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Concerns about use of non social work staff for assessments

A former social work team manager based in a remote part of Scotland has written to his ex-employer raising concerns that social workers have been replaced by unqualified workers to carry out complex assessments of adults at risk – an act that has sparked debate about the complex practice environment in small communities.

BASW member Andrew Walker, who was a team manager at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Council, in the Western Isles, has warned that many older people, who are vulnerable because they suffer from long-term conditions such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease, are being assessed by people employed as social care assessors.

The council employs the social care assessors, who are registered with the Scottish Social Care Council but do not have social work training, at Grade F, with a starting salary of £20,044, while social workers are employed at Grade I on a salary ranging from £29,092 to £31,792.

In a letter sent to the chief executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Council and director of social work Ian Macauley, social and community services director, Mr Walker says the decision to employ social care assessors is a ‘retrograde step’, which will have ‘a deleterious impact on the standard of social care services to our elderly, disabled and most vulnerable service-users, at a time of significant increase in demand for community care services’.

He raises concerns that the adult community care team, covering the Uist and Barra areas of the Western Isles, now employs just one senior social worker, who divides his time between management and practice, a trainee social worker, and two social care assessors, one full-time and one part-time.

The original, generic social work team comprised five, experienced and qualified social workers.

“Social care assessors do not have the knowledge or skills to carry out these assessments,” Mr Walker told PSW. “Many older people are vulnerable and we are living in a very fragile community. The winters are harsh and we often have power cuts,” he added. “In many cases, their families are living some distance from them, often on the mainland, and they require complex care packages.”

Mr Walker, a social worker for 40 years, resigned in April two months before he was due to retire.

He said a decision in September 2010 to cap home care hours and raise thresholds so that only those with critical needs received help was among the changes that had placed extra pressure on his team.

“Staff were meeting families and carers and having to say that although they [the service user] had been assessed as having substantial needs they were not able to respond, which was very hard for them and a very traumatic and difficult pill for the family to swallow,” said Mr Walker, adding that the team had been “overwhelmed” with work.

Ruth Stark, Scottish Association of Social Workers Manager, struck a note of caution, adding:  “ In small communities news travels fast – we have to ensure that this wider debate does not reflect negatively on the competency of specific workers. More broadly, rising to the challenge of community capacity building has to be done by building on the strengths of local communities and adding to their competencies through additional training and investment in staff and local people. “

In a statement, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Council denied the restructuring of the adult team was a cost-cutting measure and said assessment capacity had been ‘substantially increased’ by the changes. ‘The social care assessors, located within the Community Care Service, have proved to be of huge benefit, relieving social workers of non-complex cases and enabling them to concentrate on complex cases appropriate to their qualifications and grade,’ it said.

‘Cases are allocated appropriately in terms of complexity and there is a clear decision making process when experienced managers allocate cases that define what goes to a social care assessor and what goes to a social worker – this matches their skills, training and knowledge to ensure safe practice and protection of vulnerable adults. Social care assessors will all be provided with Adult Protection training,’ it added.