Tuesday, 27 April 2004

You never hear about social work until something goes wrong

You never hear about social work until something goes wrong. As many politicians admit, it is not a vote-catcher. Who wants to hear about families in crisis, children at risk, the elderly needing care or people with disabilities relying on support to keep their independence? (Opinion piece Evening News 27 April 2004)


Who wants to know about the skilled work preparing a child for adoption or about the Social Worker going home late at night knowing they cannot protect a child because there is no resource? Who wants to know about children in trouble who never had the childhood we would all wish for our children?

Who cares about the residential worker being assaulted or the staff branded as 'useless' because there is no money for care packages?

Precious few it seems, until a tragedy hits the headlines. Then Social Workers carry the brunt of blame while the years of underfunding and lack of respect for the job get off Scott-free.

The Victoria Climbie Inquiry changed some of that. Lord Laming made it clear that top managers and politicians who underfunded the service could not escape the blame.

That may be why there has been such political fall-out from the O'Brien Inquiry into the tragic death of Caleb Ness, followed by a drive to be seen to be doing 'something'.

But 'something' is not good enough. The people social work serves deserve action that learns real lessons. Edinburgh's reorganisation fails to do this and has again dented the morale of the people delivering the service - a service that has plummeted from a 16% shortfall in staff to 32% since O'Brien.

The council leadership must take responsibility for this. Despite UNISON's calls for 'calm reflection' after O'Brien, they chose to unfairly lambast staff - who could not answer - before examining the report in detail.

Just about everyone who has analysed O'Brien agrees it has many shortcomings and does not compare in credibility with other recent inquiries into fatalities.

Staff were maligned on the basis of dubious evidence. The report misunderstood legal and professional issues and, on no evidence at all, removed Senior Practitioners from the key role of chairing Child Protection Case Conferences, creating an immediate staffing crisis.

The council said resources were not a problem but it cannot deny it knew they were. Three years ago, 500 staff signed a grievance complaining of lack of staff and lack of fostering and residential placements. They were adamant the problem was financial, not structural, and the blame had to be shared with the Scottish Executive.

Councillor Kingsley Thomas joined us in raising the issues nationally. He delivered a CoSLA task group and this partnership led minister Cathie Jamieson to announce a review. But locally, the situation failed to change. The council would not make the funds available.

There have been changes since O'Brien. But resources remain the sticking point.

There are still child protection cases without a dedicated social worker. There are still children who need to come into care with no place to put them. Social Workers still have to face furious Childrens Hearings when they don't have the resource to carry out their orders. We still have to refuse packages of care.

That is not an organisational problem, it is just plain lack of resources.

Social Workers are not opposed to change. In fact they have driven most of the important changes in Edinburgh. They are opposed to change that will make their job and the protection of vulnerable people even harder.

The Scottish Executive rightly says Social Work must base its strategies on what has been shown to work, learning from studies and inquiries. We have no problem with that. But the council seems to.

O'Brien, for all its shortcomings, makes a robust case for closer working between Community Care, Criminal Justice and Children & Families staff. Scottish Executive guidance for working with children and families affected by drugs says the same. Yet these functions will be split up under the council's plan.

Laming says child protection needs an overview from a Social Services Department, yet Edinburgh will split it up.

No report even mentions a merger with Education. They do however stress the need for better links between children's and health services, just as UNISON is suggesting.

Laming notes that managers in Haringey 'took their eye off the ball' in childrens services during a reorganisation. Learning the lessons of the death of Victoria Climbie, the council reversed the merger and re-instated the Social Services Department. What lessons for Edinburgh?

As one Haringey councillor put it, "it was too often the case that reorganisations are done…. rather than actually addressing fundamental challenges facing social services".

That is the crisis we now face in Edinburgh. We need a massive injection of resources but we get a reorganisation. We need to learn the lessons of inquiries and research. Instead we get a political fix.

We need to build confidence in Social Work. Instead we see an integrated front-line service ripped apart.

Staff were told they would be listened to but they were ignored. Also opposing, and also ignored, were the council's own scrutiny panels, the British Association of Social Workers, the Association of Directors of Social Work and the Educational Institute of Scotland. Out of the host of organisations responding, only two local groups noted any support.

UNISON supports change, but positive change based on the real lessons. Months ago we outlined a nine-point plan based on those lessons and the knowledge of the people doing the job. This would make fundamental improvements and build better joint working with other agencies, while retaining the specialisms needed to deliver the best services to people. There has been no debate with us on this.

Even at this late stage, the council can put its plans on hold and engage with us and all the other stakeholders on change that really will protect children, and really will provide a better deal for the thousands relying on social work services.

John Stevenson
Branch Secretary UNISON City of Edinburgh Branch and practising Social Worker

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