Social workers are under increasing pressure, with two thirds reporting an increase in workload over the last six months. According to a new report commissioned by the Local Government Association, child protection workers are averaging 14 cases at a time. Some of them, surveyed for the report by Loughborough University researchers, said they are devoting up to three quarters of their time on paperwork. There is a widespread perception that this distracts from the 'frontline' work of engaging with vulnerable children and their families.
Reforms of child protection are being devised and implemented in the wake of the Baby Peter case, when failings in safeguarding by social services were linked to the death of a child. These reforms cost tens of millions of pounds. The cost of funding thousands of extra social workers, to meet one of the recommendations in Lord Laming's report, was estimated as £116 million.
More funding for vital services is broadly welcomed, especially when it concerns the safety of children, many of whom have suffered neglect or abuse. However, reforms are being implemented in such a way that new rules and targets leave social workers overworked, with council leaders claiming that vulnerable children may in fact be more at risk as a consequence. Representatives of local children's services have pointed out that services already struggle with the increase in referrals and court applications that followed the huge media interest in the Baby Peter case.
A particular focus for the Loughborough reseach team was one of the Laming report's recommendations: an initial assessment of a child should always, automatically, follow any referral from police or health workers. This is a 'one size fits all' method that leads to unnecessary assessments, increasing the burden on child protection staff. It is onerous and wasteful because on average only 13% of the time required for an assessment is actually spent with the child and family. Most of the rest is form-filling.
The alternative, backed by the Local Government Association, is for professional discretion to be employed. Social workers are best placed to make these often difficult judgements. Kim Bromley-Derry, president of the Directors of Children's Services, said: "Prescribing that every referral has an initial assessment will … divert resources from the most vulnerable children to others whose needs can be assessed and met in other ways."
Tim Loughton, the Tory shadow children's minister, is attempting to use the report to legitimise proposed public sector cuts, by suggesting the problem is one of 'red tape' in public services. He said: "This is yet further proof that the government is strangling social work with red tape... We need to prune back this bureaucracy so that social workers can spend time with children."
In reality this will probably mean a prospective Tory government implementing cuts. Social workers and their supporters will need - like many in the public sector - to fight to protect desperately needed funding. At the same time, though, it is necessary to call for professional judgement to be valued and for all child protection staff to have their working conditions protected. Social workers deserve support in a fraught, challenging and important area of work.