by Katherine Purvis
Children’s social workers are assessing more referrals that lead to no further action due to cuts to early prevention services and a lack of understanding around thresholds, experts say.
More than a quarter of referrals that were assessed in 2016-2017 were judged to need no further action after assessment, according to the government’s official statistics on the characteristics of children in need.
Of the 646,120 referrals to children’s services from the police, education, health, local authorities and other agencies, 10.2% resulted in no further action after initial consideration, while 27.8% were assessed and then required no further action. This means that social workers assessed more than 160,000 referrals that did not require subsequent statutory services.
Cuts to early help services may be one factor contributing to this discrepancy, says Maris Stratulis, England manager at BASW.
“We are being advised that, in a number of areas, preventative services have experienced significant cuts. Children’s centres are closing and support services – such as domestic violence services for parents and children in the voluntary sector – have been cut,” she says. “Rather than people getting help earlier and a lower tier level, they are being referred into social care.”
And with a number of child abuse scandals being uncovered in recent years, increased awareness of child protection risks may also mean that more members of the public are making referrals.
“Whenever there’s a child death or public outcry about children’s safeguarding … we do see spikes,” says Adam Birchall, principal social worker at Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council.
Referrals in the year ending 31st March increased by 4%, from 621,470 in 2016 to 646,120 in 2017, but a lack of specific expertise around thresholds could mean that a greater number of referrals result in no further action.
“Our colleagues make referrals into children’s services using a very clear threshold, but some professionals feel that they don’t have the skillset to address certain cases,” says Shelley Caldwell, principal social worker at North Somerset Council. “Anecdotally, some professionals work in areas where referrals are more prominent, and so are more confident in supporting families who are on the cusp of child in need … and will be able to unpick some issues with a family and could divert a referral. But others may not make so many referrals and therefore might not have that degree of competence and may want to make those referrals at an earlier stage.”
Issues may also arise due to the subjective nature of thresholds.
“What does ‘significant harm’ mean? Who determines if it’s significant? Well that’s down to professional judgement. A social worker in an authority of high deprivation might see significant harm differently from a social worker in an authority where there is low deprivation – and we’ve seen that in recent research,” says Birchall, referring to the Nuffield Foundation study into inequalities in child welfare intervention rates.
Application in practice
But despite austerity, Birchall does not believe that thresholds have been raised. “I doubt people would be going to the [local safeguarding children] board saying, ‘We haven’t got the money, can you raise the threshold?’ But the application in practice is very different. People could perceive that a threshold has gone up when actually they’re being applied more vigorously.”
According to a recent survey by Community Care, four in five children’s social workers think their caseload is unmanageable. The median caseload of the 815 respondents was 25, seven cases higher than the government’s average published in February. But even when social work teams are under increased pressure and more work is coming through the door, Caldwell is adamant that thresholds should not change according to capacity.
“Organisations have a responsibility to make sure that their thresholds do not fluctuate,” she says. “Unless you have those measures in place, you can’t be confident that these numbers don’t relate to rising need.”
And not all assessments that led to no further action should be seen as a waste of social worker resources.
“I think sometimes our assessments can be an intervention in their own right,” says Caldwell. “In bringing together the professional information in combination with our own history and chronology for the child, and bringing together the family – by way of a signs of safety family meeting or family conference – we might have been able to find enough support for that child and family to enable that step down process [to early help].
“It would look like a [no further action], but it wouldn’t necessarily mean [the referral goes] straight back to universal services only.”