You know the headlines. Demand for children’s social services is soaring. In the past decade, the number of section 47 enquiries has more than doubled. The number of looked-after children is at its highest level since 1989.
It’s a situation all too familiar to social workers throughout England. But Hertfordshire County Council’s bucking the trend.
In Hertfordshire, fewer children are going on child protection plans and entering care proceedings. Re-referrals are falling as is the time children spend in care.
The big reason why is the Family Safeguarding Approach, the council created and introduced three and a half years ago.
Liz Wood, service manager for the family safeguarding service in east Hertfordshire, remembers the reasoning for the change well.
“Given the national trends, it was clear something wasn’t working in children’s social care,” she says. “We concluded we had to think about what we could do differently to make social work more successful.”
Getting parents invested
With investment from the Department for Education’s innovation fund, the council reimagined its children’s social care service. The aim was to safely maintain children with their families by working with parents in a more positive and empowering way.
Liz says that parental engagement is critical to fostering long-term change for families: “If a parent gets why it’s good to change, they will be more invested in that change.
“All wagging your finger at them does is get a token response or refusal to engage. Families can be like teenagers – if you tell them you can’t do this, that’s what they’re going to do.”
Hertfordshire responded by creating co-located, multi-agency teams that brought together practitioners from both children and adult services.
Going beyond signposting
Co-locating the workers makes for better and more fluid communication. It also enhances the services’ ability to understand and address the needs of parents and children alike.
“We go beyond just signposting and assessing parents – families now get a parenting intervention, which involves eight modules of work around parenting capacity,” says Liz.
“If a family has domestic abuse and drug and alcohol misuse, we can key in the appropriate adults’ professionals for one-to-one work.
“The adults’ practitioners can also use the impact on the child to motivate parents – for example with parents under the influence of substances they can work with parents to think about what it’s like for their child to come home from school and find mummy and daddy comatose on the sofa.”
Seeing families in the round
As well as children and adults’ workers doing joint visits to families, they also come together for group case supervision sessions.
These multi-agency meetings review cases and use the insights from both adult and children’s practitioners to make a better, more complete assessment of the risk a child faces.
“For example, a children’s social worker might see a parent who is a long-term drug user as high risk,” says Liz.
“But the substance misuse worker who is engaging with that parent might have seen changes that are positive, such as them using drugs away from the family, that could help enable the child to remain with their family.”
Motivating parents to change
Motivational interviewing sits at the heart of Hertfordshire’s Family Safeguarding Approach, Liz adds.
“Motivational interview allows us to communicate with families in a way that makes families feel listened to. It makes families think about what they should do and reach the conclusion that they should do that themselves. Not that we avoid the issues – we can’t – but it’s about working together with families.
Liz says parents now tell the service they feel listened to and understand why the social workers are there.
“Before families felt social services went in looking for evidence to take their children away instead of starting from a stance of trying to support them to keep their children,” she says.
“Now, they appreciate having the adult workers’ support. They feel like we recognise that they have a need too and that we are, through the one-to-one empowerment work, assisting them with that need.”
Delivering reasonable caseloads
Children’s social workers in Hertfordshire also much prefer the Family Safeguarding Approach.
“Social workers like working here because our approach is all about direct work,” says Liz. “It’s about doing interventions and prevention work and that only works when social workers have a reasonable caseload, which, fortunately, we as an authority have been able to deliver.
“It’s still hard work and there are long hours as this kind of direct work requires preparation and more visits, but retention in our teams is very good. Our social workers like and believe in the approach.
“At the end of the day, that’s because they want to protect children and keep them safe. No social worker wants to go into a home and have to do that awful thing of telling a child they are going to a foster home tonight.”