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Rise in children coming into care amid cutbacks puts increased pressure on social workers, Lords told

Social workers are struggling to cope with high caseloads and lack of administrative support as increasing numbers of children come into the care system, BASW told a House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation.

The committee, chaired by former family court judge Lady Butler-Sloss, heard concerns raised by Britain’s biggest social work organisation of pressures upon the profession.

BASW professional officer Nushra Mansuri said: “We have seen an unprecedented amount of children subject to child protection plans and care applications have increased. From our survey earlier this year, social workers are telling us they don’t have enough time to spend with children and families.”

Research from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, shows that the number of child protection plans increased by 51% between 2007-08 and 2011-12.

Figures from the Department for Education show 67,050 children were taken into local authority care this year, a 2% increase on the previous year.

In evidence submitted ahead of the inquiry, BASW stressed: “Social workers up and down the country told us that they simply cannot cope with the demands that are being made of them in terms of unmanageable caseloads, a lack of administrative support and a lack of appropriate support and supervision which makes the work in some cases dangerous.”

BASW also told the committee there was a need to ensure tomorrow’s workforce was properly trained and guided to be able to take on more complex cases.

“We have a significant number of highly experienced social workers in their 50s and 60s who will be coming up to retirement and this is the expertise we risk losing.

“We should be taking a proactive approach now and developing mentoring of the newly qualified by the more experienced in order that our future workforce will have the right skill levels to carry out complicated pieces of work such as risk assessment and develop more specialist knowledge in areas such as working with parents with learning disability, substance use and mental health issues.”

Asked by the committee whether social workers were governed by a “culture of optimism” resulting in children staying with unsuitable families, Ms Mansuri said the opposite accusation was often made highlighting the difficulty of the role.

“As social work professionals, we have to be careful about being drawn into a situation where people maybe trying to conceal what is happening behind closed doors.

“But we have said in our evidence that a few years ago social workers were quite frustrated where they were arguing with judges about threshold levels and whether it okay for a child they believed to be neglected or abused to still be in that situation.

“Some of the courts took the view that it was draconian to remove a child. There are may ways of looking at this, but we are always concerned about the stereotypes put on our profession.”

BASW’s submission to the inquiry added: “These are complex issues which politicians fudge and want social workers to resolve for them. How many politicians have the courage to stand up and say 'I want it to be easier for social workers to permanently remove children from their parents?'.”

The committee also explored the issue of ethnicity in adoption, asking whether social workers put too much emphasis on this at the expense of finding suitable potential adopters.

In its submission, BASW stressed it has not come across cases of social workers only focusing on ethnicity and holding out for a perfect match and therefore would not support legislative change.

BASW’s response to the inquiry stated: “Ethnicity cannot be the only or over-riding consideration for a child being placed for adoption but it is still critically important. 

“Ethnicity is important together with other attributes that need to be considered when making a secure match.”

 

The issue of whether Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) can be compromised by their employment within local authorities was another focus of the committee's inquiry. 

BASW member Sarah Smith told peers: “I know of a situation where IROs raised concern over decision-making and the head of service of that authority threatened disciplinary action against them.

“There are some authorities that welcome IROs challenging decisions. But it is so much down to the individuals who are responsible for managing the service.

“I have a real concern of how much IROs are allowed to be independent when they remain within local authorities.”