Workloads and lack of supervision undermining child protection practice, find studies

SCR analysis says high workloads limited time social workers had for effective professional challenge, while annual safeguarding panel report finds lack of supervision a feature in most reported cases

why question on a sticky note, asking for a reason or explanation
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High workloads and a lack of supervision are undermining the professional curiosity and challenge needed for effective child protection practice, research has found.

Several serious case reviews found that high workloads meant social workers lacked the time to build the effective relationships necessary to exercise effective challenge in families where children were at risk, according to the latest – and final – three-year analysis of SCRs, covering 2017-19.

And inadequate quality and frequency of supervision was a factor in two-thirds of local reviews of serious cases in 2021 analysed by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel for its annual report, issued – like the SCR analysis – last week.

The panel, which is appointed by government to advise on safeguarding and analyse serious cases, said practitioners were frequently overreliant on parents’ accounts of events, and did not probe further, and linked this to the lack of supervision.

Its report also outlined issues with risk assessment, information sharing and escalation of concerns and led the panel to renew its calls for the government to set up expert multi-agency units in every area to take responsibility for child protection cases.

‘Children cannot afford to wait for reform’

Annie Hudson, chair, Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel

Annie Hudson, chair, Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel

“Our annual report shows that while many professionals work hard to protect children, there are fault lines in the system that inhibit good information-sharing, risk assessment and critical analysis and challenge,” said panel chair Annie Hudson.

“It is now time to make changes in how agencies work together to protect and safeguard children, building on what is working and creating the right conditions to support the very best multi-agency practice. Children cannot afford to wait.”

The Department for Education is due to respond to the panel’s call – made in its inquiry into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson – early in the new year, alongside the DfE’s response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, and an implementation plan.

The panel called on the DfE to “urgently release its plans to reform children’s social care and to strengthen the child protection system”.

‘Lack of effective challenge’

As with the panel’s review of the murders of Arthur and Star, both its annual report and the SCR review – carried out by academics at Birmingham and East Anglia universities – highlighted a lack of effective professional challenge as a key practice issue.

An analysis of 23 of the SCRs – found to be broadly reflective of the 166 reports studied – found that the issue occurred frequently, including practitioners not questioning parents’ accounts of events or not following up on missed medical appointments.

Drawing on previous studies, it highlighted the challenges for social workers and other practitioners in balancing building a respectful and supportive relationship with parents with adopting a critical and investigative stance.

Several SCRs identified workload issues – including limited resources, high caseloads and high staff turnover – as a barrier to effective challenge because they undermined professionals’ ability to build relationships with families.

While reviews also identified frequent examples of professionals working hard to overcome this barrier, they found practitioners had to make time to do so, “often going over and above the allotted time permitted by their agencies”.

Working with ‘hostile families’

The dynamics of relationships with parents also presented a barrier to effective challenge, the report found, with SCRs saying practitioners found parents “difficult to engage”, challenging or, in some cases, hostile.

“Within these SCRs, there is evidence that working with hostile families could shut down professional curiosity, derailing appropriate challenge and inquiry,” the report said.

In one case of intrafamilial sexual abuse, where the family had made threats to professionals’ lives and pursued neighbours who provided evidence against them, practitioners “withdrew from the family and avoided asking challenging questions about the children’s welfare”.

However, the particular SCR found no evidence that safety plans were drawn up for professionals by employers, despite the threats having been made to their lives.

Organisations ‘need to promote physical and psychological safety’

The research report stressed that practitioners needed to feel safe to exercise professional curiosity, meaning organisations had to have robust safety policies, such as lone working protocols, and procedures that supported psychological safety.

This included providing the “space and support to discuss and process the powerful emotions evoked by challenging encounters with service users”.

However, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s annual report found a lack of frequency and quality of supervision was a factor in 268 (67.3%) of the 379 local rapid reviews into serious cases that it analysed.

It said good supervision was a “crucial component” of an organisational culture that supported critical thinking and professional challenge, by enabling supervisors to scrutinise practitioners’ attitudes and assumptions and help keep a focus on the child’s lived experience.

“This was noted by the analysis of rapid reviews which concluded that practitioners need to be supported to further develop their skills in providing good and sensitive challenge to families and other professionals through regular quality supervision. This will enable a move from a reliance on self-reported information when assessing risk,” the panel’s report added.

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5 Responses to Workloads and lack of supervision undermining child protection practice, find studies

  1. TiredSocialWorker December 21, 2022 at 11:48 am #

    How many more reports are going to be written that tell us what we aleady know.

  2. Dave December 23, 2022 at 2:17 pm #

    Dear Tired SW. I know where you are coming from. Best wishes. I’m on the verge of giving up on this profession

  3. Lisa a December 27, 2022 at 6:27 pm #

    wow spoiler alert this has been an issue since the 1990’s nothings changed, we the social workers on the front line could have told you this…

  4. Chris January 4, 2023 at 8:58 pm #

    Sw have become very expensive admin officers
    Typing a single Child and family assessment can take a whole day not including the time spent chasing agencies for info

    Duplication of the same info on our systems is very much like the duplication of these reports that tell us what we already know

  5. alex January 6, 2023 at 10:02 pm #

    That’s a shock…