Social worker changes ‘most common’ source of instability for children in care

Children's services workforce recruitment and retention problems 'key factors' in disruption to young people's lives, report finds

Changes from one social worker to another remain the most common source of instability in the lives of children in care, a report by the children’s commissioner has found.

The annual Stability Index, published today, tracks changes in placements, schools and social workers for children in the care of English local authorities.

It found nearly 19,000 children in care – roughly one in four of the national total – had experienced multiple changes of social worker during the year from April 2016 to March 2017, a similar proportion to the previous year.

Almost 4,400 children had experienced multiple changes of social worker two years running.

By comparison, one in 10 children experienced multiple placement moves during 2016/17 (seven in 10 had no moves) while three in 10 endured two or more moves over a two-year period. Nonetheless, the report warned, “most children in care experience some degree of placement instability” in the long term. Around one in 10 children, meanwhile, had to move school mid-year during 2016/17.

“Far too many [children] are living unstable lives, in particular children entering care in their early teens,” said Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner. “This puts them at greater risk of falling through the gaps in the education system and opens them up to exploitation by gangs or to abuse.”

Turnover problems

This year’s Stability Index – only the second – marked the first time that the research was able to form a “reliable national picture” of social worker stability rates, the report said. Data regarding social worker changes was collected from 78 local authorities – just over  half of those with statutory social work responsibilities.

Figures varied considerably across the authorities, with the percentage of children who had to deal with multiple social worker changes ranging from 0% to 49%.

The report found problems around recruiting and retaining children’s social workers, which many councils experience, were “key factors” in determining how likely children were to face disruption. At local authorities with a 20% turnover rate, almost one in three children faced multiple social worker changes,  it said.

Higher vacancy rates were also associated, though to a lesser degree, with increased social worker instability.

Ofsted’s inspection reports of individual councils’ children’s services regularly draw attention to the impact of staffing problems on social workers’ ability to form productive relationships with young people.

‘Tailor-made’ reports

While children’s characteristics, needs and histories had relatively minor bearing on whether they changed social worker, they were important influences on the likelihood of instability around placements and schools. Teenagers were the most likely group to suffer multiple placement moves, with those who entered care aged between 12 and 15 at particular risk.

Children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) around  social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) were also around 50% more likely to experience multiple placement moves. Additionally, children who had already faced school or placement disruption were more likely to experience it in future.

In contrast, “children face a similar risk of experiencing multiple social worker changes regardless of whether they have experienced it previously”, the report said. It acknowledged that there was a “large amount of variation” in levels of social worker instability that could not be explained by any single factor identified by the study.

The report said the 78 local authorities that had provided social worker data would now receive ‘tailor-made’ follow-up analyses into the stability experienced by their looked-after children.

“In return for providing these reports, we will be asking these local authorities to demonstrate how they will use our analysis to drive up outcomes and stability for children in care,” it said.

Ofsted tie-in

Longfield said that in the wake of the report, she wanted to see all local authorities making work to reduce instability a priority.

“I would also like to see Ofsted assessing the stability of children in care as part of their inspections [of children’s services] and for the Department for Education (DfE) to start asking for data on this in their annual returns from local authorities,” she said.

Natasha Finlayson, the chief executive of the Become charity for children in care and care leavers, said the report showed there was still “too much complacency” despite “years” of evidence pointing to the care system failing to deliver stability.

She backed Longfield’s calls for greater involvement by Ofsted and the DfE, saying: “In a context of draconian cuts in public spending, many local authorities will not make the necessary changes unless they are under a legal or regulatory obligation to do so.”

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said the association would be sharing the findings widely and encouraging authorities to learn from good practice by other councils. But, he added, councils had seen the largest increase in numbers of children in care since 2010, while facing “unprecedented” cuts to their budgets.

“There is also a role for government to play, in supporting councils to provide the best possible experience for children in care, and it is disappointing the report makes little mention of this or recognises the funding pressures and demand facing council children’s services,” he said.

“A national workforce strategy would go a long way towards addressing the shortage of children’s social workers,” Watts added. “We would also like to see a national recruitment campaign for foster carers to make sure we have a choice of families to place children with to best meet their needs.”

Alison Michalska, ADCS Immediate Past President, said: “Relationships matter to all children; children and young people in care tell us they value continuity in their social worker.

“As the care population increases so too does our need to recruit more social workers who have the right skills and knowledge to support them. Local authorities continue to use their limited resources to do this locally and regionally but despite our best efforts we still need more people to choose social work as a career and, crucially, to stay in the profession.

“A national recruitment and retention campaign aimed at tackling longstanding stereotypes of the profession head on, one that clearly explains that good social work can, and does, change lives would be an important part of this endeavour. Without a high quality workforce, we as directors of children’s services cannot do our jobs, to create an environment where great social work can flourish, enabling the children in our care to flourish too.”

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