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Give social workers time for relationships: England's Children's Commissioner's response to review

Dame Rachel de Souza says limit caseloads in her response to England's Independent Review of Children's Social Care...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 28 January, 2022

Children in care want the same things as other children - love, friends, and a future – and social workers must be enabled to help them achieve this.

That’s the message contained within a new report featuring the views of children across the social care system published this week by Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England.

The report, Children’s Social Care - putting children at the heart of social reform, stresses social workers should have limited caseloads and paperwork to focus on building “consistent” relationships.

The paper is the Children’s Commissioner’s formal response to England’s Independent Review of Children’s Social Care which is due to make its recommendations this spring.

It features the views of children visited in care homes, who took part in research, or who phoned the national helpline Help at Hand.

There are four ‘key things’ children want from social care:

  1. To be listened to and responded to
  2. To have relationships that are trusting and stable
  3. To feel loved, supported and stable
  4. To be able to access practical help and support

To achieve these, the commissioner proposes involving children more in the shaping of their care plans, restructuring Looked After Child reviews to involve the child’s views more, revising the role of Independent Review Officers, and involving families more in Child in Need Plans.

Strengthen relationships

Dame de Souza sets out how she wants ‘core elements’ to be in place for every child or family in the social care system: “The most consistent message from our work with children in care is that they want the same things as all other children: to be loved, to have friends, to make plans for the future and to be able to pursue their own interests.

“The system fails when it fails to provide these basics.”

The report includes proposals to strengthen the relationship between social workers, children and their families by limiting caseloads and paperwork.

Under the paper’s proposals schools would join the safeguarding partnerships between local authorities, police and the NHS - which should move to a model of integrated support. The report also emphasises the need to strengthen legal protection of sibling relationships, and to ensure children and their friendships are at the heart of care plans.

There are calls in the paper to introduce a national action plan on instability, with local authority stability targets and clear accountability for out-of-area placements: “At present, one in four children in care experience two or more placement moves across two years. We believe there should be local and national targets to reduce this to less than one in ten children within five years.”

Mental health worries

Many children have mental health concerns, the report states: “... we see challenges with access for children who are in placements far from home, or in restrictive placements due to dangerous behaviours or self-harming.

“It is unacceptable that these children can be having their lives turned upside down… while still not being able to access NHS mental health services. We believe the NHS should be meeting the needs of children wherever they are.”

Recommendations would see the NHS adopt a greater role in delivering care plans and child protection plans, and the commissioner wants to see greater continuity of care for children moving out of area.

Children's central role

Pointing to the need for children’s views of how they experience services to be at the heart of reforms, Dame de Souza adds: “... it is vital to focus on how the system is experienced by children. Our belief is that the most effective services will be local, agile and relationship based. They will be rooted in community and work collaboratively with children and families.”

The paper follows The Big Ask, a survey of 6,000 children in care and 13,000 children in need last year.

The Commissioner acknowledges that good work is going on: “While this submission inevitably focuses on challenges, it is vital to acknowledge that many children do have good experiences in care, and often have far better lives and outcomes than had they not received the love and support of their adoptive or foster family.

“A strong theme of our work is the appreciation of individual foster and adoptive parents, carers, and social workers, as well as teachers, and all other adults working with them. We meet children and families who tell us how the support from social services kept them together.”

Hinting at the challenges ahead, Dame de Souza adds: “I do not pretend this is easy to get right every time, but when we are talking about the lives of children no failure rate is acceptable. We need to focus on the experience we want for every child and commit to building a system that can deliver it. We need to acknowledge that the system must do better and then commit to working together to get it to where we want to be.”