Family safeguarding model ‘replicable and effective’ in cutting care numbers and protection plans

Evaluation of approach pioneered in Hertfordshire, which embeds specialist adult practitioners in children's social work teams, finds it has expanded successfully across other areas

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The family safeguarding model is “replicable and effective” in preventing children coming into care and reducing child protection plan numbers, a second evaluation of the project has found.

The approach was one of a minority of 50 children’s social care initiatives, funded by the Department for Education (DfE) under its Innovation Programme, to be assessed as delivering significant measurable benefits in a recent review.

Family safeguarding sees specialist adult-focused practitoners – with expertise in domestic abuse, mental health or substance misuse – integrated within children’s safeguarding teams – with the aim of providing comprehensive support. A 2017 report into its impact within Hertfordshire, which pioneered the model, found it had reduced the number of child protection plans by a third over 15 months and had saved the council millions of pounds.

The new evaluation, which included four other authorities – Bracknell Forest, Luton, Peterborough and West Berkshire – that implemented family safeguarding following a second round of DfE funding, concluded that it has cemented its benefits.

Statistically significant cuts in the rate of children becoming looked-after were observed in four of the five councils, while this was also true in relation to numbers on child protection plans in the four authorities which provided data. The report also recorded striking reductions in police callouts to families in receipt of services, and in the frequency of mental health crisis contacts, and estimated that annual savings achieved by family safeguarding would exceeded costs within two years, with authorities breaking even on the model shortly afterwards and making savings thereafter.

A further nine councils are now in the process of adopting it – with some self-funding and others supported by government money – meaning family safeguarding could soon feature in almost 10% of local authority children’s services.

Tackling ‘unintended consequences of specialisation’

Hertfordshire’s original bid for the DfE’s cash said the council wished to tackle concerns about “the unintended consequences” of the specialisation of adults’ and children’s social care with a view to providing better whole-family support.

As summarised in the recent evaluation, the model’s aims for families are to:

  • Increase engagement with professionals, leading to more help and support.
  • Provide a multi-disciplinary approach that addresses both parents’ and children’s needs.
  • Deliver more responsive support, reducing drift and delay.
  • Keep more “high-risk families” together safely.
  • Improve children’s health and educational outcomes.
  • Enabling professionals to do more direct work with families.

For practitioners, the model is intended to facilitate more direct work, more sharing of skills and decision-making, and reduced social work caseloads. All these attributes are meant to combine in order to deliver services more cost-effectively, via improved partnership working.

‘We don’t just whiz in and try to fix things’

“We are trying to empower families to implement changes they recognise for themselves – the family safeguarding model acknowledges the complexity of the world we are stepping into,” says social worker Elizabeth Gladwin, who has been practising in Hertfordshire for two years.

“We don’t whiz in and try to fix things, we are there to unpick, explore, be a sounding board to empower adults in the system to help with positive changes for children.” Gladwin cites the input of specialist mental health, domestic abuse and substance misuse practitioners as “invaluable” to the council’s children’s social workers.

“I would estimate that for nearly every family we will have some kind of adult worker involvement – a substance misuse concern could be six months, or on the flipside it could be the need for an immediate safety plan,” she says.

“Being able to reach out to practitioners who can step in the next day, to have a session straight away, is so vital in certain circumstances, then perhaps that mutates into a longer relationship – it’s that flexibility.” Gladwin describes one instance in which a domestic abuse officer, who works specifically with perpetrators, had achieved a “massive shift” with one father by working with him to imagine his daughters as young adults and the impact his previous behaviours could have on their perception of healthy relationships.

“We have group case supervision, where we share what work has been done, which can influence my work. The domestic abuse officer shared his piece of work with me and then when I saw the dad following week I was able to touch upon that,” she says. “He showed really insightful reflection, having previously been dismissive and minimised what had gone on in that relationship.”

Five key elements

The family safeguarding model is built on five key elements.

Most notably, and underpinning Hertfordshire’s original intent to bridge the divide between children’s and adults’ services, family safeguarding teams comprise both children’s social workers and specialist adult practitioners.

The latter bring expertise focused in domestic abuse, mental ill-health and substance misuse, and can be drawn upon both to deliver intensive short-notice interventions or to build longer-term relationships with parents. Domestic abuse specialists are available to work with perpetrators as well as victims.

Social workers and their colleagues participate in monthly group supervisions in which cases can be jointly reviewed and decisions taken.

Another “cornerstone” of the model is the use of motivational interviewing, a strength-based technique via which practitioners work alongside people in order to support them to make changes in their behaviour. It is frequently characterised as a ‘do with’ rather than ‘do to’ approach.

The final two elements are more procedural: an eight-module framework around which practitioners’ interventions with families are structured, and an ‘electronic workbook’ meant to help them manage caseloads more effectively.

‘Participatory, supportive and empowering’

Across all five of the local authorities using family safeguarding, there was a “clear consensus [it generates] greater impacts for children and families” than the systems it replaced, the new evaluation said.

The review cited experienced social workers in each authority describing it as the best model they had used, with parents and carers describing processes as “participatory, supportive and empowering”.

Almost nine out of 10 (87%) of practitioners interviewed during a 2019 survey that formed part of the review said family safeguarding had improved families’ engagement with social workers and others.

Feedback both from professionals and parents and carers said the crucial driver of this was a shift towards more empathetic and less didactic practice, which was closely linked to the use of motivational interviewing.

“I liked how the social worker took me seriously and listened to my opinion,” one parent was quoted in the report as saying. “I felt I was included and we have got on much better because of that.”

The multi-disciplinary model was also praised by parents and carers for providing them with quick access to specialist support, from workers who they did not have to repeat their story to because of them being co-located with social workers.

However, only half (53%) of professionals felt it had helped them manage cases better, with the review concluding this was the “least well-received” element of the model.

Cost benefits

The wider review of the Innovation Programme mentioned family safeguarding as delivering “significant” or “strong” evidence of having positive impact in three key areas: reducing child protection plans, cutting the numbers of children in care and saving money.

The new evaluation found the numbers of under-12s on a child protection plans dropped in four of the five councils evaluated (figures were not provided for Luton).

Figures for looked-after children of the same age-group dropped in all five authorities compared with their predecessor practice models, albeit at different rates. The study said these were influenced by demographics and other factors including the stability of senior leadership.

Accordingly there was also considerable variation between councils in how cost-benefits were achieved, with Hertfordshire breaking even on the total cost of adopting family safeguarding within eight months, while Bracknell Forest was projected to take almost five years.

“Setup costs are, in proportionate terms higher in the smaller authorities than in Hertfordshire (or other larger authorities),” the study report noted.

‘Bold steps’

Commenting on the evaluation, Lou Williams, the service director for children and safeguarding for Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, where family safeguarding is also being established, said: “I would like to thank our committed and innovative teams for making our model such a great success, and our colleagues from Hertfordshire who have done so much to support us.”

In Peterborough, where care proceedings have fallen to an all-time low, families “tell us the approach has made a massive difference, enabling them to address longstanding difficulties in their lives, to the benefit of their children,” Williams said.

Teresa Heritage, Hertfordshire’s cabinet member for children, young people and families, said: “As a result of this innovative and collaborative practice, we are improving the lives of our most vulnerable children and families, fewer children are coming into care and by investing in different ways of safeguarding children, we are reducing costs across partner agencies.”

“I am pleased this report endorses the bold steps our partnership took to develop better ways of working with families,” Heritage added. “This is the second independent evaluation commissioned by the DfE that recommends the model should be rolled out to even more authorities and we wish all new adopters every success in their ambition to keep more vulnerable children safely in their families, strengthening the resilience of their local communities.”

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