The president of the Association of Directors of Adults Social Services fears government policy risks splitting adults and children’s social work at a time when practice is shifting to whole-family work.
Margaret Willcox said ADASS was “slightly frustrated” that major reforms to the profession had been led by the Department for Education, rather than developed jointly with the Department of Health.
She said this meant that different systems for developing adults’ and children’s social workers were being created, with one example being DfE plans for all children’s social workers to face accreditation tests by 2020.
“Ironically, you’ve got a move to isolate the children’s social workers into one faction, but actually the move in practice is going the other way,” she said.
“We’re looking much more at family practice now, going back almost to the 70s when we would have family groups. In toxic-trio cases, for example, you have mental health and substance misuse workers working alongside children’s social workers to support the family.”
Children’s services directors have raised fears that the accreditation plans risk turning social work with adults into a “Cinderella service” for practitioners who fail the assessments.
Willcox raised similar concerns, adding: “At my most cynical I would ask: is it okay then if you fail the system for children’s but because you’re a qualified social worker you can still work in adults?
“I think if we are going to have those standards for the different types of practice in children’s social work then we should at least aspire to something similar for adults.”
She added: “We could look at it another way in that it will benefit adults’ services because we suddenly get a whole load of staff who are perfectly capable and will help our capacity, but I’d be more concerned about why they didn’t get through their accreditation process.”
Willcox was speaking to Community Care at the ADASS spring seminar. The event came a week after four councils lost their High Court fight against the government over funding for deprivation of liberty cases. The judge rejected the councils’ argument that local authorities in England needed between £450m and £600m extra funding per year to cope with the surge in DoLS cases triggered by the Supreme Court’s landmark ‘Cheshire West’ ruling in March 2014.
Willcox said the outcome of the judicial review was “disappointing” and would leave councils continuing to grapple with case backlogs and a shortage of best interest assessors.
“It leaves us exactly where we were before, in that we have to try and have our own systems to triage people and make sure we prioritise the ones most in need of that assessment.
“People who are towards the end of life or who have advanced dementia and are settled in a home would be lower priority than someone in new circumstances. It’s very difficult.”
The Law Commission has submitted proposals to the government for a replacement for the DoLS system that it feels could better cope with current case numbers. However, ministers have yet to respond formally to those proposals and, even if they are accepted, it would be years until they became law.
Willcox said she was “not optimistic” the government would offer councils an interim solution to help them cope in the meantime, adding: “If there was one then I think they would have offered it at this stage, sadly.”
‘Make it right’
Another capacity issue in adults’ services is a shortage of approved mental health professionals (AMHPs). Research published by Community Care last year found councils were struggling to replace more than 200 AMHPs who had either quit or retired in the past three years, as demand for services increased.
Willcox, who has worked in mental health services “on and off” for 41 years, said the shortage was due in part to an ageing workforce and partly because few staff from other professional groups, such as nurses and occupational therapists, had trained in the role since it was opened up beyond social workers in 2007.
She said it was one of her priorities as ADASS president to raise the profile of AMHPs, adding:
“The interaction and intervention of these individuals can make such a difference. When you make the decision to either help towards detaining someone so they receive treatment, or indeed find an alternative that makes sure they don’t get detained, but do get the support they need, then you can change someone’s life forever.
“If you get it right in that moment, you will make it right for a very long period of time.”