Flanked by her assistant team manager Louise, a social worker in her Assessed and Supported Year in Employment, is presenting the story of a family with complex difficulties to senior managers in Bexley’s children’s services.
These case management review (CMR) meetings aren’t about monitoring or auditing. Instead, they are a chance for social workers to tap into the experience of senior leaders and get help to support families where things just don’t seem to be getting any better. They are a critical moment where all possibilities to support the family to stay together are discussed, turned upside down and inside out to make sure that the best next steps are agreed.
Edyta Brown, team manager for the London borough’s family support and child protection south west locality team, says CMR meetings are about “opening up that bigger conversation about services and wider input that can be used for the family”.
‘Help rather than scrutinise’
This CMR is Louise’s first chance to present to the panel, which is today staffed by the head of service for family support and child protection, the service manager for referral and assessment, a senior social worker, and the team manager for the ‘Staying Together’ team.
“It is about having that platform for senior leaders to see what is happening in practice,” says Edyta. “There isn’t an element of ‘let us make sure everything is going well’. The way the family discussions are held show they are there to help rather than scrutinise, I guess this is why my experience of CMR has been really positive.
“If things aren’t going fantastically, you feel you can go and discuss that and not be blamed because everything isn’t going as well as it could.”
That is Louise’s experience today too. Her 40-minute review ends with a clear set of next steps for her family in difficulty and praise from senior managers about the way she presented.
This supportive approach to practice comes through in every aspect of practicing social work in Bexley – an open, collaborative and practice-focussed culture underpinned by a strong understanding of Signs of Safety. It’s a culture that got Bexley an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted in 2018.
Caseload of 15
Bexley’s reputation and approach to practice attracted Becci Flegg, a senior practitioner in family support and child protection, to join the authority in August 2018. A social worker of four years, Becci had been waiting for a position to open in Bexley after hearing positive reviews from inspectors and friends who worked at the council.
A big message that filtered down to her was how caseloads are closely monitored, which she has found is the case since she started work at the council.
“My caseload at the moment is 15 children and young people,” she says. “You are actually more able to do things like meaningful direct work and purposeful visits, I feel a lot more on top of my cases than perhaps I have done previously because of the caseloads. There are a lot more resources in Bexley, which means we can do more for our children and young people.”
Bexley sets a limit of 17 children per social worker, and Becci says managers are aware of complexity when allocating cases too. Her children and families reflect her experience. There is a flexible approach to the number of children a practitioner can support, especially if some are likely to involve more intense work or court proceedings.
Becci also relishes the opportunities being a senior practitioner in Bexley gives her.
Her previous senior practitioner position came with management responsibilities, which she didn’t enjoy, but Bexley’s structure of having an assistant team manager and team manager in every team gives her space to focus on families, and ultimately progress without moving away from practice.
Senior practitioner support
Fresh from her CMR meeting, Louise reflects on how she feels supported, not just in that meeting but ever since joining Bexley a couple of months earlier.
“I always ask colleagues if I can get their view on something. Everyone is always happy to offer help and guidance where they can,” she says.
Isabelle, another social worker on their ASYE, agrees. She says CMR meetings are not the only times practitioners get access to senior leadership.
The service is based in a new, open-plan office, and while there is hotdesking it is ‘managed’. Teams sit together and there isn’t such a demand for places that social workers find themselves on different floors to their colleagues. As such, new social workers and experienced ones can rely on the immediate wisdom of senior practitioners all around them.
This is evident in teams. After lunch, it is time for Edyta to facilitate group case supervision, where a social worker presents the story of one family to the team and they reflect on it using a Signs of Safety approach.
A genogram is drawn and stuck to the wall, and the team together walks through past harm, what is going well and what the current concerns and complicating factors are before sharing hypotheses on why things are the way they are for the family, and how to take it forward. Strength and safety-based questions are workshopped around the table before a ‘danger statement’ and ‘safety goal’ are written, with each practitioner mapping which one they feel best describes the experiences of the children.
After an hour and a half, the social worker leaves the room with a new list of actions and a refreshed perspective, critically one which respects the family’s wisdom about what might help them to remain together with their children if it can be made safe enough.
Edyta explains the ethos behind meetings like this: “It makes you feel less alone. It is a forum to open up that discussion about how things can be going differently. The nature of social work is that I think you can get quite wrapped up in a situation and group supervision offers a platform to take a step back and expand your thinking.”
Becci says she couldn’t have asked for a better place to take the next step of her social work career into.
“It’s a place where you can come back from a visit and have a parking space, come back and have a desk, where the managers are hot on taking time back if you have worked extra hours, all the stuff which takes the pressure off the job. You get supervision when you’re supposed to have it, and it is social worker led,” Becci explains.
“I know personally that I want to be an excellent social worker but I love my families and I don’t want to go into management, so coming to Bexley and having the option to remain completely in practice at the frontline, means I can really be the practitioner I want to be.”