Story updated 30 August 2021
The vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has described as a “significant concern” suggestions made by the children’s care review of separating early help and child protection services.
“We don’t think [separating services] is a good move,” Steve Crocker, who is also the DCS in Hampshire, told Community Care this week in an interview following the closing date for submissions responding to the review’s initial ‘case for change’ report.
The case for change, published in June, made a series of initial diagnoses of areas in which the review – led by former Frontline chief Josh MacAlister – believes the children’s social care system needs reform. These included a critique of its focus on assessment and investigation at the expense of support.
“How do we address the tension between protection and support in children’s social care that families describe?” it asked. “Is a system which undertakes both support for families and child protection impeded in its ability to do both well?”
ADCS was one of a number of organisations that responded last week to the case for change and argued that support and protection are part of a “continuum” and must not be separated. “Not one single family’s distress would be ameliorated by a technocratic debate about structural reform,” the association’s response warned.
Referencing the government’s attempt to reorganise – and part-privatise – the national probation service from 2014, which ended last year with its return to public control, Crocker said splitting functions was “not a good reform methodology”.
“All of the evidence, I think, points in the other direction – that you need a continuum of services, and the minute you start building artificial walls between services, you just create a ping-pong that [sees] families fall between stools,” Crocker added. “What we would prefer to see is a really comprehensive early help strategy, well-funded and well thought out.”
‘Reassign some roles to wider workforce’
Crocker reiterated ADCS’ mixed views over the case for change’s call for an end to a “staggering misuse” of children’s social workers not working directly with children and families.
“If we consider that the greatest value of social work is in the interaction between social workers and children and families, then it should be an ongoing source of alarm that one in three of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children or families,” the case for change says.
ADCS said in its response that “we should guard against jumping to conclusions that non-case holding social work roles add to a level of bureaucracy that is problematic”. It listed MASH teams, social workers in supervision and support functions and practice supervisors as examples of “critical social work roles that do not involve working directly with families”.
More on the care review
But the association said some non-direct social work activities could be redefined as “not a social work task” and could be taken on by “the wider workforce” instead. It also suggested that controversial proposals to remove independent reviewing officers (IROs) and second fostering social workers for long-term placements, made in the 2018 Foster Care in England report, could be considered by the review.
“We are not saying they necessarily have to be done away with but they certainly should form part of the review,” said Crocker. “We can’t have some bits of the system – the Jenga blocks that Josh [compares the children’s social care system to] – that are sacred and some bits that aren’t.
“It is about that whole picture around what is a social work task and who can do what, who should be prioritised to do what,” Crocker said. “That includes people like IROs, people like fostering workers.”
‘You can’t say there needs to be a maximum caseload’
Expanding on the case for change’s criticism of a system in which social workers spend too long on admin tasks, Crocker said there were “a range of other ways in which you can free up people’s time”.
ADCS’ response emphasises that social workers need manageable caseloads “to implement the relationship-based, trauma informed practice” that enables them to work safely and supportively with families.
“In Hampshire, we put a lot of energy into helping social workers to have good administrative support so they don’t have to do all the day-to-day bureaucracy,” Crocker said.
But he downplayed an apparent suggestion in ADCS’s response to the case for change that social workers’ caseloads could be capped, as family nurses’ are.
“You can’t say there needs to be a maximum caseload, because you then have to think about what happens when there’s a particular set of circumstances in an area which means you go above the maximum,” Crocker said. “You can’t just have a waiting list because those children need to be seen urgently.”
In its response, ADCS welcomed the care review’s recognition of the impact of factors such as child poverty, which have fuelled rises in social workers’ caseloads and their increasing focus on acute interventions. But it urged the review to “seek to understand not only the symptoms, but the root causes and solutions” – including around the impact of welfare and benefit policies and public spending – that impact children’s lives.
“We think the report should be more ambitious – it is difficult to think you should focus on the social care system without some reference to children’s experience of poverty, inequality, educational attainment and so on, which is why we always talk about one system for children,” Crocker said.
A similar point was made by Nagalro, which represents family court social workers, which stressed that children’s social care did not exist in a silo and could not control the factors that drove demand for its services.
It said that the review “[failed] to grasp…that the drivers for increased demand for children’s social care are outside the world of the children so that unless and until we seize the larger nettles of mental health, poverty, housing and abuse any reform will largely be in vain”.
Ofsted’s national director for regulation and social care Yvette Stanley also pushed back against the case for change’s notion that children’s social work is “complicated, bureaucratic and risk averse”, arguing that some indirect work is important.
“Case recording, reflection and supervision, for example, are all integral and important parts of getting it right for children and families now, and for the future (for example, to help children in care understand their histories),” she said.
“We would suggest that it is more appropriate to reflect on the need for the right balance of direct work and other meaningful activity.
“Similarly, we acknowledge that social work needs to be creative and flexible, but an over-emphasis on ‘freedom’ or autonomy may ignore some important issues of accountability.
“Shared decision-making with appropriate oversight is usually safer for children. Without the right support systems and appropriate oversight, families’ experiences of social care are likely to be more random and inconsistent.”
Other organisations echoed the broad themes addressed by Crocker, in different ways, in their responses to the case for change.
Like ADCS, the Local Government Association (LGA) advised the care review to look at other services that have been “fragmented” by the government before making any such moves around children’s social care.
“Family support, early help and safeguarding services do not operate in silos, rather they operate across a spectrum to support children and families according to their changing needs,” its response said.
“Locating these services together allows services to be more responsive to need, avoids children and families falling through service gaps and where this works well, avoids children and families having to re-tell their stories to multiple professionals.”
Others argued that the case for change had failed to understand the legislation underpinning children’s social work when drawing a distinction between “non-statutory” support and “statutory” protection.
“The CfC framing of ‘statutory’ and ‘non-statutory’ provision wrongly suggests that family support services are provided on a non-statutory basis,” said the response from the Care Review Watch Alliance (CWRA), a collective of care experienced people, care professionals and academics.
“This is a stark omission on the part of the CfC which is a deep source of concern,” added the response, which questioned why the case for change had not included a “fundamental endorsement” of the Children Act 1989.
BASW England’s response – based on a survey of social workers, who complained they had been ‘misrepresented’ by the care review – made similar points.
“Some members pointed out that family support and section 17 is a statutory duty,” it said. “The report’s separation between statutory duty to investigate and non-statutory duty to provide support is either a misinterpretation or disingenuous.”
‘Pointing the finger’
BASW was not the only organisation to sound the alarm about how social workers’ roles were characterised in the case for change.
While the report described practitioners as being children’s social care’s “greatest asset”, the LGA noted that MacAlister had described “a runaway train of child protection investigations” in media interviews. “[This] pointed the finger at social workers, reinforced feelings that [they] are undervalued and lacking the respect they deserve,” it said.
It added: “We urge the review to carefully consider how we can elevate the status of children’s social workers, not only to ensure they feel supported and empowered to carry out their roles effectively, but to encourage others to join the profession.”
The LGA said the care review had “failed to acknowledge” the role of Ofsted in fuelling rising s47 investigations and risk-averse practice. It quoted a respondent to the 2018 Care Crisis Review: “Inspection regimes and court process create a constant pressure and expectations which at times pushes [social work] into process thinking rather than balanced professional judgement.”
Children’s rights charity Article 39 also pushed back on MacAlister’s ‘runaway train’ analogy, highlighting the high numbers of children who had suffered serious harm, including death, sexual abuse and abduction during 2020.
“The review expresses concern about the rising number of Section 47 investigations (whose statutory purpose is for local authorities to decide whether to take action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare – there is nothing in the legislation which requires this to be punitive),” Article 39’s response said. “[But] it makes no suggestions about the kinds of scenarios where it believes it is not appropriate for the state to enquire about a child’s welfare.”
Article 39 was one of a number of respondents to urge the care review to recognise the distinction between unhelpful administrative jobs forced on social workers, and “professional tasks that enhance direct work” such as planning and liaising with other agencies.
“We reject the assertion that social work suffers from too many ‘professional observers who are not directly involved in practice’,” the charity – which has strongly opposed any dilution of the IRO role – said in its submission.
A group of leading social work academics levelled a similar accusation, claiming the case for change “fails to promote discussion on the distinctions between unhelpful administrative requirements and vital safeguards that provide the kinds of robust challenge necessary in a democratic society when the state intervenes in family life”.
‘Dangerous illusion’ of omitting austerity impacts
The academics were among a number of respondents to criticise the case for change for playing down the impact of central government’s austerity policies since 2010 on local authority budgets and their children’s social care services.
This promoted “the dangerous illusion that all that is required is for social workers and local authorities to change their practices and simply reorient what they are doing”, they said.
The case for change highlights a decrease in spending across the country on “non-statutory” preventative children’s services from around £3.5bn in 2012-13 to £2.3bn in 2019-20, with “statutory” funding for interventions increasing from £6.6bn to £8.2bn in that time.
But the group of academics, Article 39 and the CRWA all said in their submissions that the case for change should have used 2010, when the coalition government came to office, as the baseline year for its spending comparison to give a truer reflection of the impact of austerity.
Analysis for the Children’s Commissioner for England by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported that total expenditure on children’s services in England increased from around £4.8bn in 2000-01 to £9.7bn in 2009-10, Article 39 noted.
“From this point onwards, there followed nearly a decade of reduced [real-terms] spending on children in need and their families as part of successive governments’ austerity programme,” the charity said.
The care review’s deadline for detailed submissions to the case for change passed on 13 August. A statement issued by the review this week said the review had received “more than 300 responses” from people and organisations. “We’ll be reading through the responses in the coming weeks and delving into the issues in more detail,” it added.