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Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association responds to Independent Review of Children's Social Care 'Case for Change' report

The report does not present a sufficiently detailed historical legal and political summary of child protection policy or practice - nor does it incorporate the intersectional impact of marginalization, economic, social, and health inequalities

On 17 June, the Independent Review of Children's Social Care published the first in a series of reports entitled ‘The Case for Change’ informed by the voices of more than 700 people who have experienced social work involvement and around 300 social workers working with children and families. 

The findings also reflected answers given by 900 people to the question “What should we focus on?,” and 207 further responses from social work academics and researchers. The report is presented around the following themes: 

  • Social workers are spending more time on the computer and less time in direct work with children and families.
  • Expertise is being taken away from direct practice as experienced staff are taking roles in management structures, which can often be removed from direct practice. 
  • An overreliance on agency staff highlights deficits in professional capability. 
  • Assessment processes focus on gathering evidence instead of identifying support for families living with deprivation and poverty.
  • The lives of those living and suffering in state care are not being consistently protected or enhanced.
  • Statutory services focusing on those at greatest risk of harm. 

We are not surprised by these findings. They are very close to the concerns that have already been raised in the Government's Response to the Children's Safeguards Review (1998) and Quality Protects programme (1998), the Laming report (2009) and subsequent review, the Social Work Task Force report (2009) the Munro report (2011), the Narey report (2014) and the longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers report (2020). 

We have to consider, therefore, what new perspective the independent review of children's social care presents, and what the report means for social work education, social work practice and, in particular, social work practice with all children and families marginalised by racism and structural inequality. We present the following response as a social action group committed to community organising, community development, and participatory research and planning.

The role of social work with children and families in the UK has often operated in a context characterised by tension, suspicion, complexity and fear. We at the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association are trying to show how social workers can challenge this position by standing with children and families at grassroots to promote their right to live self-determined lives without fear, discrimination, or retaliation. We firmly believe that unless the role of the social worker is fully understood (and accepted), the tensions that serve to characterise the ‘space and place’ that social workers occupy with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and families, and all others marginalised by racism and structural inequality, will remain complex and controversial. 

The first report issued by the Independent Review of Children's Social care does nothing to develop a fuller understanding or broader acceptance of the roles that social workers perform as a result of statutory guidance. As an example, the report concludes that social workers need to take greater account of deprivation as a “contributory causal factor in child abuse and neglect” (an empirically weak conclusion which we consider to represent an oppressive construct); and suggests that social workers should work harder to tackle poverty and inequality, including in relation to race and ethnicity. It is particularly unusual to make this claim without mentioning the word ‘austerity’ or recognising how centuries of structural inequality have shaped (and limit) the lives of many.

Alongside the waves of austerity, reductions in public sector spending, the development of policies such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which create further hardship, at a time of global pandemic, there has been an increase in social work bureaucracy, casework and complexity. However, despite this oppressive backdrop, social workers have demonstrated innovation, creativity, and resilience. These efforts and skills of social workers to achieve more with less is not a feature of the Independent Review’s initial report. Instead, social workers appear to be blamed for serious organisational shortcomings and structural inequalities (which exist beyond the control of individual social workers) that place children and families at risk.

In our considered view, the Interim Report does not present a sufficiently detailed historical legal and political summary of child protection policy or practice, and neither does it incorporate the intersectional impact of marginalization, economic, social, and health inequalities. There is no recognition of the ways in which organisations like ours are trying to raise awareness of the various ways that racism and austerity are limiting the choices available to some families. We urgently encourage the Independent Review to illuminate the historical and contemporary causal factors behind the current state of children’s social care.

By not including key research about structural inequalities, the Interim Report’s recommendations are distant from the reality of child protection practice. The intersecting factors associated with deprivation (many of which Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families endure) must be considered within a broader risk-averse culture and understood as one cause of the increasing number of referrals to child welfare services that have been reported following the murder of Peter Connelly. Without this basic foregrounding, the review has the potential to lose value if it continues to loosely establish or revision the purpose of the tools needed to enable social workers to do their job differently. Calling for greater separation between Universal Services, Early Help and family support, with social workers only occupied in Child in Need and Child Protection, is neither practical or safe and directly contradicts our own recommendations for (more) effective child welfare services.  

Social work tackles poverty and inequality in all of its manifestations. In a recent paper, published in the Seen and Heard Journal, two members of our Association[1], explain that child protection practice must focus on the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of a child, family and community. We recognise that this position can only be achieved when a social worker is enabled to support every child and family to experience the economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions for themselves. An Independent Review that does not support this position is not credible in the eyes of committed social workers and marginalised communities, or in the context of our professional standards and codes of ethics.

The need for change in some areas of children’s social care is clear and undisputed, like those associated to improving the help and support for children living and suffering in state care, but the generalised recommendations that the report makes do not account for the complex nature of individual practice. Throughout the UK, there are hundreds of thousands of children whose lives are being successfully protected and enhanced by the work of incredibly committed social workers and allied professionals. Like us, the Local Government Association recognise that these social workers are successful because they are unique in their ability to build relationships and work across the whole spectrum of services to identify, reduce, and manage risk in pursuit of more equal opportunities. 

In terms of economics, we recognise that social return on investment and a cost-benefit analysis of services is important because social work funding is finite. We understand that impact, safety and welfare are significant, and we recognise that some Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families can view social work as an oppressive arm of the state. Nevertheless, balance is important; strengths based appreciative inquiries have currency and worth. Legal duties have to be fulfilled. 

Children’s welfare should be the core focus of the Independent Review and the voices of marginalised children, such as those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, have the right to be seen and heard. It is not clear what significance the Independent Review placed these core rights and duties when it analysed the cost of children's social care. 

We welcome the Independent Review’s tentative conclusion that social workers should have more autonomy in practice, and be freed from administration to spend more time with the children and young people they are working to help and protect. However, without structural and cultural change, facilitated by government, then even the very best social workers will not be able to transform into autonomous, community-facing professionals and the culture of defensive practice will continue as bureaucracies grow. A healthier balance between public accountability and professional accountability is needed if the “bold set of recommendations” will meaningfully improve social work practice. As we await the second report, we hope that the Independent Review can demonstrate value for money by moving past a summary of historical concerns to reflect a more modern perspective of the challenges that exist. We also hope that it will include a more sophisticated analysis of the current challenges facing all children and families, taking time to hear the voices of voices of the marginalised, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and the social workers who are working tirelessly to support them. 

The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work Association (@GRTSWAssoc)

  [1] Allen, D., & Hulmes, A. (2021) ‘Aversive Racism and Child Protection Practice with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Children and Families' Seen and Heard, 31 (2).