Watch: Clips from undercover investigation into Birmingham children’s services

Dispatches programme to raise concerns over special guardianship orders, high social worker caseloads and lack of supervision for staff

Screenshot from the Dispatches investigation.

Details of the findings from an undercover investigation into Birmingham children’s services have emerged.

The investigation, by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, sent an experienced social worker into the council’s children’s services undercover. According to programme-makers, the social worker found a “troubling picture of chaos” and overstretched social workers “struggling to cope”.

The programme will air tomorrow night at 10pm. Ahead of the screening, Dispatches revealed findings from its investigation. Channel 4 said these included:

  • Some social workers failing to cope with high caseloads, and others not receiving appropriate supervision, while some announce intentions to quit.
  • Concerns that serious cases where children could be at risk of sexual or physical abuse were not being handled properly.
  • A junior social worker resigning after being “rushed to complete a special guardianship order” and being forced to “beg” for help from managers.
  • Children’s services “descending into chaos as a reorganisation takes place”.
  • A “ridiculous” scenario where social workers had to phone police in the same room to discuss cases, because they haven’t got the required security clearance.

Yesterday Birmingham council announced its decision to move children’s services out of local authority control and into an independent trust. A leaked email revealed the Dispatches findings led to that decision being brought forward by some months and there have been claims the council was pressured to act by the government.

Dispatches said the undercover social worker, referred to as Vicky, heard stories about the size of caseloads, and recorded concerns about trying to get a child protection investigation authorised.

Concerns about how social workers manage special guardianship orders will also be raised in the programme. In the documentary, a junior social worker tells Vicky how he wrote a special guardianship assessment in “3 to 4 weeks” and how he was “begging managers” to come to court to support him.

Responding to the Dispatches findings, a Birmingham council spokesperson said: “We recognise the historic and well-publicised failings of Birmingham’s children’s services and we are committed to improving the quality of social work practice. We still have a long way to go, but we consider that services are significantly better organized and more focused.

“Part of our improvement plan involved establishing more assessment teams and those teams are much more settled and stable now. Social worker morale has increased in the last year leading to a decrease in staff turnover.”

Yesterday a spokesperson for the council said shifting services into an independent trust would help and it was “time to consider a model that has social workers at its centre”.

Community Care is keen to hear practitioners’ views on the Dispatches programme. Email us here. 

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22 Responses to Watch: Clips from undercover investigation into Birmingham children’s services

  1. LongtimeSW May 25, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Just seen the two video clips . . . . without seeing how managers ‘perform’ (how I hate that word as if we are seals in a circus – but there again . . . ), I don’t think there is a frontline SW who doesn’t know of, or hasn’t experienced, the impact of high caseloads, increasing demands and expectations, long (unpaid!) hours while trying to be decent human beings – folks, let it all wash over you bercause it ain’t goin’ to change anytime soon – would have been interesting to hear service user views, especially the success stories (however that’s measured), though that’s not news is it?

    • Another long time social worker (with integrity) May 25, 2016 at 11:05 pm #

      I hope I won’t be the only one to raise eyebrows to the ceiling at a social worker stooping so low (actually, committing fraud) by “going undercover” in an already beleaguered social services department. What happened to social work values of integrity, honesty and transparency? What happened to respect for this social worker’s colleagues and most of all the children and families she was, as far as they were concerned, genuinely working alongside and with? Shame on her. And hardly ground breaking stuff – it isn’t as if Birmingham was pretending to have turned things round so this hardly qualifies as whistle blowing. Merely prurient, cheap voyeurism that is going to make the lives of Birmingham social workers a lot more difficult. Well done “Vicky”, another knife in the back for social work but I expect you’ve done quite nicely out of it.

      • Maggie May 26, 2016 at 10:38 am #

        The Children in Care Council has taken the programme makers to task (running on Twitter.) No permissions sought, no consultations, undercover as if they are a population that can only be tackled by covert means. They are clearly angry. And rightly so. There has to be a way of separating out the need for us to grapple with hard issues when services are struggling, and degrading, betraying and shaming the profession, the LA, the children concerned (as they see it, and frankly I think they are absolutely spot on!) and the issues everybody is trying to deal with. I won’t be watching.

      • Sammi Morgans May 27, 2016 at 9:57 am #

        Your anger is unjustified and in light of the situation I feel is bang out of order !

      • Sammi Morgans May 27, 2016 at 10:14 am #

        What is wrong with some people? As social workers (for those complaining here that is) you are acutely aware of how CYP services are run, Yes!

        However, this program is for the public to view, those who do not know how social workers are hard hit by the emotional trauma of seeing children live their lives full of neglect and abuse and how the many case loads that fall on a social workers back is such that they are left with having to deal with immense pressure on their own, then reprimanded for making mistakes that could have been avoided if they had the support they were promised would be with them in throughout their profession. Things are that bad they cant even keep a manager in this particular LA !

        This ‘Vicky’ went in to show the general public exactly what you endure on a daily basis. If you don’t have have problems at work then thank your lucky stars as that is not the norm and we know it.

        Don’t slam her down, just put yourself in her shoes and see why she did it – It must have been extremely difficult for her but at least she has tried to help put right the general consensus of the public that social workers moan for the sake of moaning and get paid well for the hours they do and take children from homes unnecessarily by showing that this is clearly not true. You should be thanking her for putting her career on the line not moaning for the sake of moaning !

    • Barbara opie May 26, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

      I have read the about article along with the comments, and i sincerely hope that things do change. As a social work student about to commence my final year (and a mature student at that) it worries that those social workers who have the very experience i know are going to be vital in my early years of practice are very much de moralised. As a new social worker (to be) I come to frontline practice, bright and shinny believing I can make a difference, but it seems in reality that I too will become disillusioned. I truly hope there never comes a time where i feel that nothing is going to change, I believe that Social Work is a profession to be proud of.

      My son is Autistic and I can say that we have in the past had social workers who were very poor, almost textbook in nature and others who truly embodied everything that social work really is and to her (her name was Lynne) I am truly grateful, it was her who made me realise that i to could support another family like my own.

      As a student social worker i am proud to call myself that and will be even more proud the day i graduate. I feel that we need to stand firm and to proud of all the amazing work we do and the families we help to stay together.

  2. Old School May 25, 2016 at 5:12 pm #

    Interesting, I have now found a new alternative to real Social Work by offering my services as an ‘Undercover Social Worker’ like Vicky. Presumably I would just contact Channel 4, the BBC or other media organisations with my extensive resume and then just be like a ‘spy’ in the organisation I work for or sign on as an agency worker.
    I could earn what £30 – £40 per hour as an agency worker and my fee for being a ‘spy’. Who needs the HCPC, whistle blowing procedures and those other things we used to believe in……values. Trial by media works every time before the programme is even aired we have the council putting up its hands and giving way to an ‘independent trust’. Watch out all of you out there… pin badge is really a camera!!

  3. ian kemp May 25, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

    I am afraid it all reflects my experience over the last 15 years particularly. Local authority social work as been failing for years .. How often do we hear lessons will learned ? There are no social work departments any more. There area range of operatives stuck with computer’s in huge impersonal offices with hot desks . It is utter nonsense I stated my social work career 43 years ago in Birmingham . It was a great place a great supportive department .
    One face up to the fact that local authority manageralism has failed social work so much so that it has no status and is at mercy of what ever the media throws at it .. Social worker are a bunch of individuals Many are very good.. There is no professional ethos. There is no voice speaking for social work .
    May be letting a agency run it independent of local authority might be a start. But in reality the whole service needs route and branch reform and be set up independent of local authority separately funded . The creation of a proper social work department which includes everything to do with care with expertise and professional support and training for all staff . Do I think that is possible . ? Not in my life time .. There will be more mistakes errors a hostile media looking for scapegoats. Many highly paid managers in local authority will continue to say lessons will be learnt. Most will have not near a case load for years . They are out of the firing line . The individual social worker will be blamed as usual . Serious case reviews by people who have never for years worked as basic social workers will.; chair these reviews indeed many will not even be social workers . The same circus will repeated time and again . I am not really clear what Ofsted is supposed to do and who the are. They constantly fail to identify what is really going on .. So the same cumbersome system continues on regardless. Lessons will be learnt …. It s Laughable if it was not so sad .
    A Disillusioned former social worker former social worker .

    • TotallyConfused May 26, 2016 at 5:03 pm #


      I am no fan of social workers and in particular Birmingham. But I must say, I found your comment enlightened and inspiring. (Yes, really) You summarised so much in so few words.
      Enjoy your retirement Sir!

    • Annette May 27, 2016 at 9:28 am #

      I totally agree…

  4. Jack May 25, 2016 at 7:55 pm #

    Worked for Birmingham for a very brief period last year, left due to travel. As outsider and therefore perhaps more objective found social workers and managers to be friendly, helpful supportive and committed however found layers of bureaucracy, many different and fragmented systems, centralisation in open plan busy offices. thought much too large and needed breaking up into four areas and teams should be smaller hubs and based in communities. Same problems as every where but on a larger scale with more concentration of poverty and diverse and transient new communities. Like to see how the third or private sector would cope. Suspect non would be up for the challenge!

  5. Lynda Newman May 25, 2016 at 8:51 pm #

    The computer programmes for recording SW assessments are not fit for purpose. How many professions expect their workers to write a book on every family they are involved with? Repetitive recording systems and inadequate tools only serve to frustrate SWs. There is no time in the working day left to do SW where it matters (with children and families). There is too much pressure to meet targets set by government. All SWs deserve the respect of being listened to. I took the easy route like many other SWs and got out because there is no support only criticism. No one asks why so many SWS failed to re-register?

    • Annette May 27, 2016 at 9:35 am #

      The same goes for adult social services… I’ve been a social worker for 10 years and I give myself another 2 years maximum and I’m out. Too much paperwork, resources are poor, new referrals increasing, I could go on… It’s a shame because I actually love my job.

  6. carolyne scriven May 26, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    Its about time the truth about hat social services has become is revealed to the public…its all agency…all set up…against genuinely helping families and offering prevention and support and been turned into a money making scam! Logically no social worker should ever have more than 15 a 37 hour week……its basic maths…no one get supervision…managers are operating at 400 cases..the paper work is ridiculous…and no one can use their common sense or initiative any more!…Never mind the corrupt…psychologists….solicitors and barrister all in it for the money and the Judges do not give families a fair honest hearing! Its not balanced its corrupt…and thats before you start on the Fostering of children!!! The general public should be up in arms…NEVER EVER CALL SOCIAL SERVICES..youll never get out the system…its a trap…a con …and a true disgrace as an industry..its lost its purpose…oral compass and integrity as a profession! Truth needs to be exposed! ( ex social worker)

    • Hmmm... May 27, 2016 at 6:55 am #

      You are an ex social worker? And you have evidence of corruption of so many professionals? Can you elaborate because your post sounds like the usual rants that a certain group usually say so it’s interesting IF these words are coming from an ex social worker…

  7. jules May 26, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    As a social worker with over 15 years experience of both child protection and fostering, both local authority and independent i cab see this has always been the situation since I qualified and instill love my job. For me the problem wont change until there is more funding available for services and more social workers to have fewer case loads and therefore more able to do a better job. We need more social workers- simple.

  8. shabby girl May 26, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    I suspect they will throw money at it to make it succeed.

  9. IAN kEMP May 26, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    I agree with all the above .I worked in Birmingham 43 years a go as graduate social worker. Found it a great place to work . We had 14 areas each with a manager. There was two divisional managers south and north who we hardly ever saw A director and assistant director. There was a very strong union who kept the bureaucracy under some sort of control and gave strong support to social workers . We did everything . ran groups and so on . This was before the advent of Thatcher and what is now called neoliberalism . The purchaser provider split and the ever increasing bureaucracy.
    Since the mid eighties local Gov bureaucracy has gradually squeezed the life out of social work. There are no social work departments. Just large at times very impersonal offices with desks full of computers. Social workers rarely have a desk or a phone . It is so deskilling and demoralising .
    Senior managers spend their time managing this huge bureaucracy . Most have not been near a client for years. There is no voice no Royal college.. Senior staff do not see client’s as I say this is totally unlike any other profession . Senior Doctors Lawyers and so on still see the reason for their existence. Social work that used to have so many positive qualities / values is now just a operative job . You are a employee so you just carry out what the system tells you to do. There is no intellectual input . No debate. Social work becomes a easy target for right wing press or anybody who has a opinion . social work as it stands cannot defend itself ..Very few people have any idea what social workers do. As I say there is no voice or intellectual base.

  10. Roselyn Thompson May 26, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    I strongly agree with Lynda Newman about the repetitive recording systems and the tools is problematic that only frustrate social workers, who have high volume of caseload and have to do their own administration work whilst having many children on child protection that need seeing every ten days. I remembered went to Burmingham Council for an interview and was told the job would be too stressful for me because of my disability and social workers hot desks. Many social workers leaving Local Authorities employment and go to agency because if their case load too high they given notice and go elsewhere. Plus many social workers failed to register because the support is not at hand to help them, they not allow time for selfcare and without appropriate support, supervision and peer support social workers burnt out after two years in working in child protection. There is also high level of depression in social work profession.

  11. Birmingham NQSW May 26, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

    This is absolutely soul destroying! As a NQSW in Birmingham the department doesn’t claim to be perfect BUT every single social worker, team manager and other staff work their arses off day in day out. I’ve been out on visits since this ‘undercover social worker’ hit the news and it’s destroying the profession. After building good relationships with families, that respect the work we’ve been doing,. The tide has suddenly turned and they hate the profession. Cheap digs and insults from professionals and families is damaging for morale and will set the department back. Well don’t Channel 4 and this ‘social worker’

  12. loiner May 26, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    it is the families l feel sorry for, not of the replies express any concerns for the families seeing this programme………..they need support, but dont get it from anywhere. families do however get blamed for anything that happens to their children in care……..when professionals talk about their stress, remember those poor children and families who are suffering as a direct result of managers failing to address the issues and blaming either the workers on the floor or as l said families

    • Hmmm... May 27, 2016 at 7:30 am #

      The thing is, we want to give support and be working directly with families. I HATE the amount of time I’m stuck at my desk. I am a student social worker and I’ve been utterly bogged down with desk work. I hate it. But you know what I want to do? I want to go into a family home, give practical support and help a family become stronger and not persecute them for their challenges. I should spend most of my time doing that but the bureaucracy and high caseloads and lack of funding for families limit what we can do for and with them. That is the disgrace for families and children. The system needs to be different and the Government’s aim is to reduce the money use that to show how crap social work is, then privatise it. Nobody ‘wins…’ Not social workers and certainly not families.