Rising referrals: how to cope in a ‘climate of fear’

Safeguarding can only become more manageable if anxiety around decision-making and 'just-in-case' visits are tackled

Picture: adimas/fotolia

By Jason Barnes, child protection social worker

The figures found by a recent study into referrals to social services received a lot of media attention. They are high and they are shocking: one in five children born in a single year were reported to social services before they started school.

This number has raised questions about why children are referred and when it’s necessary. As a child protection social worker, I do not feel surprised that it’s this high – this is the reality of my working life.

The researchers at the University of Central Lancashire asked all English councils how many children were born in the 2009-10 year and how many of those children had been referred to social services. 114 of 150 councils responded. Half a million children were born in those areas and 115,735 were referred to social services by last year, meaning researchers could estimate that 150,000 children of that age, or one in five, across England came to the attention of social services before starting primary school.

Everyday decisions

What this means for me and my colleagues around the country are high caseloads and everyday decisions about whether a child is or is not safe at home.

This investigation confirmed what frontline workers have known for a very long time; that we work in a highly pressurised environment where each decision is potentially life-changing.

Many media reports on the study have drawn attention to the ‘climate of fear’ professionals work under. This fear is real and exists in local authorities across Britain. It is a fear of the unseen or unnoticed which could result in further child deaths, such as those of Baby P or Daniel Pelka.

It is the fear which produces growing rates of referrals from teachers, midwives, nursery workers and health visitors – referrals which do not meet our thresholds.

Hyper-vigilance and professional anxiety results in social workers visiting children unnecessarily, which is a strain on our capacity and also unfair on the families.

‘The social’ at the door

A knock on the door from ‘the social’ is, for many parents, a frightening experience. For many, perhaps worse than anxiety or fear is the stigma attached to having a social worker involved in your life.

For us as practitioners, it might be a standard ‘look-and-see’ home visit but for some parents, that visit is confirmation of their deepest fear: ‘I’m a bad parent’.

It is essential that we are not visiting families unnecessarily. So what can be done about it?

At the heart of each of these referrals is a child; a child who is potentially at risk of harm. The enormity of that possibility looms like a dead weight over each assessment, causing stress and anxiety which leads to long hours and that haunting question at the end of the day:

‘Is there something I’ve missed?’

A newly qualified colleague in my team described child protection work as “cutting the head off a dragon, only to find that there are three more heads underneath”.

There is no end to duty and assessment work in social services. There is no moment to say, “I have done everything I need to do.” Brief satisfaction following a successful case closure is quickly eclipsed with several new cases.

In my view, there are a few key factors which can make child safeguarding more manageable and ensure that social workers are only carrying out visits when necessary.

  1. Ownership of decisions: Due to the level of risk associated with child protection work, social workers and managers can feel anxious about important decisions. Taking a decisive action when there is so much at stake and putting our name to that decision is a challenge, but it’s necessary. We need confident leaders and managers who are not afraid to identify when there is no role for social services.
  2. Interprofessional practice: Unless we work together with the police, teachers, midwives, nursery staff and health visitors, we will never be able to tackle the issue of unsustainable referral rates. As social workers we need to be clear about – and able to communicate – what our thresholds are. Otherwise, how can we expect others to know?
  3. Effective gatekeeping: When referrals are first received by local authority access points/front doors, it is essential that these are signposted to the most appropriate services. Rather than a social worker carrying out a visit ‘just in case’, better use should be made of universal services and health visitors, child and family centres, youth workers and early help teams.

I’m fortunate to work in an environment where these challenges are being faced head-on with creativity and openness to new ideas but more needs to be done by the government and local councils across the board.

If referrals continue to rise – within the context of austerity and cuts to services – then many social workers may begin to feel that the risks (and fear) outweigh the rewards.

Jason Barnes is a child protection social worker at West Sussex Council. He tweets at @jsnbarnes. He is the founder of the Sussex Social Work Development Group

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7 Responses to Rising referrals: how to cope in a ‘climate of fear’

  1. Anita Singh July 14, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

    Is it really professional hyper-vigilance and fear that has led to a rise in the number of referrals. Too many times I have heard this argument of professionals being risk averse. However, perhaps it is more to do with better standards of risk identification that has led to the rise in referrals and why should professionals who have limited resources at their disposal to manage child protection concerns when it is the lead responsibility for social care?

    In a very recent article in community care re: children subject to SCRs, half of the cases were not open to children’s services. However, 66% of those cases that were closed had contact with children’s services prior to the serious incident or death occurring. The current climate and culture in many children services across the country is to close cases at the earliest available opportunity and with the implementation of signs of safety, the response has been to raise their thresholds for CP and CIN services and redirect many referrals to Early Interventio in order to cope with the high volume of referrals.

    However, it is not good enough to say that in this climate of austerity that we should seek to dump the responsibility for work on other agencies or raise the bar for risk to the already dangerous levels that they are. Perhaps the real argument that should be had is about the provision of resources and investment in our children and future generations.

    No doubt the author of the article would have the queues to food banks become even longer than they already are and perhaps it is high time that social workers started to stand up for what is right rather than a passive acceptance of austerity measures as being the constant justification for cutting back services to our most vulnerable members of society who by the way are our future.

    • Jason Barnes July 14, 2016 at 7:45 pm #

      Hi Anita, thanks for your response.

      I can assure you that the author would not have queues to food banks become longer.

      Social workers do stand up for what is right, everyday infact.

      This article is about how the issues can be addressed within social care and subsequently with out partner agencies. If you clicked on the links above you will see that multitudes of referrals to and visits from social services were completely unnecessary.

      This unjustifiably high rate causes anxiety amongst families and makes it more difficult for social workers to focus on children in families where there are genuine risks.

      Not everything can be covered in one article 🙂

      Happy to continue the conversation if you’d like to tweet.

  2. Jason Barnes July 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

    *with our partner agencies

  3. Julie July 14, 2016 at 11:27 pm #

    I would love to respond in detail to this article and comment from Anita however far too tired so will just say that I think the article has several points I would totally agree with and I acknowledge the ideals within the response comment however the reality is cuts cuts cuts yet non social work professionals appear to be putting ‘safeguarding’ above their own expertise, common sense and better judgement at time I’m sure. I have the perfect recent personal example whereby my 4 day old granddaughter is taken to GP with a sudden red and swollen finger and toe – seen by a junior Dr my daughter was told there was, I quote “no innocent reason for such injuries” informed her of NAI and referral (thanking her for making it easier for him as she informed him her mum was a CP SW thus she understood – I don’t). Later whilst in children’s A &E resuscitation room and fighting for her life that ‘non innocent’ reason became clear Meningitis and a symptom is red and swollen digits. Fortunately we have never heard from CSC so it seems they dealt with this appropritaely yet I make my point!
    Safeguarding should neither take away from professional knowledge and neither should it be big brother on families that need ongoing support and more should be done re; poverty and education – community social work! Serious case reviews may point out failings and some even whereby fatal outcomes could have been prevented however having our fingers in too many pies diverts (as does the level of recordings) from the vigilance and involvement the more serious risk cases warrant and lets not forget the sinister actions of abusive parents that thankfully are still only a minority.
    Emotional time forgive any nonsensical comments!

  4. Anita Singh July 14, 2016 at 11:39 pm #

    Yes and I am a social worker who stands up for what is right as well. However you have located the current high referral rate as being the result of and I quote “…[the] growing rates of referrals from teachers, midwives, nursery workers and health visitors” and state that the referrals they make do not meet thresholds. You further refer to hyper-vigilance resulting in social workers visiting unnecessarily.

    In my experience most social workers in front line CIN/CP services are struggling to manage statutory visits, let alone carry out unnecessary visits. Where is the evidence to support that many colleagues in other agencies make unnecessary referrals. I consider that professionals in partner agencies are likely to make repeated referrals because of cases being closed prematurely, or inadequately responded to in the first place. The CP issues have not been resolved and so the case keeps coming back to the attention of social care until it is dealt with adequately or in the worst case scenario the case ends up in an SCR. What is needed is the very CP and CIN services that you have argued do not meet threshold. As I have already stated the thresholds are now already dangerously high.

    In my experience over very many years of front line child protection practise, as a social worker and senior practitioner in Child Protection, social workers today are faced with a far more risky environment in which they have to practise because the service is now severely underfunded and rationed to dangerously low levels.

    You have rationalised the surges in referrals with extraordinary arguments. There has been no real change in the numbers of children being abused or neglected. Child abuse has not suddenly increased to what it was over twenty years ago and professionals are no different now to what they were when I first qualified. The only real things that have changed is that we have grown in our experience of identification of children who are suffering as a result of abuse or neglect. However, it is not acceptable to use austerity measures as the justification for increasing the thresholds for services. What do you say to a child who is suffering? Sorry we couldn’t give you a service because of austerity, so we have decided the abuse and neglect your are suffering is not quite serious enough for our thresholds? Until you are suffering really serious harm we will not visit to check if you are okay? I fail to see the logic in your argument.

    By the way – I don’t do twitter, facebook etc.

  5. Tom J July 15, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    Good article which has promoted a good discussion.

    For me the biggest loss in children’s social work is the belief that the role is to support, assist and promote change for children in their families.

    The new social work discourse is that this is too costly, too risky and takes too long.

    Social work now is about assessment, treating parents with huge suspicion (after all they could be like Daniel Pelka’s mother) and giving very short timescales for change whilst doing little to actively support this change e.g. its very much ‘do these ten things on the child protection plan or we are going to court’. No time for relationship building with parent or child and a huge readiness to write off the mother as disguised compliant and father as domestically abusive.

    Likewise in court the most important thing is not the child, but getting the case sorted in 26 weeks.

    I now see that Manchester County Council are putting a 12 month cap on amount of time you can be on a child protection plan to save money. Speed is need. What happens after twelve months? Put them in are 1st class care system? Put the child on a CAF?

    A big flaw of this article and many social workers thinking relates to their strong belief in there being a wonderful array of well funded universal services and health visitors, child and family centres, youth workers and early help teams who can do ‘just in case visits’ and so on. Maybe in some cities, but in mine they are on their knees. The services that do exists have been outsourced, stripped of funding and obsessed with only delivering what is in their contract.

  6. Me July 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

    I do agree with aspects of this article but whole heartedly disagree that SW are visiting unnecessarily. Many SW are struggling with high caseloads and weighed down in paperwork with the result being very little time to see or spend with children. That is the very issue. To take responsibility for our decisions we need to get to know families to ensure confidence in those decisions. That takes time, which is very limited as a frontline child protection SW. Other professionals make unnecessary referrals for P becauae they do not want to hold the anxiety that goes with working in the unkonwns of family dynamics. There are a couple ways to keep children safe…
    1) protected caseloads
    2) less time sitting at our desks on paperwork, more time with families
    3) investment in preventative and community supports BEFORE cp is needed
    4) SW in schools and the community centres providing some community support pre-cp with support for local professionals around cp and making a referral
    5) money or budget has to be taken out of the equation when making case decisions. Many SW have experienced the manager that says close a case before the SW thinks it should be due to the budget, for one example.
    The Government has created this nightmare system and then throws the blame on those working in it when thing go wrong. What is needed to “fix” the current system will take money, time, patience, and a Government that listens to the workers and users of the system. If the Gov doesn’t listen, all the rest will be difficult.