Let’s return to the foundations of social care: serving families, not the system

21st November 2019

The blog was first published on the Centre for Public Impact’s website.

Over the last few months, I’ve been one of the social workers working with CPI, Frontline and Buurtzorg Britain & Ireland to explore new ways of thinking about social care. We’ve been investigating the lessons that can be learnt from organisations, such as Buurtzorg, which are empowering frontline staff and reducing the layers of management and bureaucracy that get in the way of professionals delivering their best work.

The government policy of austerity has led to underinvestment in services. In some areas, there’s been a culture of risk aversion, shaped by national reaction to well-publicised child deaths. As a result, our social services haven’t always been able to meet the needs of children and families.

But even in these circumstances, many local authorities have still been able to drive meaningful change, championing practice models that are really improving things for children and families. Many are building trust by working cooperatively with families, rather than “doing to” them. As a sector, we are also starting to articulate risk differently. And we’re reflecting on the power we hold and promoting a more skilful use of authority in a lot of places.

Among the many positive developments for example is the growing use of Family Group Conferences (FGCs). FGCSs are decision-making spaces increasingly used in children’s social care at different points in the journey of a young person and their parent or carer. A space is created for families, who are encouraged and empowered to make decisions and form plans for what they want and need.

But these positive changes in practice are happening in spite of the system they sit within, not because of it. The system is built on a fundamental lack of trust in social workers and as more and more bureaucracy and process have been added, social workers are prevented from taking ownership of their practice.

When practising as a social worker in East London, I often remember feeling paralysed and held back by bureaucracy. Searching for managers on a Friday afternoon to sign off a £30.00 payment, so I could buy a railcard for a mother and baby trying to get across London to see their family. Looking for approval for my decisions from a panel of 10 managers or more, who had no face-to-face knowledge of the family concerned.

One particular occasion stands out. A 13-year-old schoolgirl had told her teachers that her mother had physically assaulted her. This was referred to children’s social care at around 10 am, but I couldn’t go and see the young person until 4 pm. The reason? I had to wait for a manager to become available to decide on the best course of action with the police. When I got to the school, the young person was upset with me as she felt embarrassed, lonely and unsupported. She said to me that she’d never tell anyone again if something happened to her.

Existing structures breed bureaucracy and stifle real social work – time spent directly with families. Organisational practice is flooded by layers of management oversight, which result in high levels of paperwork and process. This is felt by so many social workers I have worked with, as well as recounted by the social workers surveyed by the British Association for Social Work (BASW) and the Department for Education.

How do we change our system so that trust and support are at its heart?

We cannot just change practice and the way we work with families. We need to change the culture and structures within which social workers do their work. Trust needs to be woven into the fabric of the social care system, from how we work with families to how we work with each other internally and organisationally.

That’s why we’ve created this blueprint. The model outlined within it presents a radically different approach to how a local authority could deliver children’s social care, that could be done at no additional cost. At its heart are two simple principles: building meaningful relationships with children and families, and giving social workers the decision-making power to be able to support families with what they need, when they need it.

In my view, by giving social workers greater responsibility and autonomy, we can return practice to the foundations of the profession and enable the best support to be given to children and families.

We’re rightly proud of having one of the safest child protection systems in the world. But we need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re structuring our children’s social care system in an enabling way.