Money is a rare commodity in local authorities today, so you can imagine the elation when Hertfordshire council’s children’s services discovered they would be reaping the benefits of the Department for Education’s innovation fund.
Hertfordshire, in fact, were the biggest beneficiaries of the fund. Their bid for a ‘large scale system change’ and brand new approach to social work practice in the council was this week endorsed to the tune of £4.86m.
This money, says director of family safeguarding Sue Williams, will be used to upscale their child protection teams into newly designed ‘locality family safeguarding teams’, which will place more emphasis on helping the parents of children on protection plans as well as the children themselves. “I don’t think this has ever been done before,” Williams says.
Family safeguarding teams
The teams will include children’s social workers, as well as adult, mental health and domestic abuse specialists. This will allow adult specialists to work intensively with parents, all in the same team, while working on shared caseloads, Williams explains. “That will help free up the child’s social worker so they can do intensive work with the child and with their school,” she says.
The council also plans to develop and pilot an electronic workbook for cases. This will be built into their integrated children’s system for workers to access remotely and update cases. Ideally, this will free social workers from much of the bureaucracy they contend with, reducing caseloads, producing higher quality work and allowing practitioners to spend more time on direct work.
“There’ll be a summary recording of what’s happened over a week, rather than a day, and it will emphasise the tasks we try to work on with the family over a week, what the outcomes of those are and what there currently is from each of the professionals in the team working with that family,” Williams explains.
“We hope that will be accepted as the report for case conferences and reviews so social workers and colleagues don’t have to write everything out again for a report or a meeting – it will already be there.”
Social work staff will also receive training in motivational interviewing, a technique rooted in clinical psychology. The ambition is for the training to change the way that family contact is phrased and communicated.
“Our child protection system is very adversarial and that just encourages families not to tell us the truth,” Williams says. “Families think if they tell us the truth we will take their children away, so before we get anywhere near that point we need to gain their confidence [so they] understand we are here to help them have better health and a better family life,” she adds.
The money will fund 26 of these family safeguarding teams, which the council expects will reduce to 21 over the next 15 months due to falling case numbers following the envisaged success of this approach.
The three office areas in which Hertfordshire council operates will all have access to a clinical psychologist for support on complex cases, while there will be regular team supervision and individual supervision for professionals in these teams.
This is a “really exciting prospect” for professionals, Williams says. “To be able to share the responsibility, learn from each other and extend professional skills, we’re hoping we will attract a lot of new interest and do something remarkable and something different. We we don’t want to monitor children’s lives – we want to change them for the better.”