Category Archives: children’s social work

ContactPoint closes but what next?

At midday last Friday, somewhere, someplace, a switch was flicked and ContactPoint, the database of all 11 million children and young people in England, was no more. But what it is to be replaced with is still a mystery and this troubling.

ContactPoint was not exactly universally loved. Its purpose was to enable people in different services to access information about children that had been in contact with, but common criticisms included:

  • Being over-expensive – it cost £235 million to set up
  • Keeping records of every child, not just those in contact with social services
  • Being plagued with technical difficulties
  • Poorly updated
  • Data protection issues (how long before some of the information ended up on a laptop or memory stick got lost?)
  • Civil liberties issues – it was described as intrusive and disproportionate.

But despite all its faults, surely it would have been better to stick with ContactPoint until a suitable replacement had been found? Apparently not, according to the government, which is still thinking about what it wants to do next.

Currently, the government says it “continues to consider the feasibility of a new signposting service for professionals to help them to support and protect our most vulnerable children, particularly when these children move areas or access services in more than one area.”

This smacks of policy being made on the hoof, and another bit of cost-cutting – ContactPoint was apparently going to cost another £41 million this year – without getting proper plans in place to replace it.

I assume the ongoing Munro Review will have a say on what should replace ContactPoint. That is due to report back in April 2011, with an interim report preceding it in January. To me, after a proper period of reflection and assessment of what would make a better system, this would have been the time to end ContactPoint.

In terms of a replacement, professionals do need to be able to quickly see who else is working with a child, and when a child moves area, those picking up the case need to be able to easily see what has gone on previously.

Perhaps a system that only has records of children who have come into services, and that can only be accessed by a strictly-monitored group of professionals, would be considered. A ContactPoint Lite, if you will.

But that is only my opinion – it is the government’s that matters. And until such time as they do announce its replacement, I assume that professionals are back to where they were before ContactPoint was switched on in 2009. While in some areas there is good communication between professionals in different disciplines, in others, there isn’t. It is worrying therefore that there isn’t the safeguard of ContactPoint – despite its flaws – to fall back on.

This is why the government’s decision could backfire. If a child who has moved areas is killed before a new system is in place, then there could be some nasty flak heading the government’s way.

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Yet another review of child protection coming

Child protection still isn’t working well enough. That’s the message from the Department for Education today, and, as is traditional with such things, is setting up a review of the profession to address this.

But the focus of the review is not on the quality of social workers, but on cutting bureaucracy and the barriers that prevent social workers spending more time with vulnerable children.

“Hallelujah” I hear social workers cry…

So, could this be an end to the much-disliked ‘box-ticking culture’ that has developed within social work in recent years? Let’s hope so. I’ve spoken to many in the profession over the past couple of years, and a constant theme is the amount of admin and paperwork they have to do – some have said it is as much as an 80-20 split on paperwork to spending time with children.

The initial signs that change might be coming are good. For example, the choice of Professor Eileen Munro to lead the review is positive. She is well respected within the profession and will not pull any punches or follow any particular political agendas.

In addition, the review will be informed by successful child protection systems from other countries.

The review will also look at how effectively children’s social workers and professionals in other agencies work together. From what I have written in the past, this is patchy – some are very good, others not, with a whole range of issues affecting this – but a drive to remove barriers to working together more makes sense – they are all pursuing the same goal, after all.

Nevertheless, social workers are in general a cynical bunch and will greet this review like they have greeted others in the recent past: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Many reviews have come and gone in children’s social work – most recently the Social Work Task Force – and often they have had little effect on frontline practice. I imagine this will be treated in the same manner until things actually start to change.

Elsewhere, children’s minister Tim Loughton also confirmed that serious case reviews are to be published in full but with redactions and anonymised ‘except where it would affect the welfare of any surviving children and their siblings’ and that ContactPoint is to be scrapped.

Both these are controversial. I won’t go over my standpoint on SCRs again – see SCRs – to publish or not to publish for that. But it does seem odd that the government is advocating more integrated working, but at the same time getting rid of ContactPoint, a database that should help that. It also seems like a huge waste of money, given the millions spent on it – and will anything be put in its place?

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Children’s social workers warn of increased risk if services are cut

As warnings go, it is a stark one; cut budgets in children’s social work and put vulnerable children at far greater risk of harm.

This is the headline message from a survey by BASW, conducted over the bank holiday weekend.

A massive 96.6% of respondents said they are concerned at the effects any cuts could have on already understaffed and overworked social workers. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs (such as Baby P effect sustained) vacancy rates in children’s social work departments are running nationally at about 10% and since Baby P the number of referrals to them has increased markedly. Any more cuts would exacerbate the situation.

This survey is obviously designed to act as a warning to government and local authority purse-string-holders who are currently scrabbling around trying to make billions of pounds worth of cuts – cut children’s social services at your peril. The more subtle subtext is that they would be effectively to blame if another Baby P occurred.

It’s also something of a pre-emptive strike by BASW; the coalition government hasn’t said much about children’s services yet, other than announcing the scrapping of ContactPoint and supporting the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force, and this has worried many in the sector, who fear that children’s service isn’t a priority and therefore a prime target for cuts.

While this was only a small survey – 151 respondents – and so by no means representative of the national picture, it does give an interesting snapshot of the continuing problems in children’s social work.

For instance, only 5% of child protection social workers say their team is fully staffed with permanent social workers, with more than half (52.5%) saying their team is understaffed by 30% or more and 13.1% saying it is by half or even more than that. More than 63% say that their department is understaffed, even with agency staff – who aren’t ideal because they are often short-term and don’t offer the continuity permanent staff do to vulnerable children.

For those in the sector, this will be nothing new. But that’s not really what matters here; it is whether it makes an impression on those who control the money – and I suspect it won’t. A lot of uncomfortable fiscal decisions will be made in the coming weeks and children’s services may well find its budget squeezed, as will many other sectors who also view their funding as crucial.

I’m not saying I agree with this, but this is what I suspect will happen, and there is little that I can see that can be done to stop it.

If budgets are cut, obviously children’s social workers will continue to do their best, but it stands to reason that it would raise the chances of another tragedy along the lines of Baby P happening – you can’t easily do more with less.

If a tragedy were to occur, it would raise some very challenging questions, not only of the profession, but also of government this time.

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Gaps in coalition plans for children and families

The coalition government has outlined its plans for children and families, but there are some significant gaps in them.

For instance, while there are several commitments to helping families – such as funding for relationship support – details on what will be happening to children’s services are relatively thin on the ground.

While there is a vague commitment to investigate a new approach to helping families with multiple problems, how or what this new approach will be is not discussed, and this rather sets the tone.

There are also references to a ‘re-focusing’ of Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention and focusing on the neediest families.

A more concrete commitment to try and address the workload of children’s social workers comes with the scrapping of the Comprehensive Area Assessment, which has caused concern about the time it takes to do.

But there is nothing on how the rising level of referrals is to be combated, whether there will be greater funding for children’s services or if there will be help with recruitment – although local authorities will have greater autonomy with their budgets.

Elsewhere, the Vetting & Barring Scheme – due to be phased in from July – is due for another review to get it to “common sense levels”. This is again suitably vague – what is their definition of common sense, for example – and makes you wonder what last year’s Singleton review achieved.

In addition, in part of a wider push towards greater transparency, serious case reviews are to be published in full, with identifying details removed.

As I have said before [SCRS: To publish or not to publish], I am sceptical about this. While I can see the logic of publishing reviews in full, I worry that there may still be ways to identify those involved, and that journalists may use them to damn social workers, especially in high-profile Baby P-type cases.

So, as with adult social care, the proposals are a mixed bag and the publication of details about how these policies will be enacted will reveal whether they will be successful or not.

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Social care needs to be a priority for new government

Since the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition took power earlier in the week and started outlining its policies, one issue seems to have been conspicuous by its absence: social care.

As I have previously blogged, in the general election campaign social care seemed to disappear off the political radar, despite it being touted as a key issue in the run-up to it being called. Now post-election, it continues to be ignored in children’s and adults services; nowhere in the policy outline was social care mentioned.

Indeed, Michael Gove, the new head of the (swiftly renamed) Department for Education, has said in a letter to civil servants that education is the priority for the department, thus seemingly sidelining children’s services, although he added that this area will be strengthened and reformed, but didn’t elaborate on how.

Also, Andrew Lansley, the new health secretary, has spoken extensively of the plans for the NHS, while adult social care has garnered barely a mention.

This lack of attention is worrying; ask anyone within adult social care and they will say that reform – especially of the way it is funded – is urgently needed. Children’s services also need to be strengthened and supported. They can’t be left to drift as they have done for the past few years.

Leading social care organisations are also worried. Counsel & Care, a charity working with older people, their families and carers, have called for reform of social care to be made a priority by the new government.

Meanwhile, Carers UK’s director of policy and public affairs, Emily Holzhausen said; “We are deeply disappointed that the programme for Government published in the coalition agreement this week does not establish social care as a political priority.

“Clear plans must be brought forward as a matter of urgency, setting out a sustainable funding model for fair, universal, and transparent care services.”

However, despite the worries, I’m trying not to be too negative. It is still very early days for the government and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge – social care is a complicated issue and it may take more time to put together a policy.

Also, Paul Burstow, a Lib Dem MP with a history of championing issues such as social care funding, dementia and adult protection, has been appointed as a minister for state – the rung below cabinet – in the Department of Health. Having someone with in-depth knowledge of and a passion for the issues involved could ensure that they get the attention they need.

But until the government makes any policy announcements, as with everyone else blogging on this in the sector, everything is speculation and educated guesswork.

A final thought; in among all the speculation, there is one decision on social care that will have to be made soon – whether to pass Labour’s Personal Care at Home Bill. The Tories are against it, as are the Lib Dems, who would prefer to use the money for this to give carers extra short breaks, so I think we know what the result will be there.

Do you agree? Please let me know your thoughts below.

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Panorama sums up vetting and barring complexity

Last night’s Panorama ‘Are You a Danger to Kids?’ on BBC1 gave a pretty balanced assessment of the government’s new Vetting and Barring Scheme (V&BS).

While the focus was clearly on the child protection aspect, rather than vulnerable adults – as with the majority of mainstream media coverage – it outlined many of the pros and cons of the scheme in an accessible way. It didn’t go down the emotive route either – no stories about children killed by paedophiles were used, which would have been an easy trap to fall into.

Part of the aim of the programme was to inform viewers of exactly what it is and who will need to register under it – there is still a lot of confusion about it among the public – but it did not ignore some of the harder questions the scheme raises.

For instance, I was interested to see the vetting process investigated, especially that the case workers who will decide the majority of applications will be able to access ‘soft’ information about the applicant, such as work history, arrests where no charges were bought, and any unfounded allegations.

This is usually skipped over by the media and it was good to see the concerns highlighted, including the human rights angle and whether someone in an office in Darlington can make a correct decision based – in some cases – on rumour. The Independent Safeguarding Authority, which is in charge of the scheme, disputes these concerns.

A quick conclusion from the programme: the V&BS does have its faults – not least that it won’t stop predatory paedophiles – but it will give some assurances and help to ensure that those with convictions can’t get into jobs that give them easy access to children or vulnerable adults. It is hard to argue that this isn’t a good thing.

However, as former rugby star Brian Moore, who suffered abuse himself as a child, pointed out, there needs to be mechanisms to ensure abused children can come forward in confidence to report what has happened, and this doesn’t do that. Surely there should be more focus on this, as well as giving children the knowledge of how to keep themselves safe?

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Money money money

Sometimes I wonder as I write these blogs if I am beginning to sound like a stuck record; the issue of funding – or more accurately, the lack of it – seems to crop up at some point in the majority of pieces I post.

But I make no apology for this. Funding is arguably the most important issue within social care at the moment.

While providing outcomes for service users should be the number one priority – and I’m willing to bet that, on the record, any politician or director of services worth their salt will argue that it is – I suspect that how social care is paid for is exercising them more.

For quite some time now, directors of adult and children’s services have accepted the fact that they will have to do more with less money in the coming years.

Now, many are starting to find out how much less they have; for example, Cambridgeshire County Council has announced that the adult social care budget for 2010/11 is being slashed by £10.3 million, as the council looks to save £88 million in total.

They are not alone; many councils across the UK are having to make similar size cuts, with the resulting risk to certain services – often those at the less critical end, such as meals on wheels.

In addition, the government’s free personal care at home plan is causing much concern within town halls. While few argue with the aim of the policy, many feel it simply cannot be paid for, especially as it is generally felt that Labour has significantly underestimated how much it will cost.

Cllr Graham Gibbens, cabinet member for Kent adult social services, as quoted on kentnews.co.uk, said: “In an ideal world, we would wish to give free personal care at home to as many elderly people as possible. However, it is simply not affordable, particularly since we are in the throes of a debt crisis.”

Gibbens’ quote neatly sums up the current reality of social care. In a recession, idealism counts for little; money influences all conversations now, and will do for some time to come, regardless of who wins the upcoming election.

Now, it is up to commissioners, providers and social care staff across the sector to accept this and work within these financial parameters to ensure the money available is used to the greatest effect.

It is a significant challenge, but one that they have no option but to rise to. It may force commissioners to be more innovative in their thinking, and providers to ensure they deliver value for money, but they have no option.

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