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Comment: “Social workers cannot be out seeing families while they are in the office inputting data.”

Campaigning MP John Hemming, Allan Norman, social worker turned solicitor and Sue White, Professor of Social Work at the University of Lancaster call for changes to social work practice in the wake of the Baby P case.

John Hemming MP, Chairman Justice for Families
Allan Norman, 
Social Worker and Principal Solicitor, Celtic Knot;
Sue White,
 Professor of Social Work at Lancaster University

There have been many reports in the last year about False Positives where the state intervenes when it shouldn't. What is often missed is that the issue of False Negatives where the state fails to intervene when it should is actually part of the same debate.

An obvious case where the system should have intervened is Baby P from Haringey. This case, however, is not unique although in many ways it is more extreme than the case of Victoria Climbie.  

It is, however, very wrong to respond by demonising Social Workers. Some of the press coverage nationally has misguided and misplaced. The people who were responsible for the death of Baby P were those responsible for his day-to-day care. However, the system has failed and it is to the system we need to look for changes even if greater accountability is needed for individuals as well.

The government's response seems curious. They have instructed Lord Laming to investigate whether his proposals for change were the right solution to the right problem. One wonders how fundamentally the reforms will be investigated as a result. The inspection system failed - Haringey had a 3* rating, yet the inspectors are seen as the solution. Ed Balls announced reforms to Children’s Trusts which were already announced on the Government’s web site before the Baby P story broke.

It has thus far proved impossible for us to obtain from the Department for Children, Schools and Families recent, detailed data on the numbers of child deaths and serious injuries. However, we - an MP, social worker turned lawyer and academic - suggest that it is possible the reformed system may well increase unsafe practices. Our discussion is informed by general findings from an Economic and Social Research Council funded study by Sue White and colleagues, which involved detailed observation of everyday practices across 5 local authority sites in England and Wales.

A turning point in the reform agenda was the death of Victoria Climbie and the resulting public inquiry by Lord Laming. This drove a number of changes in Child Protection intended to prevent future deaths and protect children, including the complete reorganisation of Social Services across England. We are concerned that the reforms following Laming's report have been counter productive. Laming's report concluded that the death of Victoria Climbie resulted from the health and social care agencies not following their own procedures. The proposal that procedures should be completely rewritten seems to be at odds with this conclusion. Notwithstanding this, however, procedures have been rewritten and social services and education have been reorganised separating children's and adults services.

The Child Protection Register has been abolished and a complicated system of electronic standard documents called the Integrated Children's System (ICS) has been introduced. ICS is a centrally specified system for categorising children and their needs. It also incorporates audit data on performance targets and demographics for the DCSF all of which must be entered by social workers. Documents designed to fulfill the need for government statistics are swallowing up large amounts of social workers' time. Put simply, social workers cannot be out seeing families while they are in the office inputting data.

The system also forces Social Workers and team Managers to categorise a case very early. It has been known for decades that human beings tend to look for evidence to support their original categorisations. An error we can see inn the case Baby P, where professionals were distracted by the mother's claim that he was injuring himself and had behaviour problems. This tendency coupled with pressure from the system to maintain the categorisation and 'workflow' the case through the IT pathways we believe must increase the likelihood of error.

The demands of the technology are exacerbated by a range of other pressures on social workers' time. The thresholds for referral and intervention are also matters upon which there is little guidance and the system is seriously over-stretched in places. Often referrers 'talk up' referrals to avoid the threat of being blamed for inaction. The introduction of the Common Assessment Framework (CAF), a standard process designed to support early intervention and encourage other professionals to continue working with families rather than refer to children's social care, is having its own unintended impact.

In a high blame, high risk environment, rather than encouraging other agencies to work with families for longer CAF has sometimes increased referral rates to children's social care. Furthermore, the mandatory reporting by police of all cases of domestic abuse where there are  children in the household, causes a considerable increase in the daily workload of children's social care. In already busy teams, these referrals are often managed by sending letters to the households where Domestic Abuse has occurred. It is self-evident that this is likely to increase anxiety for victims of domestic abuse.

This does not mean good practice is doomed. In well-staffed, well-resourced teams there are many examples, but it is often made possible by 'working around' the system. For example, in one authority the tight time scales associated with Initial Assessment were extended by creating a new outcome 'Review Initial Assessment', which provided a window for social workers properly to analyse and make sense of complex family circumstances. But, of course, when social workers and team managers have to devise the 'work arounds' this distracts from the "real work" of seeing families.

With the early categorisation and the concentration on computer systems rather than people it is not surprising that parents and children find the system (mainly technologically driven) to be difficult to influence. This causes tensions between service users and practitioners which is causing problems with retention of experienced practitioners.

This turnover places inexperienced practitioners in front line work immediately after graduation. They often have little experience of front line work because placements within statutory agencies are difficult to achieve.

To change this system we need to shift the approach in social work.  Social work as a profession is inherently dealing with complex decision-making and the upholding of human rights. For this to work properly public scrutiny of decision making processes on an anonymous basis is essential as is the public availability of Part 8 Serious Case Reviews, which have been established to look into why children die and how systems have failed.

The system of assessment needs to change so that it responds to children and families rather than people being forced to fit the system. There has to be flexibility so that cases can change category. Children and Families are not crosses in a computer screen. Social workers need to have time to visit families and get to know them and they need space to think, debate and formulate a considered and careful opinion.

The solution to the problem lies in people not computers. The direction needs to change.


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