’ll contribute to Professor David Croisdale-Appleby’s upcoming review of education for adult social workers, Romeo chuckles and says: “Well, I should hope so.” The review will look at the case for a generic qualifying course and the scope for increased specialisation within the degree. It will also examine the scope and appetite for elite entry routes within adult services. At least two such programmes, Frontline and Step Up to Social Work, are being developed for or already exist in children’s services.

Frontline has been particularly controversial, with many people criticising the proposal to fast track “high flying” graduates into children’s social work. Romeo says she is keeping an open mind about whether such a scheme should be introduced for social work with adults.  “We’ve got to think about all the different options that are available to try and get good people into the profession. It would be useful to look at a proper evaluation of Teach First, because I think it sounds very attractive, but how sustainable is it, how long have those people stayed in the profession? I don’t want to rule it out but I’d want a better evaluation of how well that’s delivered and what people want.”

She adds that social workers need to be able to relate to people, deal with complexity, live with a degree of uncertainty, promote human rights and make sure people are treated with dignity and respect. “That means taking into account their backgrounds, relationships and the needs that may be impacting on their ability to live as well as they can within their communities. It needs highly skilled and refined relationship building and using the professional self to understand and support somebody to make the changes they want. It’s not just about being smart.”

Collective effort

As well as education and training, Romeo says she will look at the role of mental health social workers and revisit the powers of entry debate, following the revelation that the College is going to campaign to have this provision included in the Care Bill.

It is a long to do list – and at a time of squeezed budgets and increasing demand. So how confident is Romeo that she can make a difference? “I’m quite optimistic; we’ve got a really good person in as chief executive of the College of Social Work [Annie Hudson], a strong chair in Jo [Cleary], we’ve got a strong Adass [Association of Directors of Adult Social Services]president this year who’s very committed to social work, Sandie Keene, and we’ve got government commitment now with the offices of the chief social workers. Together we’re going to be able to drive this forward.

“It will be collective effort, with me providing as much leadership and support as I can from the position I have within government. I’ll engage with and listen to social workers at all levels in the field and make sure I’m engaged with the key organisations that have a stake in that, but also, very importantly, people who use services and the carers that support them.”

Romeo will take up the chief social worker role in late summer/autumn.

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