by Sophie Ayers
Every social worker knows the scenario. The call comes in at 4:55pm: “I have a child with a bruise and they’ve disclosed deliberate harm against them”. Cue tonight’s chaos.
With funding low for out of hours systems in children’s services, usually known as ‘Emergency Duty Teams’, there often isn’t capacity to take on dramatic scenes of the day. As a result daytime social workers, already having worked long hours, need to respond to situations that require a lot of work at a time when fatigue has already set in.
It’s a general ‘fait accompli’ that the social worker who has started the child investigation will continue on the job until a safe resolution can be found.
From a service user’s perspective, continuity is important. I’m always mindful that our service users are encountering stressful and potentially life altering situations. However, the current system too often leads to social workers working exhaustive hours, with potentially dangerous repercussions.
Child protection investigations (or s47 investigations) are complicated, time consuming and resolutely challenging. The worker must be able to investigate whether a child is at risk of harm within a short timescale and with minimum resources available. Think of having to find a cure for cancer, but only having penicillin at your disposal.
When a child protection enquiry requires a medical investigation, a complicated series of events come to pass. You might have to plead with a paediatrician to be seen. They tell you that there is a slot in the next half hour. You tell them you’re more than an hour away. Finally a compromise is struck, you run to your car with the pace of an Olympian and race to pick up the family.
Practical factors are at the forefront of your mind: can I fit the number of children present within my car? Do I have the appropriate car seats? Can I drive for an hour, keeping the parents calm when you are (potentially) accusing them of harming their children? Long forgotten is the fact that you arrived at the office at 7am and are driving a family to an unknown situation at 7pm.
Daily mileage can be brutal
A significant part of the working life of a child protection social worker is spent in a car. This can vary widely, but within large authorities, the daily mileage can be brutal. In the last year, I completed 13,000 miles alone for work.
This presents another element of risk where social workers can become fatigued. Across the country, there are tired workers (not just social workers) under pressure to finish the job, driving on busy motorways and A roads. If an accident was to occur, whether due to tiredness or challenging behaviour from passengers, we are the only ones responsible.
If you’re a lorry driver, EU rules state you must take breaks totalling at least 45 minutes after no more than 4 hours 30 minutes. I struggle to comprehend why similar guidance does not exist in some form for general drivers using their cars for work in the pursuit of everyday compliance.
With urgent child protection enquiries, we invite adults and children into our own car, without knowing the potential risks to ourselves or other road users. We do not argue – we ignite our engine because we know that the job must be done.
It can be very difficult to assert your position when you are aware of the pressures for your team manager. There are times when many workers take on work that is beyond their capacity because there is no-one else available to respond.
However, a situation I will never repeat is one which was an unconscionable request of my services. I became aware that a child required immediate medical intervention due to severe neglect. The first hurdle was taking the child and her parents to the hospital. It was almost 50 miles from their home and at least an hour and fifteen minute drive.
By the time we arrived at the hospital it was 5pm. Four hours later a decision was made that the child needed to be admitted to hospital. It was agreed that the mother would remain on the ward and the father would go home to collect crucial items. The problem was that the father had no way of getting back home.
I became a taxi driver. No other solution was available at this time of night. Eventually, I dropped the father at home for 11pm. I was two hours away from my house due to the sheer size of the county. I knew that I would have to collect the father at 7am to take him to the hospital, and also make it to court in the same city for a different case.
The resolution: I slept in my car. I knew to drive further would be dangerous and foolish. I also knew that there would be no acceptance from the father or the court if I did not provide the taxi service required, or I arrived late.
The burden of ‘out of hours’ social work, particularly within large counties is an unrecognised danger for social workers. The risk amongst those who have the responsibility of driving and fulfilling their daytime deadlines is not commented upon.
Most social workers will appear tired, but their true fatigue is a serious debate to be had amongst politicians and local authorities. Without transformation and clear risk assessments being completed there is a strong risk of accidents and social workers will ultimately burn out.