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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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