Workforce Insights

Hertfordshire County Council

Frontline view

“The family safeguarding model gives families the platform to tell us who they are – not what they are”

Members of Hertfordshire County Council's family safeguarding team

Hertfordshire County Council pioneered the family safeguarding model, which has enabled many more children to stay with their families and is now being replicated by several other councils. More than five years on, social workers discuss its ongoing impact in the county.

Hertfordshire County Council applied to the Department for Education for the innovation fund in 2015, and was awarded a grant to create the family safeguarding model. Hertfordshire’s family safeguarding model has been described as a ‘real strength’ by Ofsted and was cited in ‘The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – The Case for Change’ as effective at preventing children from becoming looked after and reducing the numbers of children on child protection plans. The model brings together professionals working with families and uses strength-based tool – motivational interviewing (MI) – to engage better in meeting their needs.

The Hertfordshire Family Safeguarding project team are currently supporting six authorities under a £84m five-year programme. The latest authority to benefit is Wandsworth, the only London borough in the programme, says Raj Chibber, head of family safeguarding East Herts.

Collaborative working

There are five core elements to the council’s model. It uses multi-disciplinary teams consisting of specialist adult workers with domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental health expertise working within social work teams. The model has since expanded to include education attainment officers for children and specialists from probation who support social workers with undertaking assessments and treatment of adults posing a risk of sexual abuse.

“We recognise that some of these complex family issues around mental health, substance misuse, domestic abuse do not just sit with social workers,” says Raj. “What the grant allowed us to do was create a model that brought together professionals from mental health services, probation, and substance misuse services, so that social workers weren’t the only ones doing the intervention into these families lives.”

MI is used to better engage and structure conversations with families. And ensuring that families come up with their own plans is another important facet to the model, says Raj.

“One of the ways we do that is by getting families to start the conversation. It is about getting them to understand the process and asking them how they see themselves. That helps to change the dynamics of our engagement with families.”

The wider family network is actively encouraged to participate in supporting and protecting the child, as well and this helps to ensure a family-led plan, Raj says.

“It’s made a huge difference and we have seen engagement levels improve. This is because families are more likely to engage if they are involved in that initial planning stage.”

The model is motivating, so it makes it easier for me to engage with families

Meanwhile, case notes are recorded using an electronic workbook, which aims to share and reduce the amount of time practitioners spend on reporting.

Social workers record family assessments in an electronic workbook, which other multi-disciplinary practitioners can access through a secondary workbook. The second workbook feeds into the main one practitioners populate with information containing the information on each family. This ensures that there is a transparent trail of work that managers can follow and audit.

Practitioners also benefit from monthly supervision attended by adult workers, which allows them to jointly assess and discuss outcomes before agreeing the next steps.

In addition, there is an eight-module intervention programme and parenting assessment that provides the structure for social workers supporting children and families through the safeguarding model. The parenting assessment enables practitioners to capture the work completed through the intervention programme and document the outcomes achieved.

Greater engagement

For Tom Hughes, a senior practitioner in Hertfordshire County Council’s family safeguarding team North Herts, the model has helped to make his work less prescriptive.

“The model is motivating, so it makes it easier for me to engage with families,” he says. “And when families see change happening, they are more likely to sustain that motivation.”

“Inherently, I believe that families want to change and want a better life. Giving them that platform and that power to change their lives makes my job more fulfilling. I don’t, therefore, feel like I am policing families and being prescriptive.

“The model has helped us to move away from labelling the dysfunction in a family – ie the mother is a drunk or the children play truant – because those are the problems, they are not the people. Rather, I am supporting them and that is really the reason why I came into social work in the first place. That is one of the best things about the model – it helps us to get to know families better and gives them a platform to open up and tell us who they are – not what they are.”

Cyclical model

The cyclical nature of this model is another asset that social workers like Tom appreciate.

“Rather than progression being linear, it is cyclical which means there is always scope for the families and the social workers to revisit part of the process. This means the model is always open to refinement and that allows it to evolve with the family, their circumstances, their narrative and what they want to achieve,” he explains.

Barinder Minhas, a consultant social worker in family safeguarding north Herts, agrees.

“This process helps parents to recognise the impact that their behaviour has on the children and that helps them to reflect, open up and make changes. It is about giving people the platform to change and the belief that they can change, and that is something that I find really satisfying. Having the model definitely makes me proud to work at Herts.”

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Photo; Monster Ztudio/Adobe Stock

Career development

Not only has the model helped Hertfordshire keep children at home with their families, but it has also helped the council reclaim some of their social care expertise in such areas as court work.

“We had lost some of that recognition of expertise in the social work profession,” says Raj. “But through this model, social workers can feel confident in presenting their evidence and being regarded as the experts in court.”

Other career development areas exist for experienced social worker looking to progress at Hertfordshire. These include continuous professional development in practice lecturing, post qualifying awards, research options within leadership development programmes that are available for aspiring team managers, as well as supervisory programmes and level 6 chartered management development programmes.

For social workers that want to remain in practice, there are practice development lead roles, and ASYE coordinator roles aimed at supporting and developed newly qualified social workers.

Training opportunities

A range of training opportunities are available, says Tom, including such roles as forensic social work, training in adverse childhood experiences, police victim training and abuse. Tom is completing a course in infant mental health at the University of Warwick.

“As a practitioner, I feel valued and confident about the future of my career progression,” he says. “There is investment in training, time, views and opinions, as well as good connections with management. We also have weekly practice training every week with Dr Peter Buzzi, who gives forums on a range of topics, including worker resilience, service user illness, bereavement, loss and alcoholism [which has increased during lockdown], and suicide prevention.”

This focus on the social worker is also visible in their work/life balance. Practitioners have the flexibility to continue working from home and are supported through personal and monthly work supervision. Management is also visible and available.

HCC has developed a flexible and hybrid model of practice designed to offer staff a good work-life balance and the opportunities to collaborate and support one another. This model of practice was informed by staff engagement sessions and surveys. Work is ongoing to adopt successes such as cutting down journey times, online meetings, including virtual court.

“I’ve worked in smaller authorities than Hertfordshire where there wasn’t that visibility of management. But despite its size, Hertfordshire feels very connected,” says Tom.

Matt Ansell, operations director in children and families, says: “We regularly hear how the family safeguarding model empowers social workers, adult practitioners and other staff to work with families in a strengths-based way and focus back to what we’re here to do – keep children safely with their families.”

Interested in learning more about Hertfordshire?

If you are passionate about good outcomes for children and families and wish to join the council in making a difference, Hertfordshire is recruiting to various roles across statutory social work teams including assessment, family safeguarding and children looked after.