‘Only a matter of time ...’
It’s Friday. I drop my own child off at school early, so I can arrive at a foster carer’s home on time at 8.20am to collect a child in care and transport him to school. The foster carer has three children to take to different schools, so she can’t help us out. We’re short-staffed, and no one else is available to do this today. It’s the third time this week.
Following this, I rush back to the office. I attend two child protection case conferences. Then four home visits, and a joint investigative interview with the Police Family Protection Unit - a coordinated interview conducted by a police officer and a social worker to gather evidence for criminal proceedings and to determine the immediate level of risk in relation to a child’s safety and protection.
I also take 16 phone calls from clients, foster carers, criminal justice workers, health visitors and schools. One client is due to be evicted. A domestic incident. A family with no money for the weekend. A child exhibiting sexualised behaviour in the school playground. Some calls are worrying, but I can’t respond. I have to focus on the task at hand. I quickly inform my line manager.
“No one available,” he tells me. “They’ll have to wait until next week.”
There are not enough hours in the day. It’s dangerous practice. “Prioritising” is a buzzword. “Crisis” is another. A daily occurrence in my line of work.
Every day my office is the same. A metropolis of chaos. Things are deteriorating. Extreme stress predominates. Tempers flare. We complain incessantly on behalf of our clients, for our sanity.
“There will be no new social workers employed. Live with it.”
The writing’s on the wall. We all know it. Cutting budgets. Cutting corners.
The child, who was interviewed by me and the Police Family Protection Unit, is 11 and alleges that his father assaulted him. He shows me extensive bruising across his back. It looks suspect. I’m concerned.
I know the drill. After brief discussions with senior management, a variety of decisions are made. The child cannot return home. He needs to be examined medically for a professional opinion. A police photographer is required. We need to determine if parents agree to voluntary accommodation.
They do, fortunately, or it would have included a late-night trip to apply for a child protection order.
After two hours in a busy children’s hospital, the paediatrician provides his diagnosis: non-accidental injury; child hit with excessive force several times with an unknown implement.
We place a distressed child in foster care, an hour’s drive away. I get home at 11.15pm. Exhausted. My daughter is asleep.
Procedurally, I have generated massive amounts of repetitive paperwork. Every day impacts upon the next.
On Monday, I’ll be expected to meticulously record my four home visits, detailing concerns and/or any progress made. It’s all about managing risk. The days of preventive social work are long gone.
If it’s not child protection, you’ve no chance of receiving a service. We know that before you walk through the door or lift a telephone. If you’ve forced a service by talking to your MP or someone with influence, it will be wholly inadequate. Complaints are commonplace.
As a result of my two child protection case conferences, I’ll have to facilitate and implement intricate child protection plans. This involves letters to professionals, phone calls, lengthy written referrals to various agencies, and specialised resources - a parenting group, perhaps, addiction services, mental health - recording it all on our computer system so I can provide evidence I have completed these tasks.
I know as I write these referrals that, in most cases, my clients will wait for months for a service - if they receive one at all. These “resources” we rely on have been reduced to a bare minimum, and are still diminishing rapidly.
I’m frustrated. My clients are frustrated. I bear the brunt of it.
If funding is required, another few weeks are likely to pass as bureaucrats make decisions about people they know nothing about. I’ve become accustomed to the word “no”.
I’ll have to complete a 30-page child protection report for the joint investigative interview I conducted and include all relevant information from all relevant professionals; I’ll need to complete extensive LAAC (looked-after and accommodated children) paperwork for my newly placed child in care; organise a planning meeting; arrange a review to set up a care plan; ensure he has everything he needs; visit to see how he is and discuss what will happen; provide money to his foster carer to purchase things he might need; make plans to get him to and from school for the duration of his placement; talk to his irate parents in detail about our concerns; contact all those involved with him as part of my assessment; arrange and supervise contact with his parents, if appropriate; let the children’s reporter know so that he or she can arrange a children’s panel, which will require a long and very detailed report at a later date. And all this will have to be meticulously recorded on our computer system.
Oh, and there’s the matter of dealing with the other 43 cases I have.
The only problem I have is this: on Monday, I have two children’s hearings scheduled (four hours gone, travel time included). I have two child protection visits planned (I have to visit children on the Child Protection Register once weekly, and I have 13 children in total who are registered, most of whom can only be seen after school), and have to supervise a two-hour contact between a mother and her three children, adhering to decisions made by a children’s panel. This doesn’t include transport time and collecting/dropping off the children from their respective placements.
Social workers “I look around and my colleagues are all feeling the pressure too.”
This family are lucky. Some children’s panel decisions are ignored. Not enough staff. I’ll be in the firing line at these children’s hearings, explaining - as we do until we’re blue in the face - that there are not enough resources or social workers to enable us to do the job effectively. Panel members should cite senior management to explain these difficulties. We have no control over such matters.
Monday will be another late finish. No doubt about it. I’ll have clients on the phone, too, tearfully telling me they can’t cope, demanding to see me, asking for money, requesting support, abusive and threatening phone calls from angry parents, solicitors requesting information, police, advocacy workers, health visitors, schools, nurseries, psychologists and therapists, criminal justice workers, housing officers, doctors, medical specialists, and a range of other professionals trying to elicit or provide pertinent information. And it all needs to be recorded on “the system”.
Tuesday looks pretty much the same.
How do I cope?
I don’t. I’m struggling, big time. But this is social work today. My caseload is high. I’m feeling the pressure. My manager is burned out. He observes me through vacant eyes, offering tokenistic support. It’s November. I’ve not had supervision since June. He keeps cancelling. I’ve told him repeatedly I’m sinking. I’ve told him I have clients I haven’t seen for months.
No offer to reduce my caseload is forthcoming. Instead, I am allocated another two. “Sorry, but there’s no one else.”
They’d rather have a serious case that cannot be dealt with on my caseload than a managerial waiting list of unallocated cases. That way, I can take the flak if anything goes wrong. That’s the way it works. They know you cannot work all your cases. My clients cannot possibly receive an acceptable level of service.
My overtime is reaching the limit allowed, mostly through writing reports at home at night in order to get through part of the work.
I look around and my colleagues are all feeling the pressure too. Several of them are off on long-term sick leave, and some have left in the last few months for less pressurised jobs. They will not be replaced. Budget deficit, we’re told.
My daughter’s going mad because she never sees me.
I’m reading about vulnerable children like Baby P in the papers. I listen to the debates. People are angry, and rightly so.
It hurts. It could have been avoided. It could have been prevented. Another life lost unnecessarily.
I know it’s going to happen in my local authority soon. It’s only a matter of time. The warning signs are evident.
We complain, loudly and incessantly.
The writing is on the wall.
We all know it. Cutting budgets. Cutting corners.
Where such tragic mistakes are made, inquiries are vital, but not always helpful. They rarely tell us anything we don’t already know.
Lack of inter-agency communication.
Lack of multi-agency communication.
Lack of training (no time).
Lack of supervision (no time).
Unqualified social work staff undertaking complex assessments.
Believe me, it happens. Regularly.
We are “ordered” to organise files fastidiously for inspections - overtime if necessary in order to improve our image. So boxes can be ticked. A pat on the back for the bureaucrats. Inspections are planned well in advance. We’re “encouraged” to portray the authority in a positive light when talking to inspectors.
There should be regular independent ad hoc inspections, with inspectors walking in without any prior notice, demanding to see files, checking the systems, talking to clients, talking to frontline staff. They should be spending extended periods of time analysing and carefully examining practice.
The system is immobilised. Flawed.
The system has failed. Again.
In my local authority, senior management ignore our pleas. They are ineffective and lack vision. They fail to act. Bureaucrats completely out of touch with frontline workers and the demands we face.
Middle management are completely powerless, incapable of bringing about the changes necessary.
Frontline managers juggle impossible conflicting demands. A few of these keep fighting on, avoiding the inevitable meltdown. For the rest, apathy grows. They have become unproductive.
These are dangerous, dangerous times in child protection.
I’m a very experienced social worker, working for one of the largest and busiest social work departments in Scotland. I am responsible for enhancing and improving the quality of life for the families with whom I work, accountable for protecting the children on my caseload.
I’m deeply concerned. My colleagues are deeply concerned. We have raised these issues consistently. All the way up the ladder.
Cutting budgets. Cutting corners. We all know it. It’s only a matter of time until another child dies.
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