For consultant social worker Lydia Sandiford, the introduction of the Family Safeguarding Hertfordshire (FSH) model was the trigger she needed to switch from working agency to becoming a permanent staff member.
“I returned to children’s services at Hertfordshire County Council as agency staff for three months after a career break. I could have stayed in agency longer but FSH was one of the reasons why I decided to become permanent,” she says.
FSH aims to improve the quality of support social workers offer families, parents and children, and fosters partnerships with agencies, such as health (including mental health), probation and substance misuse services, to enrich how that support is delivered. Social workers liaise with staff that have expertise in domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental health, and use motivational interviewing (MI) – a communication style – to help families take the lead in changing negative behaviours in their lives.
For Lydia, who worked in Hertfordshire before and after the roll out of FSH, the transformation has been crystal clear.
“It has been a massive improvement on what we had previously,” she says. “Before FSH and MI was introduced, we would go out and see the family, write down our observations and file our reports,” she says. “But now the process has become more collaborative. We are helping to motivate the families to make changes rather than just going out and collating the information and telling people what they should do.”
According to Ross Williams, Deputy Programme Director for Strengthening Families Protecting Children, Family Safeguarding Hertfordshire (FSH), MI teaches social workers to be sympathetic to families and the challenges they face through an empathetic and supportive approach.
“This helps to reduce conflict and encourages families to look more objectively at their issues,” he says. “When families feel like they have control in shaping their life, it helps to reduce conflict, which has a positive knock-on effect for the child and family and reduces the need to escalate cases and is less stressful for the social worker.”
Social workers are encouraged to analyse the questions they are asking families, ensure these questions are open and make sure they are listening to what the families, parents and children tell them. All interactions with the families, parents and children are documented in a new ‘workbook’ recording system, which acts as a single platform that managers, social workers and adult workers can access.
“With this system, there is a proof of what you are doing, the outcome of the work and if there is a need to revisit aspects of that work or liaise with other agencies, identify any barriers, it is easier to identify that in the ‘workbook’. It makes it so much easier than having to trawl through lots of case notes.”
Hertfordshire pioneered FSH from 2014 prior to its Ofsted inspections a year later. One of the evaluations of FSH was that all team members attended motivational interviewing training from June to December 2015.
Ross says: “Ofsted’s judgement of good with outstanding leadership was certainly welcomed but we were already committed to this whole system change. The learning from inspections showed that a unified practice approach showed better outcomes for children and families. Our adult services (drug and alcohol recovery workers, mental health workers and probation colleagues) all utilities MI in their practice.
Now, the Department for Education is promoting its use more widely through the strengthening families: protection children programme.
With FSH, social workers liaise closely with co-located partner agencies. The approach was already being used to support adults with drug and alcohol issues in Hertfordshire as evidenced in the Family Safeguarding Hertfordshire: an evaluation, document.
There, the evaluation showed that a high proportion of families were affected by parental domestic abuse (44%), alcohol (26%) or drug problems (38%) or depression/anxiety (69%). So, it made sense for children’s services to adopt work closely with these agencies to ensure that they had access to the same support.
“These arrangements focus on a whole family approach,” says Ross. “This makes it easy for parents to access all the support they need from within one team, to help them deal with the complex issues of domestic abuse, mental health and drug/alcohol abuse that harm their lives and those of their children.”
Lydia believes part of its success is that everyone involved in supporting the families takes responsibility for the part they play in family safeguarding.
“The whole process works well when everybody else is working together. We work with the drug and alcohol recovery workers, the domestic violence practitioners and officers, the mental health workers, so it is a collaboration of workers that are working together. It is not just the social worker.
When the workers from the different agencies meet at case supervision, they all contribute to the case analysis and direction, – it is a multi-agency effort in which we are working in the interest of the children and the families.
As a result of the FSH, Hertfordshire has seen the number of children on child protection plans reduce by 55%. Children’s exposure to harmful parental behaviours has dropped and at the same time their school attendance and life chances improved. This has had a knock-on effect on social workers’ caseloads and stress levels and, in turn, positively impacted on work-life balance, according to the council.
Lydia professional experience supports that too. “I would say that more than 50% of the cases that I’ve been involved in in the three years I have not come back to children’s services, so that must be a success for those families.”
“I am not going to lie and say that social work isn’t stressful, but it is far more manageable this way,” says Lydia. “I can look at a case and think where am I at with this one, what else can I do, who else can I get involved in this one, what am I going to discuss with my manager about it, it is almost contained in the ‘workbook’, and I can easily identify what is not working and how we can make that change. Everything is a challenge but when you start seeing the level of impact, and the effect that it is having on families and that you are getting the best results, it makes such a difference.”
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