How early information sharing can help social workers manage the rising tide of safeguarding alerts

Safeguarding investigations in one county are becoming more focused thanks to the establishment of a multi-agency safeguarding hub

Nottinghamshire Mash social workers Claire Hodgetts and Jim Hanson (Credit: UNP/Neil O'Connor)

Adult safeguarding alerts are rising year-on-year putting ever greater pressure on the social work teams charged with looking into them. While the number of referrals requiring investigation is also rising, many alerts do not involve likely abuse or neglect for a vulnerable adult, but other types of need or situation.

Sifting the latter from the former can divert valuable social work resource away from investigating abuse or neglect. At the same time, social workers can often find themselves investigating safeguarding referrals with limited information on levels of risk – despite valuable intelligence on this often being available from other professionals and partner agencies.

In Nottinghamshire, a solution has been in place to address both of these problems since January in the shape of the county’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (Mash).

The Mash takes all incoming reports of adult safeguarding – and children’s social care – concerns during standard working hours – mainly from professionals, but also from the public. Reports from the public come mainly by telephone, but also through email, fax or letter. At that point, two processes kick in, one of risk assessment and triage by social workers, and a second, where required, of information sharing with key partner agencies. Crucially, professionals from those agencies – including police, health, and probation – work alongside social care colleagues at the Mash’s offices. This means they are available to social workers for informal consultations on cases, as well as able to draw on their agencies’ information systems and fellow professionals for valuable intelligence.

As a result, community social care teams should only receive safeguarding referrals worthy of investigation, and with as much relevant information as possible.

While it remains early in the lifespan of the Mash, the impact on community teams’ work is evident from the number of referrals they have received this year. From 28 January, when the Mash started work on adult safeguarding, to 15 November, it received 7,889 reports of adult safeguarding concerns, of which 1,625 were sent to operational teams as a safeguarding referral. Previously, when adult safeguarding alerts were largely picked up by Nottinghamshire Council’s customer contact centre many more would have ended up on operational teams’ desks.

Previously social workers would have been straggling around to get basic information but now they have all this information from our partners” Claire Bearder, group manager, safeguarding adults

“All the cases that wouldn’t have made it through to a strategy meeting are not being passed on and stay within the Mash,” says Mash approved social work practitioner Jim Hanson.

Safeguarding investigations have become more focused as a result of the Mash process. “Previously, social workers would have been straggling around to get basic information but now they have all this information from partners,” says Claire Bearder, the council’s group manager, safeguarding adults. “The real difference between the Mash and previous referral systems is that we ask our partners. We say: ‘This is the safeguarding concern that we have, this is the information we have, do you have any knowledge about this adult that we can use?’.”

How the Mash works

The Mash is based on a single open-plan floor of a council office on an industrial estate in Annesley, outside Nottingham, one floor below the authority’s customer contact centre. It houses 111 staff, who work on a full-time, part-time or rotating basis, equivalent to 75 whole-time posts. While most are from the council or the police, there is significant representation from health, as well as an education, early years, probation and, since September, a trading standards presence.

Donna Laverty, senior Mash officer (Credit: UNP/Neil O'Connor)

Donna Laverty, senior Mash officer (Credit: UNP/Neil O’Connor)

Practitioners contacting the Mash do not deal with social workers but with Mash officers – non-professionally qualified staff from a range of backgrounds, including social care and contact centre work. All have received a month’s induction training in safeguarding. Their role is to take down details, according to a standard script, and feed the information on to the council’s electronic care management system.

Three of the 13 Mash officers are specialists in adult safeguarding, though all take both children’s and adults’ cases. Their work is co-ordinated by senior Mash officers, whose role also includes ensuring that there are enough people on the phones to deal with incoming calls, and to initially prioritise cases in order of severity.

They are then passed on to an adult social work team  – consisting of a manager, three advanced social work practitioners (ASWPs) and a social worker – for triage. Using their professional judgement, existing information on the care management system and informal discussions with partner professionals within the Mash or the referrer themselves, they risk assess each of the 50-70 adult safeguarding alerts that come in each day. There are four possible outcomes:-

  • the report definitely does not meet safeguarding thresholds, in which case signposting information is provided to the referrer;
  • the case does not meet safeguarding thresholds but information sharing with partners would be useful (green case);
  • it is not clear whether it is a safeguarding case and more information is needed from partners to determine this (amber case);
  • it is definitely safeguarding (red case).

Green, amber and red cases are then passed to staff from relevant partner agencies in the Mash, so that they can seek further information from their agencies’ computer systems or from colleagues outside the hub. Information must be returned back to the Mash within four hours for red cases, a day for amber cases and three days for green cases. In red cases, the hub’s adult social work practitioners will often pass the case straight to community teams for investigation, with the additional information from partners supplementing the initial referral and providing valuable intelligence.

“If I’m clear that someone is at immediate risk of harm I will make an immediate decision and short-circuit the Mash process,” says Hanson. In other cases, when all information is returned, the adult social work team decide whether these should be referred for a safeguarding investigation. All partners in the Mash are signed up to rules on information sharing. Non-sensitive information can be shared with community teams carrying out safeguarding investigations; however, sensitive information that would be useful must be kept within the Mash and not passed on without the data owner’s permission.

Cultural change

Sixty four per cent of local areas in England had an arrangement for multi-agency information sharing in safeguarding, found a survey for the Home Office earlier this year. But these arrangements vary in terms of the level of co-location of staff from different agencies, the range of agencies involved and the level of information sharing. Nottinghamshire is one of few areas to have a Mash that covers children’s social care and adult safeguarding enquiries.

Group adult safeguarding manager Claire Bearder and Mash operations manager Simon Holmes (UNP/Neil O'Connor)

Group adult safeguarding manager Claire Bearder and Mash operations manager Simon Holmes (UNP/Neil O’Connor)

“I’d be quite confident in saying that the Nottinghamshire Mash is the most rolled out across all the areas,” says Mash operations manager Simon Holmes, who oversees the running of the hub and formerly managed England’s first Mash, in Devon.

It is relatively early days in the life of the Mash, which launched last December for children’s social care, a month before its start for adult safeguarding, following a year of prior development work. But positive effects are being felt by the staff working there. Through working alongside each other, they have learnt much about each other’s ways of working, legal powers, thresholds for action and how they can help each other.

“The Mash means we are getting to see cases that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen,” says trading standards officer Sharon May, who says vulnerable adults are often at particular risk of the scams and rogue traders that her service investigates. “Also, we often visit vulnerable people who have not been in contact with services and previously we used to say, ‘this person needs help, what do we do?’. Now we can pick up the phone to Mash and say, ‘we are faced with A, B and C, can we refer this to you?”.

Sgt Colette Phillips, of Nottinghamshire Police, adds: “We get a lot of notifications from divisional officers that are about vulnerable adults in need of services, not safeguarding. Prior to the establishment of the Mash, officers would not have known where to go.”

She also welcomes the links with trading standards, who are often able to take action in cases where the police lack sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges.

Bearder says that while there were formal information sharing processes prior to the establishment of the Mash, having staff working alongside each other makes these much more effective. The Mash staff also provide an example to other professionals.

“We model how to work together for our colleagues in the community,” says specialist health practitioner Margaret Cheetham. “People need to pick up this way of working on the outside.”

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