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MPs told why pressure on children's services is increasing

Sector leaders including BASW chief executive Dr Ruth Allen address government inquiry

The funding of local authorities’ children’s services inquiry

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 1 March 2019

New demands in child protection and greater awareness of abuse and neglect at a time of public spending cuts has increased pressure on children’s social care, MPs were told.

The warning came during an inquiry into the funding of local authority children’s services by the Westminster government’s housing, communities and local government committee.

Asked by chair Clive Betts for an explanation why child protection investigations in England have more than doubled in a decade, Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, said: “There have been growing demands on the work that needs to be done, including on asylum-seeking children, children who have been exploited sexually and now we are looking at children who have been exploited by gangs.”

Longfield said in the face of funding shortfalls, local authorities were having to focus on “top-end statutory responsibilities” at the expense of early support. This, she said, meant more situations developed into crisis.

Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for children’s social care, said policy changes reflecting better understanding of abuse and neglect had contributed to the workload.

“For example, how one would expect us to respond to child sexual exploitation, broader child exploitation or even something like domestic abuse is different now from how society and decision-makers expected local authorities to response 15 or 20 years ago.”

Other factors adding to the increased demand included growing diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder and more cases of self-harm and poor mental health among adolescents, she added.

Stuart Gallimore, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the changed landscape of practice was known as “contextual social work”.

“Sadly, and with some shame, I can reflect back on a time when my profession would talk about child prostitutes…. We are now intervening in the lives of some young people who do not particularly want our intervention but we should always have been intervening… that comes with a cost.”

Gallimore added: “At the same time, we have seen parents struggling to respond to the needs of their children. Substance abuse of parents is a significant contributory factor within that.”

Social workers were key to improving outcomes in children’s social care, said BASW chief executive Dr Ruth Allen, but stressed they needed the right work conditions for effective practice, something the association is campaigning to improve.

“We know from the studies we have done that many social workers report very poor working conditions and having high caseloads, a lack of time to think, a lack of access to resources to provide for children and families and a lack of ability to support vulnerable parents,” she said.

Dr Allen said social workers needed supportive work environments with training opportunities and the time to be reflective and build trusting relationships with service users.

“The risk-averse culture is partly promoted by not having those things in place,” she said.

“Social workers become worried and anxious. They fall back into looking for people to tell them what to do, rather than being able to take decisions themselves. That is also the case if they are working in a managerialist, process-driven culture.”

Asked why people left social work, Dr Allen told the inquiry it was because they felt unable “to do the job” they came in to do.

“People go into social work in order to work with people, make a difference, make a change and improve lives.

“You need the right context to do that, particularly if you are working in complex child protection.

The workload, working long hours, lack of supervision and support, lack of access to professional development and not being able to spend time on the professional practice of making a difference in children’s and families’ lives are all things that come through.”

Gallimore, who is also director of children's services in East Sussex, said authorities with supportive cultures were the ones that “people want to work for”.

Those without it tended to have to rely heavily on agency staff, he said. However, “putting the ingredients of success in place” attracted workers who wanted to join the “journey back”.

“People have got enthusiastic about wanting to be part of that and wanting to be part of an authority that is on the rise, and over time you see them in a place where their agency numbers fall again.”

The inquiry also heard of concern at the potential winding up next year of the Troubled Families programme providing authorities funding for targeted intervention to households most in need of support.

Longfield said: “It is the one thing that every council I have spoken to has said: without it, they would fall over.”

Concern over the high cost of residential care paid to private providers in children’s services was also raised.

Longfield said: “A director of children’s services told me that they are now quite used to paying £4,000 a week for a place.”

Roy Perry, deputy chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “You can come across some really quite fantastic figures. I was talking of one earlier on that was £50,000 a week.”

UK social workers: working conditions and wellbeing survey

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.