Introducing specialist child protection social workers is posing workforce challenges for the councils testing the system.
Issues included retaining staff, maintaining safeguarding skills among other social workers and avoiding disruption to families as a result of the reform.
Leaders from Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton councils relayed the messages in a session at this week’s National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC) on their experience as families first for children pathfinders.
Testing children’s social care reforms
The three – who will be joined on the programme by other councils next year – are testing four of the key planks of the government’s children’s social care reform plan, Stable Homes, Built on Love:
- Setting up multi-disciplinary family help teams, through the merger of existing targeted early help and child in need services, to provide more effective and non-stigmatising support to families.
- Appointing experienced and skilled social workers as lead child protection practitioners (LCPPs). They will hold all child protection cases, working in tandem with family help practitioners already involved with the family and supported by practitioners from other agencies – notably health and police – who are also particularly skilled in safeguarding.
- Making greater use of family networks when families need help, through increased use of family group decision making and the provision of support packages to remove financial and practical barriers to networks providing this support.
- Strengthening multi-agency safeguarding leadership, including through ensuring members of strategic partnerships are sufficiently senior to make decisions on behalf of their agency, and increasing the role of education.
Mixed response to lead practitioner role
The proposed lead child protection practitioner role, which the DfE adopted from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, drew a mixed response from respondents to the consultation on the reforms.
Council leaders warned it could be difficult to recruit to the role and stressed the importance of all social workers having child protection expertise.
The latter point was raised by Wolverhampton director of children’s services (DCS) Alison Hinds at this week’s NCASC session.
Maintaining safeguarding skills
“How we ensure social workers remain skilled in that safeguarding area when they are not lead child protection practitioners is crucial for future management of risk,” she said.
Lincolnshire DCS Heather Sandy said level 1 social workers, who are in the early part of their career, were still holding child protection cases.
“We see it as a key part of their development,” she said.
Leaders also suggested there were challenges in retaining social workers who were just doing child protection work, rather than having a diverse caseload including children in need, as was the case outside the pathfinder areas.
Need to avoid burnout
Dorset’s corporate director for care and protection, Paul Dempsey, said it had capped LCPPs’ caseloads at 12 and given them more complex child in need cases, to provide a mix of work.
“We want to make it an attractive role and avoid burnout,” he added.
Dorset is also testing allowing lead practitioners to chair their own child protection conferences, rather than having an independent chair, as is currently required by Working Together to Safeguard Children.
This idea was proposed by the care review as a way of freeing up social work resource. However, the British Association of Social Workers said at the time that the proposal was a “massive concern” because it would be difficult for a case-holding practitioner to “objectively” chair a conference.
Warning over independence of conference chairs
These concerns were raised during this week’s session.
In a question to the panel, Haringey council director of children’s services Ann Graham said: “I do remember the tensions of working with the family to make change and then I put myself in the role of the chair – that could create a further tension in that relationship.
“The other thing in that relationship is, if the child protection lead is the conference chair, how do we avoid group think and tunnel vision because we know they can be problematic?”
Sandy said Lincolnshire would not be testing the idea as the authority did not see it as “a step in the positive direction”.
Dempsey said Dorset was testing it out in one of its localities, adding that the authority was “not sure that’s the greatest idea in the pathfinder programme”.
“While we’re testing it out, we will have one of our quality assurance professionals in that meeting to offer a bit of scrutiny and independence and also to make sure that parent voice is heard in that meeting,” he added.
Concerns over case handovers
Pathfinders were also wrestling with the impact on families of having a new social worker – the LCPP – enter their lives at the point of child protection when they had already been working with a family help lead practitioner.
Hinds said Wolverhampton had thought a lot about this issue.
“We are just thinking about how complicated it could be for families when there are in high levels of anxiety and stress, they could have a social worker who is their lead family help practitioner and we then introduce another social worker who is their child protection lead,” she added.
“We are really thinking about families’ experiences about what that will look like.”
Dempsey pointed to the fact that the family help lead practitioner was expected to stay with the family, adding: “We are trying to make all our handovers as warm as possible. The model expects the family help practitioner to stay with the family when the family moves into the child protection space, to try and avoid that handover.”
Non-social workers taking on child in need cases
Another controversial element of the reform is the DfE’s plan for non-social workers to hold child in need cases – though with social worker oversight – as lead practitioners within the new family help teams.
Both the British Association of Social Workers and Ofsted have raised concerns that this will increase risks to children because of the complexity of the needs of families involved in child in need cases.
Dempsey said Dorset was looking at the training needs of family help lead practitioners who were not social workers and said a key focus was how to oversee arrangements when the practitioner was employed outside the council.
The pathfinders are currently due to run until March 2025, with no certainty that the reforms will be implemented thereafter, which Sandy said was a concern.
“The biggest challenge is sustainability – disrupting teams, making change to families and not having guarantees of funding beyond the next 18 months is really challenging,” she added.