It’s time for a national cap on child protection caseloads

Efforts to get councils to voluntarily set reasonable workloads have failed. It’s time for a rethink, argues Social Work Tutor

Picture: eaglesky/fotolia

In my time in child protection social work, I’ve had caseloads ranging from eight to forty-six. Having progressed from student to senior social worker you’d think the number, and complexity, of cases would have naturally increased alongside my developing confidence, abilities and experience.

Sadly not. My highest caseload came at a time when I’d been qualified for just over a year and I was already handling the most complex case I’ve ever had. I was working in an environment where social workers were resigned to working 12 hour days just to keep up.

At the other end of the scale, when I’ve had low caseloads I’ve often felt under-utilised and bored without the pressure of always having something to do. Perhaps that’s due to the environment my social work skills were steeled in having been so frenetic.

I understand that every individual we support is unique and, especially in times of crisis and severe risk management, one case can ‘kick off’ and monopolise your time. As is so often the fate of social workers, these cases of severe risk tend to come in groups. A seemingly stable caseload can see you forced to burn both ends of the candle in an effort to effectively safeguard.

However, when I weigh up the current situation in child protection I firmly believe that the government must consider implementing a national cap on caseload numbers – my recommendation would be 20 – if it is serious in its efforts to improve social work.

Employer standards

A cap has been mooted before. The 2009 Social Work Taskforce review, commissioned by the last Labour government, rejected the idea – concluding there was no consensus on the number any cap should be set at and that the proposal would not deal with issues around professional development.

Instead the taskforce recommended a set of employer standards be drawn up that would set out the conditions, including workloads, needed for good social work. The standards were, in time, published by the Local Government Association but have never been mandatory for councils to follow. As a result they have often been ignored.

Looking back it feels that an opportunity to take a bold stance on the workload issue was missed. Instead the buck was passed to individual councils, without the teeth to make sure they took the necessary action.

Impact on practice

Seven years on and the issues identified by the taskforce are worsening. Social workers are practicing in a context of increasing inequality and austerity measures. Care applications have hit a record high, partly due to the continuing reverberations of the ‘Baby P effect’.

At the same time there is growing evidence of the effect caseloads can have on outcomes. In June, Ofsted warned that social work caseloads being “too high” was a common feature in ‘inadequate’-rated authorities, with inspections finding that too many social workers were simply “pressing on in conditions that are unacceptable”.

On the other hand, services in Westminster – one of two authorities to receive “outstanding” ratings under Ofsted’s new single inspection framework – have been praised for supporting “delivery of social work to a very high and, in most cases, outstanding quality”. This outstanding work was apparently “supported by low social worker caseloads”.

With lower caseloads we can do better work, who’d have thought it?

Some movement

There are signs some councils are waking up to this. A few months back, Manchester council announced plans to invest an extra £10m to tackle what the authority called “unmanageable caseloads”. The move aims to cut average caseloads from 24 to 18, after the council found “high caseloads are at the root of poor and inconsistent social work practice”.

As well as damaging practice, this issue damages retention too. Going back to 2014, Manchester, Cardiff and Lambeth councils published three reports that, independently of each other, raised the same issue of councils struggling to retain staff due to high caseloads.

In the context of an increasingly fluid labour market, rising competition for experienced staff and more and more people choosing to work independently, social workers are more empowered to vote with their feet by leaving unsafe working environments than ever before.

The lesson here appears to be simple – lower caseloads create a more stable workforce. Yet despite frontline practitioners, Ofsted and senior council figures from across the country all pointing this out, a recent investigation by ITV found ‘huge variations’ in caseloads within neighbouring local authorities. Child protection caseloads ranged from 45 to 14 among a group of councils within 50 miles of each other.

Postcode lottery

This is a postcode lottery for safeguarding vulnerable children I feel could be addressed by introducing statutory legislation capping caseloads. This may seem like an unrealistic pipe dream on my behalf, but we only have to look towards our multi-agency colleagues in education to find an example we can emulate.

School admissions regulations (2012) provide a legal cap on classroom sizes by dictating that “no infant class may contain more than 30 pupils while an ordinary teaching session is conducted by a single school teacher”. This cap is a recognition that effective teaching can only be undertaken in a realistic environment and a limit is needed to ensure positive outcomes for both the professional and children.

This begs the question why, when we are faced with a recruitment crisis and care applications at an all-time high, the government is not taking a similar course of action within child protection? It could help free social workers to be the best practitioners we can be.

The author is a child protection social worker in England who tweets at @socialworktutor


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26 Responses to It’s time for a national cap on child protection caseloads

  1. Denice September 20, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    I hope the government takes notice!

  2. Tom J September 20, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    I totally agree. If my daughter arrives at school today and the teacher is ill, I would not accept them saying ‘oh well, we can just have a class with 60 pupils in it for a few weeks until the teacher is better’ and yet culturally it is accepted in social work (even if reluctantly at times) that there can be caseloads of 30, 40 and even 50.

  3. Merle Walters September 20, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    My goodness you must have heard my discussion this morning about social workers caseloads. Forty six cases at one time for a single social worker that I think is crazy and setting staff not to meet the needs of people.
    There needs to be a cap because social workers caseload as they social workers go beyond there duties also the number of hours they work. The newly qualify social workers are given complex cases the same as some of their seniors.
    Social Workers work really hard but government cannot expect blood from stone. Local Authorities loose some of they best workers because of the caseload and the expectations from already burnout workers trying to keep to the deadline dates of a case file. A day in the life of the social worker can change in a second and push the deadlines out of reach.
    I think it would be good to have a cap.

  4. A.M September 20, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    A good article, leaving me with one question.
    A caseload of 20. I’m interested in whether that is 20 children or 20 families? I cannot emphasise enough how important that is.
    Many of these families have 5,6,7,8 or more children. All with different needs, often in different care situations, all needing individual care plans. Different fathers to factor in. Different placements to visit.
    Some clarity would be helpful please because if we are talking 20 families, those figures could still be way too high.

    • JM September 20, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

      I agree – there are too many variables. Is that 20 CP cases or 20 cases which are a mix of CP Child in Need proceedings etc. It’s not so straightforward. 25 cases in one authority is unmansgeable but in another it’s easily manageable – I know because it’s happened to me – because of what that caseload was made up of and the way the authority functioned. It’s not as straightforward as just plucking a number – and what about NQSWs?

  5. LongtimeSW September 20, 2016 at 2:47 pm #

    We are our own enemies by persisting in working unpaid extra hours – as difficult as it may be, a week of social work and support staff working their contracted hours would leave employers to consider how they are going to cover statutory services – I am fed up of feeling guilty because I haven’t been able to complete a piece of work/postponed visit to deal with an emergency which itself will mean extra hours working – whether it’s boring or not, until we stand up for ourselves nothing will change.

    • Spotty Dog's mum September 23, 2016 at 11:34 am #

      I totally agree. I too am fed up with feeling guilty. But it is time we stopped moaning and stood up and made a change. Nothing will happen while we continue working beyond our contracted hours. Of course, if a child or adult is at risk of immediate harm we must always respond, whatever the time or pressures and court deadlines also have to be met. However, we need to say enough is enough.

      Social Workers should not be bullied, threatened with capability actions, made to feel inadequate or incompetent due to unmanagable workloads. By working all hours, we give the impression that the workload is managable making a rod for our own backs and making things more difficult for colleagues who try to stick to their working hours.

      I have a family, friends, commitments and a life outside of work. I rarely take a lunch break and often don’t finish work on time but I am not prepared to spend my evenings and weekends typing up endless assessments and case notes. I do not have the time, energy or will to do so. That doesn’t make me, or you, a bad Social Worker. Lets do the best we can in the time we have. No-one should ask or expect any more of us. Only if we are all brave enough to make this stand, will anything change.

  6. Emily September 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm #

    I really do appreciate the sentiment and agree that caseloads are far too high. That being said I think a cap is fairly unrealistic. In my LA we can receive upwards of 100 referrals each week, are we just supposed to stop answering the phones when we reach the cap on each social worker in an assessment team? There are many students awaiting school places due to the caps on class sizes which is sad but if we just closed our doors a child could die as a result.

  7. Student SW September 20, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    Qualifying as a social worker next year, the idea of high case loads brings about major anxieties for me. For me being a social worker is a job where you are under pressure but not where this pressure takes over your own personal life! I have my own reasons for entering in the social care profession and after years of being a support worker I thought at least as a social worker I would be able to have more control over decisions but it’s sad to know that after 3 years of dedicated study, social workers still have very little power & are just agents of the state. Like this article states, ofstead and various reports highlight the reality of the problems with case loads, yet the Government seem persistent in making this challenging career impossible!!!!

  8. Angela September 20, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

    My husband and I applied to become foster carers and after a very long, incredibly intense 6/7 months we were given permission to foster. Our very first placement came. Her social worker changed at the same time. Lots of information was withheld from us. This could have been because a damaged child urgently needed a placement. Her social worker and support worker didn’t visit or contact her for more than 8 weeks. This could have been because of a heavy caseload. The placement broke down. We may never foster again ……..

    • Bev October 9, 2016 at 4:05 pm #

      Dear Angela,

      So sad to hear that after all your effort to go through the training that you were left unsupported. I always visited as a social worker no matter what time i got there…often our of hours.
      The caseload situation is intolerable and needs to be tackled asap before the profession looses even more of its skilled and experienced social workers and foster carers.

  9. Ruth September 20, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    The key is a supportive and proactive manager. If case loads are unmanageable it is your line manager’s role to escalate that and bring about changes. I’m fortunate to work in Staffordshire where these things are managed very well.

  10. Spartkett September 21, 2016 at 7:40 am #

    The key isnt a supportive proactive manager because even they cannot stop the tide of referrals coming in the front door…..high caseloads affect all staff from top to bottom and there is very little even a proactive, supportive manager can do to stop the tide. My caseload has varied between 29 and 34 which is an absolute joke because the social worker ends up fire fighting just to keep on top of visits. The government needs to address staff retention and the reasons why they are leaving.

  11. Shederv September 21, 2016 at 9:18 am #

    I love the notion of controlled caseloads, and would prefer managers to be skilled in employing proper workload management tools taking into account complexity, recording and indirect work with cases. It’s not the number, but the demands on our time and resilience that matter in my view.

  12. Debbie September 21, 2016 at 9:57 am #

    I feel this is the single most important factor in keeping children safe. Lower caseloads mean more time for each child. With more time comes more visits and getting to know children and their families which means being able to pinpoint changes and work with them. I am currently an independent and I am fiercely avoiding going back to work in council offices. I would like to have a permanent job doing what I am trained to do but at 56 now have to think of self preservation no matter how selfish that sounds.

    • Bev October 9, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

      Self preservation is the key as people who have the most to offer feel the need to bail out! Lower caseloads needs to be addressed alongside the issues of the systems we work with which slow you down and do not promote good practice.
      ICS has been the worst thing that has happened to social work in a long time!

  13. Carli September 21, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

    social workers in South Africa are requested to have a minimum caseload of 60 families at all times. 60 families : 1 social worker. Feasible? Many colleagues suffer burnout. I have a colleague with a caseload of 200.

  14. Chris Hale September 21, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

    My current authority (Somerset) should be included in the list of those who have taken great strides in reducing caseloads into the teens. Whilst averages can be misleading, particularly where there are large numbers of AYSE’s with restricted caseloads, in Somerset they are delivering on their commitment to do this across the board.

  15. Soupy September 21, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

    Maybe we social workers need to get militant like junior doctors, not necessarily to strike, but raise a petition to lobby government

  16. sarah September 21, 2016 at 9:55 pm #

    I really appreciate concerns. As a front line professional who often refers cases we don’t refer anyone lightly and we know we cannot have fixed numbers. Cases are unfortunately going to grow if front line early intervention child care and health workers are cut . And whilst families often may not be picked up by social care, we have a mechanism to refer and a picture builds up. I feel the important thing is actioning cases timely – referring back cases timely when improving, allowing social workers and courts to make difficult decisions to remove children timely if required, and nurturing and keep employing staff numbers so we can keep skilled, knowledgeable, dedicated staff in these most stressful professions.

  17. CT September 22, 2016 at 10:17 am #

    “Care applications have hit a record high, partly due to the continuing reverberations of the ‘Baby P effect’.”

    It is far more likely that the increase in care proceedings is due to a change in the approach to S20 cases. Whilst it was always right and proper that cases shouldn’t drift in S20, or that consent should be informed, LAs are no longer in a position where they cannot initiate by using S20.

  18. Andyi September 22, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    As a seasoned and capable child welfare social worker, who isn’t meeting timelines or remotely attending to children’s safety with a caseload of 25; my plea would be not to make this about whether some regions can handle more or less than 20 cases. A federal cap is the only way to enforce systemic support for workers in a highly neglected field, dependent on donated time and presumptive neglect or ones own families in the face of ‘saving’ others, who face mass attrition and support loss within agencies every time a cap is lifted. Failure to protect workers only proves to harm children. Mass attrition occurs every time our agency lifts the cap; children already feeling abandonned and struggling with displacement lose the one stable person in their world, impacting their ability to trust, resilience, and sense of personal security. A cap would draw attention to abusive fiscal practices, and ensure efficient hiring and wage securities remained a focus. It may also act to detour from political practices which extend care windows far past permanency guidelines; allowing appropriate closures of cases being held hostage by minimally participating clients.

  19. Julie September 22, 2016 at 6:51 pm #

    Totally agree with caseloads needing reducing and a cap on numbers however numbers can be deceiving as noted in responses and defining the number by child or family deceiving too. Yes some families have several children yet a lot of families however I’ve experienced an increase in single children cases and noted that whilst a large family has a lot of professionals involved it’s one meeting within timescales whilst several single children are several meetings therefore can be more time consuming. I think time & motion studies re; visits, meetings/ Court, recordings, the reality of the hours needed per case and complexities would assist in the time management of case holding which in turn would be useful in informing a guideline cap on cases held.
    Realism is needed to such areas if effective and maintained change is to be the genuine desired outcome.

  20. CT September 25, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

    Such a fixed caseload is not possible in a child protection system which (rightly) can’t refuse to safeguard a child just because everyone is holding the maximum.

  21. Joanne September 28, 2016 at 12:02 am #

    I have just left work due to ill health retirement. I worked in Adults who are under 65 for Physical disabilities and sensory services.
    We have the same issues in caseload management. Nine out of ten of our cases are extremely complex and for a variety of reasons, whether they have substance misuse, multiple disabilities, transition cases and Safeguarding Adults.
    At the time of leaving, I worked 22 hours, 4.5 of which consisted of duty worker, full time colleagues had a full day. Most of our duty days consisted of 1 to 3 visits for crisis work or Continuing Health Care assessments or reviews. I used to have a maximum of two and week but as I did a Mon am, I tended to book the visits. Invariably we ended up with these cases until they were stable.
    Due to the austerity measures, each case had to go to a panel, even if the increase was only £2 a week. In a straight forward case, this meant up to 5 hours paperwork, not including the actual visit. If funding was turned down, we because accountants having to look and cost up alternatives or detectives to find more evidence to back up our case.
    That was just straight forward cases. Others like Safeguarding Adults could take up to any amount of time. On leaving, I was virtually working on two cases during my week. One was a Safeguarding and the other had several personality disorders. I rarely had much time during my working hours to complete my other work and if I wasn’t in the office, my line manager had to deal with the personality disorder. This person didn’t fit in the box for mental health but we had no training or backup to help us with this and I remember having a meeting with him and a colleague, where we spent 4 hours.
    On my 18 hours after duty, I had 22 cases, plus any of the duty ones that I had to take forward to deal with the crisis, 16 to 18 very active cases. I was out of all these cases supposed to take on another 3 cases a fortnight.
    The retention in our department that had only been set up less than 2 years previously had been massively under anticipated with the numbers of referrals, no other staff were given to us, although we had one leave at the start and two on secondment and one long term sick.
    We managed to get two agency workers but they were brought in purely to do the reviews that were time limited by the government due to the Care Act. We had approx 100 on the waiting list for assessments.
    We had two full time workers, one full time ASYE worker (who due to the duty system went way over their fixed case load and 2 part time workers, one other had left 8 months previously. None were replaced apart from our team leader.
    Due to the austerity measures, the amount of long term workers, some with 17 to 25 years service, could no longer do the role due to the way they were being treated by adult teams all across the county. This had a major impact on the knowledge base that these workers had, especially on unusual cases. The retention rate is becoming like the various children’s teams, the ones on secondment will leave if they have to return to our department. It has become so sad that so many of us who loved our careers have chosen to leave, often with no other job to go to.
    I have added this to the mix that where people thought that adult workers had an easier time of it, this is not the case and with more cuts on the way, it is likely to worsen.

    • Bev October 9, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

      Adults is going the same way as children’s since the introduction of the Care Act and austerity measures! Welcome to our world!!!