A children's social worker writes about the key areas a new children's minister should address
Following the shock end to Edward Timpson’s time in parliament, the new children’s minister has yet to be confirmed, but there are reports it will be Robert Goodwill, who was previously an immigration minister. While most of the social work world waits in great anticipation for this announcement, it has made me consider what we could hope for with new personnel.
The implementation of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 faced a great deal of criticism. One particular area that gained much opposition was the ‘power to innovate’ clause. Through successful campaigning and well-publicised condemnation of the clause by many industry leaders and academics, it was withdrawn.
The u-turn by the government on this particular aspect of the act indicates that somewhere in Whitehall, policy makers are listening to experts and high-standing professionals.
However, the Children and Social Work Act followed a one-dimensional path in terms of how policy for child protection social work is made. Examples include the government’s decision to develop the accreditation scheme and its proposal for a new regulatory body: Social Work England.
My dream is to extend the listening skills of policy makers towards those who work on the frontline and the families who receive our services.
With this aspiration in mind, I have set out points I feel the next children’s minister should address.
1. Recruitment and retention.
At present, the government’s focus appears to be upon finding bright new graduates to bolster a dwindling workforce.
I believe that the government is missing a trick by not finding new initiatives to celebrate and support over-stretched social workers.
I think that employment law could be used to shift the ‘blame culture’ from the individual frontline workers to the employers.
The Local Government Association’s Standards for Employers and Supervision Framework sets out clear expectations for social work employers in terms of providing a safe environment with manageable caseloads and an ability for social workers to escalate their concerns if they are being provided with too much work.
However, there does not appear to be any consequences set out within legislation to protect workers if they are not treated in an appropriate or safe manner. At present, social workers can feel disempowered when they feel that their practice environment is not safe and compromises their ability to provide a consistently high standard of work.
There is options for social workers to explore the grievance process within their local authority. However, this process is often adjudicated by senior managers who have a vested interested in believing that their working systems are effective. Therefore, there are times when valid concerns about working pressures and unit systems are diminished and not heard.
I believe that as a consequence of many large organisations’ inability to respect and listen to frontline workers ,many social workers leave their positions and contribute to the recruitment and retention crisis. Social workers often do not want to leave their jobs but feel exhausted and powerless to change their working environment.
If the framework could become mandatory and realistic consequences were put in place for employers, I believe that working conditions would improve and thereby social workers would be more likely to remain in their jobs.
2. Adoption is not a panacea for all children who cannot remain with their birth parents.
The past two governments have spoken favourably about adoption as a permanence plan for children. Adoption can be a positive option for children. However, it does not come without risks.
The previous government’s rhetoric appeared to diminish some of the very live issues children who have been adopted face. Even when placed for adoption from a young age, there is a strong likelihood that a child will question why they cannot not live with their birth family in addition to the intrinsic connection that they feel.
With the increasing availability of social media, the dilemma of contact with birth families has become a situation that requires much greater review.
The short-term care plans that are often completed by local authorities frequently fail to take into account the changing world of instant information.
I believe that urgent research is required in this area and how care plans can reflect the inevitability of children finding a means to answer questions and seek contact with their birth family.
It is natural for adopted children to want to know who their birth families are. If we ignore the impact of social media, we are setting up a generation of adopted children to fail. It is not good enough to view that ‘no direct contact’ is in the child’s best interest or even enforceable.
In addition, the current arrangements for the assessment of alternative family members is not in line with assessments for adopters. On average, adopters are provided with a much longer period of assessment and significantly more training than kinship carers or special guardians.
The fact that a family connection exists does not reduce the significant task that these carers are taking on, either immediately after orders are made or during the lifelong commitment to caring for children that are not their birth children.
The landscape through legislation and case law regarding adoption has become increasingly confused and inconsistent. I believe that the whole issue of adoption and kinship care requires a detailed review to assess how the support and assessment times of kinship careers can be aligned with that of adopters.
3. The family court system is imploding.
Over the past 10 years there has been a noticeable rise in applications to the court to consider the long-term permanence arrangements for children.
I believe that the government needs to consider why this escalation in care cases has taken place. It appears that the increased level correlates with difficult and notable cases where children have died due to the negligence of a number of professionals. Many would say that child protection social workers have become risk adverse.
If this is the case, I believe it is crucial that a review takes place to look at implementing a system that works with risk, with increased funding and better resources
The second point is intrinsically linked with the first: is there something to be said about reduced budgets that children services receive and their ability to intervene with the right level of support at a time when change can be affected?
Anecdotally, I have witnessed the impact of reduced funding on frontline services and the general welfare state. In a country where it can be difficult to feed your family or heat your house, caring for your children in an adequate environment can been extremely difficult.
In addition, some of the more nurturing initiatives such as Sure Start and intensive family support have been reduced on a widespread basis to cope with funding cuts.
I know that there is not a ‘magic money tree’. However, without the interventions at the very start of the process being present, how can we expect the cycle to be broken?
Sometimes people make mistakes, sometimes people want to be loved by the wrong person, sometimes people are alone, sometimes people have had poor parenting models with no knowledge of how to care for a child and sometimes people are emotionally low. Without the cement in the paving crack, how do we stop the chasm becoming a sinkhole?
Funding cuts matter because without early intervention, families will not have the support or guidance to make the situation better. In these circumstances adoption – the most draconian option – becomes much more likely.
The third point relates to timing. The 26-week timescale was introduced to reduce drift and delay for children. However, there are times when it has become increasingly difficult for cases to be completed within this timeframe due to complicated factors that arise.
There are occasions when more time should be afforded to a case but due to the strict timeline it is not permitted.
I do not want to go back to a time where court proceedings drift for years. This served nobody, least of all children.
However, there should be more freedom for judges and less emphasis on statistics by the government to ensure that a case can be considered on an individual basis rather than a generic rule of thumb.
4. The courts
The fourth factor relates to the availability of the courts: there needs to be enough resources in place to manage a child’s needs. Sometimes cases can be delayed because there is simply not enough court time to list a final hearing within an appropriate timeframe. The court’s availability should never be a reason to delay the planning for a child’s future.
The fifth factor to consider is the impact of legal funding in relation to private law matters that can sometimes escalate into the public law arena. Sometimes, if appropriate legal support was in place, the situation could be resolved prior to the situation escalating.
The sixth factor to consider is the actual capacity of child protection social workers. The courts need and require social workers to work in a timely and forensic manner. However, with increased caseloads and growing demands, many local authority social workers find it impossible to work in a manner that is fit for the court environment and complete the influx of work that accompanies the 26 weeks timescales.
I am sure that there are many other issues that social workers would like to discuss with you. I feel there should be a working party of frontline practitioners and service users, to finally help the government understand the realities of child protection social work.
Sophie Ayers is an independent social worker who works in children’s services. She tweets @sophieayers1982 and vlogs at weneedtotalkaboutsocialwork.
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