Councils selected to test specialist child protection social worker role

Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverthampton will also trial merging targeted early help and child in need provision within family help teams, as part of government social care reform programme

Social worker making notes
Photo posed by model: Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock

Three councils have been selected to test giving responsibility for child protection cases to specialist social workers over the next two years.

Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton will also trial merging targeted early help with child in need teams within a new family help service, as part of the Department for Education (DfE’s) proposed children’s social care reforms.

The three authorities are the first group of an expected 12 “pathfinders” testing out the families first for children model set out in the DfE’s draft strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, issued in February.

Based on the proposals of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, this would involve:

  • Establishing family help services to provide families in need with multidisciplinary support designed to resolve the issues they face without the need for more intervention, reduce stigma and remove the bureaucracy of stepping cases up and down between targeted early help and child in need.
  • Enabling practitioners other than social workers to hold child in need cases – as defined by section 17 of the Children Act 1989 – removing the prohibition on them doing so set by statutory safeguarding guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children.
  • Having specialist child protection lead practitioners co-work cases with family help teams from the point a local authority initiates a child protection enquiry.

Concerns over safeguarding risks and retention

The reforms are controversial, with the British Association of Social Workers and Ofsted having raised concerns about the safeguarding risks arising from removing the requirement for social workers to hold child in need cases.

Meanwhile, both Ofsted and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have voiced misgivings about the impact of the lead child protection practitioner role on social work retention, in the context of mounting vacancy rates in local authority children’s services.

In its response to Stable Homes, Built on Love, the ADCS said social workers had shared concerns about “the high stakes nature of such a role, particularly if a tragedy sadly occurs”.

“High end child protection work is hard to sustain over long periods of time, it is emotionally taxing and there are few guarantees it will result in practitioners staying in frontline practice,” it added.

The three pathfinder authorities are all rated good (Dorset and Wolverhampton) or outstanding (Lincolnshire) by Ofsted and all have social work vacancy rates below the national average of 20%, as of September 2022, with Dorset’s being 13.8%, Lincolnshire’s 15.6% and Wolverhampton’s 17.6%.

In relation to the number of child protection plans per 10,000 children, as of March 2022, Lincolnshire’s (25.6) was well below the national average of 42.1, Wolverhampton’s was around the England-wide figure (42.3) and Dorset’s was above it (47.7).

Family network pilots

The DfE has also selected seven councils to pilot the use of so-called family network support packages to enable wider family members to step in to prevent children entering the care system when there are risks to them at home. This was also proposed by the care review.

Brighton and Hove, Sunderland, Gateshead and Telford and Wrekin will start their family network pilots this month (July), and Staffordshire, Hartlepool and Hammersmith and Fulham will do so in spring 2024.

The news comes with a recent evaluation having found that using family group conferences (FGCs) – a form of family network decision making – reduced the risk of children going into care 12 months after families entered pre-proceedings.

Meanwhile, councils would be encouraged to refer families to FGCs from early help onwards, under proposed changes to Working Together, which are currently out to consultation.

The 12 families first for children pathfinders and seven family network pilots will receive £45m in funding overall up to March 2025, with £7.8m of this allocated to the latter.

ADCS president John Pearce said the announcement was a “positive step”, but said it was imperative for the learning from the pilots and pathfinders to be shared with the rest of the sector as quickly as possible.

“The earlier we work with, and provide support to, vulnerable children and families to help them overcome the issues they face, and to stay together safely where possible the less impact these challenges will have on their lives but also on society,” said Pearce. “While the investment announced today is welcome, we continue to need a long-term equitable funding solution for children’s services so that all children and families can thrive, wherever they live.”

DfE still looking for regions to test care co-operatives

The department is still looking for two regions to test its plan to regionalise the commissioning of care placements within so-called regional care co-operatives, which would be collectives of local authorities.

RCCs are designed to overcome the challenge of individual councils being too small – and having too few children – to be able to meaningfully shape the services providers offer and ensure that they meet need and are value for money.

The DfE has said that, by operating at much greater scale than councils, RCCs would be much better able to forecast need, and commission sufficient placements, in the right places, to meet it.

It would also be much easier to share learning, good practice and information about the cost and quality of providers between 20 RCCs, compared with 153 councils, improving the quality of commissioning.

However, the ADCS said last month that, while there were “varying degrees of interest in taking up a RCC pathfinder opportunity”, at present, “no region seems to be interested in adopting the approach as outlined by DfE”.

In a separate paper, the association voiced “significant reservations” about the proposal’s capacity to address the challenge of there being insufficient placements of the right kind and quality for children in care.

The association said creating RCCs would be “costly and time consuming” and “may result in a mass exist of providers”, such was the current fragility of the care placements market.

The DfE said the RCC pathfinders would “enable a test and learn approach to find the most effective way of implementing this reform, doing so in conjunction with local government and the children’s social care sector”.

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