Child in need cases opened up to non-social work staff despite risk concerns

Revised Working Together will allow local authorities to allocate section 17 cases to staff including family support workers and non-council workers, as consultation reveals sector divide on issue

Social worker doing direct work with child
Photo: Dragana Gordic/Adobe Stock

Child in need cases have been opened up to non-social work qualified staff despite concerns that the policy will increase risks to children.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) revised version of Working Together to Safeguard Children has removed the previous requirement for child in need assessments and casework to be reserved for qualified social workers.

Under the new policy, staff, including those outside of the local authority, will be able to take on the role, now termed ‘lead practitioner’, under the oversight of a social work qualified manager or practice supervisor.

Child protection enquiries and casework will remain ring-fenced for social workers.

Case for opening up child in need role

In its consultation on the plans, the DfE suggested this would enable staff already working with families – including family support workers, drug and alcohol practitioners, domestic abuse workers and youth workers – to take on the lead practitioner role.

The move is designed to provide local authorities with more flexibility in how they support families and also reflects the Children Act 1989, which does not stipulate that social workers should hold child in need cases under section 17.

In addition, it foreshadows the DfE’s plan to merge targeted early help and child in need provision as part of its children’s social care reforms. This move, recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, is designed to reduce the need for families to be transferred between teams and provide those with children in need with a less stigmatising response.

However, while the plans were backed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, both Ofsted and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) raised concerns they would undermine the quality of practice and increase risks to children.

With existing early help staff likely to be among those taking on child in need cases, Ofsted and fellow inspectorates have warned that some of these practitioners were already holding cases  “above a level that they felt was appropriate for them”.

Split response to having non-social work case-holders

This split was evident in responses to the DfE’s consultation on the plans, the results of which were published last month.

Of about 1,000 respondents, 36% said they believed the changes would improve outcomes for children and families supported under section 17, while 38% disagreed.

And though 30% felt the role of social work qualified supervisor or manager would ensure appropriate social work oversight, 35% rejected this.

Supporters of the plan said it would increase flexibility in the delivery of support and enable councils to deploy practitioners with the right skills and relationships with families in the casework role.

However, detractors warned that harms could be missed where social workers were not the lead practitioner or, alternatively, cases may unnecessarily be escalated to child protection to ensure social work oversight.

Others raised concerns about how lead practitioners would be overseen by social work qualified managers, particularly when case-holders were based outside the local authority.

DfE presses ahead but tightens guidance

Though it has decided to press ahead with the policy, the DfE has made changes to the draft guidance to strengthen the expectations on councils to ensure appropriate oversight of cases held by non-social workers. It also stressed that it expected social workers to be lead practitioners for many child in need cases.

The revised guidance states that:

  • The lead practitioner should have the skills, knowledge, competence, and experience to work effectively with the child and their family.
  • The required skills, knowledge, competence, and experience, and how these will be monitored locally, should be set out in local assessment protocols.
  • The protocols should also define who can act as a lead practitioner under section 17, and set out the process for the allocation of lead practitioners, accountability for cases and auditing.

In line with the draft guidance, the revised Working Together states that the social work qualified manager or supervisor’s role encompasses:

  • agreeing with partners who the most appropriate lead practitioner should be and allocating the case to them;
  • approving the lead practitioner’s assessment;
  • reviewing and approving the plan for the child;
  • meeting families and attending home visits where appropriate.

As statutory guidance, councils and relevant partners may only depart from Working Together for legally defensible reasons and not to a substantial degree.

Revised guidance on disabled children’s assessments

The DfE has also strengthened guidance on the assessment of disabled children and their families after this was backed by two-thirds of respondents.

While the previous version of Working Together simply set out councils’ legal duties around providing support to disabled children and their carers, the redraft sets out the value of providing this support.

It says practitioners’ assessments should be strengths-based and inform decisions on the help needed for the child to achieve the best possible outcomes, enable the family to continue caring for them where right for the child and ensure practical support to enable them to thrive.

However, while not proposed in the consultation, the revised Working Together also states assessments should inform decision making around safeguarding children where there is abuse, neglect or exploitation.

Though many parent respondents to the consultation stated that assessments of disabled children and their families were too safeguarding-focused currently, others highlighted these children’s vulnerability and the need for staff to “adopt a safeguarding lens when appropriate”.

Designated social care officer role (DSCO) promoted

The revised guidance also encourages councils to appoint designated social care officers (DCSOs), senior social work leads for special educational needs and disability provision (SEND).

The role is designed to oversee social care’s contribution to SEND provision, such as education, health and care assessments, plans and reviews, as well as strategic planning of services for disabled children, such as short breaks.

As of last March, just over 40 councils had a DCSO in place or were recruiting to the position, according to the Council for Disabled Children.

These changes to Working Together’ comes with the government having asked the Law Commission to review the “patchwork of outdated legislation for disabled children” and advise on how it can be simplified and streamlined.

The commission started its review in October 2023.

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16 Responses to Child in need cases opened up to non-social work staff despite risk concerns

  1. Pauline O'Reggio January 15, 2024 at 3:21 pm #

    Disabled children are the most vulnerable in society for various reasons. Families often need support from services in accessing support services, however safeguarding plans still need to be the priority, especially when a child is nonverbal therefore someone who is trained in child protection is a must.

    Schools, family support workers, and other voluntary agencies often have a more open relationship with parents, because parents do not fear they will remove their children when they are struggling as with social workers, they will often notice a change in a child’s behavior and or appearance before any other services, and they often have a chronological record of the family’s history /issues, they will know at the point of referrel when concerns where raised and why, they should have detailed information what progress the family may have made or not made before children’s services involvement. The information they can provide would inform the assessment process to enable safe plans to be implemented on behalf of the child and whether the case warranted escalation due to child protection concerns.

    If other services also have case responsibility this may stop some professionals who are not social workers from colluding with parents against the social worker because they fear being honest with the family will impact their working relationship. If has a service provider you are unable to be honest with a service user to achieve the best outcome for a child is this really working with the family?

    This may prevent the increasing them and us attitude and encourage more working together which in my view no longer appears to be a priority.

  2. Laura B January 15, 2024 at 3:38 pm #

    As if the parents of disabled children were not punished and abused enough for requesting support…

  3. Patricia Wardley January 15, 2024 at 5:52 pm #

    This should only be a social worker role.

  4. Retired social worker January 16, 2024 at 2:23 pm #

    Schools have safeguarding leads who are child protection trained, schools also have insight into a child’s family dynamics, and, therefore can offer support to the family to provide support to families, if there is clear evidence that the plan is not working then social workers should then be involved.

    I think this already takes place. It may also prevent other services not sharing responsibility for safeguarding vulnerable children. These agencies are already part of strategy meetings, reviews, and case planning.

    Most families of disabled children work hard to access the right support for their children there is no denying this, however, as with children with no disabilities and or minimal disability, it is hard to assess if they are experiencing abuse. Recognizing and assessing a child with nonverbal ability is even more difficult and should be completed by a qualified social worker.

    • Opal Lady January 17, 2024 at 6:22 pm #

      …Yes, I think they get a few days training. Imagine their response if we asked them to be present/support with removing children..Oh and then driving for miles on end to place them? (All after a days work of course)?!

      Answers on a postcard card please!

  5. William January 16, 2024 at 4:07 pm #

    I’m working a caseload of child protection, pre-proceedings, and care proceedings. The amount of work required is a lot (even with good m/a support). It used to be the case that you would have some variety in your caseload with some child in need work to provide difference and some balance to the demands of work where risk was assessed as higher. I just don’t know where we are going as a profession in terms of safety and health of staff – it all just feels so unsustainable. I am sad to say I am getting out.

  6. Dr Tony Spinks January 16, 2024 at 4:53 pm #

    I have been a Children Social Worker for 14 Years and so many of my child protection cases started out as S17 child-in-need cases which either escalated or were not fully recognised from the outset with the risk of significant harm not effectively captured.

    How many times have Social Workers been blamed n the press for not sufficiently recognising risk of significant harm when a child tragically dies or is seriously harmed and now the DfE are making this risk much much more likely as they transfer responsibility for S17 cases to unqualified staff…Be in no doubt this is a cost cutting measure (at a time with Local Authority budgets squeezed by austerity economics) …38% of respondent felt this change would harm the outcome for children and I am firmly in that 38%

  7. Cllr Iqbal January 16, 2024 at 5:20 pm #

    Due to crises in recruiting and retaining social workers Local Authorities have WATERED DOWN the values, principles and safety of children by letting Unqualified staff to work on serious cases.
    This is going to impact on SAFETY,QUALITY of practise and leave vulnerable children more at risk,costing the tax payer more in the long term.

    Imagine going to see your doctor and be told the admin worker will be assessing you and prescribing medical care. Would you let them?

    Cllr Iqbal MBA
    Executive Officer Labour Party

    • Erin January 19, 2024 at 2:37 am #

      I firmly believe that child in need work needs to be done by social workers but family support workers are skilled workers who make significant contributions to the support we provide to families. Your analogy is disrespectful.

  8. LD January 16, 2024 at 7:01 pm #

    This should only be a Social Worker role, anything other than this is likely to undermine the work of Social workers also leaving children at increased risk due to lack of appropriate oversight by a registered Social worker.

  9. Paul January 16, 2024 at 7:58 pm #

    This started years ago with Early Help, many families allocated to early help teams to, much of time, ease pressure on social.workers. care leavers also atb18+. For years we have been shifting to a more Americam model, CP and care proceedings.

  10. Debbie January 17, 2024 at 10:45 am #

    I have taken over cin cases that family support workers have held under the role of early help, often for months. Imagine my shock when i go to the childs bedroom to discover it completely bare with the exception of a urine soaked mattress, the child was 12yrs… social workers have more training, more understanding of what to fully assess for a child, he swiftly went to CP once i saw his room. If he stayed with school/family support ect he potentially would have continued to suffer significant harm. I am often dismayed at the understanding of school DSLO re safeguarding who do not even visit a childs home either!!!!

  11. F Brady January 17, 2024 at 1:00 pm #

    I’ve been deregistered for failing to tick a box on my CDP. I know this has happened others. Am now asked for £200 to renew my registration. I shall not be doing this and shall enjoy an alternative working life! It’s redicilous they are trying to encourage people into the profession while making life difficult for those already within it!

  12. Jessica January 19, 2024 at 2:27 pm #

    This has been happening for years when I was a family support work I had cin cases. Even when they escalated they stayed with me. One time I was asked to remove because edt said they were busy and quite rude about it. Now as a senior manager in safeguarding who knows more I look after each level of staff to their competencies and keep with procedures, guidance and law.. I believe this practice to be dangerous.

  13. Jacqui January 23, 2024 at 2:36 pm #

    I have read the above, and as a children’s practitioner of 16 years, I can safely say that just because you have a degree doesn’t make you a good practitioner!
    I have worked with many SW’s who do not challenge parents, who do not carry out visits properly, and have no people skills.
    Don’t put bad practitioners under the same umbrella, whether they have a degree or not.
    I feel so strongly about this!!
    We are bringing in two teams for cin cases to be held by people without degrees, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t do the job of protecting children.
    If a SW has a lot of cases in court or on CP plans the cin cases tend to get left so it will relieve some pressure, but we also have to look at the lack of applicants (sw) for positions that are being advertised and why that is.


  1. Child in need cases opened up to non-social work staff despite risk concerns - Vulnerability360 - January 19, 2024

    […] Child in need cases have been opened up to non-social work qualified staff despite concerns that the policy will increase risks to children. The Department for Education’s (DfE) revised version of Working Together to Safeguard Children has removed the previous requirement for child in need assessments and casework to be reserved for qualified social workers. Under the new policy, staff, including those outside of the local authority, will be able to take on the role, now termed ‘lead practitioner’, under the oversight of a social work qualified manager or practice supervisor. Child protection enquiries and casework will remain ring-fenced for social workers. Read more. […]