Our Social Workers are Cleaning Toilets Instead of Protecting Children

17/05/2012 13:27 BST | Updated 16/07/2012 10:12 BST

Social workers don't kill the children who die in their care, but they can find themselves in the firing line when a child tragically dies because of parental abuse.

The public, quite rightly, expect social workers to protect children from harm, and often perceive a social work complicity when a high profile death hits the headlines, making assumptions of gross neglect or incompetence on the part of the professionals involved. Witness the resulting media coverage of the role of social workers in the appalling cases of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly or Khyra Ishaq.

The stark and disturbing truth is all too evident from a survey by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) of more than a thousand social workers.

The study finds, quite simply, that child protection social workers do not have the time to see children.

Politicians have made moves in the past towards promoting more understanding of the pressures on social workers that make the simplistic equation, child death = useless social worker, less plausible than it once was.

The Conservative party, when in opposition, produced a manifesto of sorts for the profession - No More Blame Game - which formed part of a barely perceptible shift in attitude amongst politicians, as have a range of limited central government initiatives aimed at raising social work standards since the coalition came to power two years ago.

Yet despite clear signals that ministers do have a handle on the issues that have made the social work profession so unfairly maligned, their remedies are often desperately inadequate.

Indeed, much of current policy is actually only serving to transform a profession that was once on the back foot into one that is now flat on its backside.

Cuts to back office and support staff mean that a social worker's time is spent inputting data, acting as receptionists or carrying out office cleaning duties - one even reported having to clean the toilets, and another described being asked to hoover the office - instead of visiting children and families.

Combined with crippling caseloads, described as simply 'unmanageable' by 54% of respondents, and vacant or unfilled posts as a result of cuts (seen by 77% of social workers during the past year), and the extent of the problem starts to become clear.

Throw in soaring referrals to social services and the situation goes beyond a mere problem and enters the realm of the simply impossible. Figures released in April by the Children and Families Courts Advisory Service, (Cafcass), show the annual number of applications from local councils in England to take children into care has hit a record high, exceeding 10,000 for the first time. Resources have not increased to meet this demand; in fact, they have been cut.

I recently spoke to Frank, a child protection social worker for over 20 years, who said that while the system had never been perfect, he had never seen things as bad as they are now, and that he and his colleagues were astonished that there had not been another "Baby P" in their area - a reference to the death of Peter Connelly in Haringey in 2007 and the high profile convictions of his mother and two men the following year.

When asked what people think that social workers do all day, he said: "I think that most members of the public assume that social workers spend their time visiting children at home or at school, spending time with families. They'd probably be really shocked that we spend most of our time sitting at computers inputting data into various systems."

After much covert texting, Frank agreed to meet with me and a journalist to blow the whistle on the worrying state of social work - the BASW survey revealed that 53% of social workers believe a lack of support for them as practitioners could have potentially tragic consequences for the vulnerable people who rely on their services.

Although dedicated to his job, Frank currently has over 50 children in his care, and copes by prioritising those who seem at most risk of harm. The rest are seen "as and when". He told me he has sleepless nights worrying about the children, praying that none come to harm, as he knows that he has no chance of visiting them regularly.

Peter Connolly died aged 17 months. His post-mortem revealed that he had swallowed a tooth after being punched, had a broken back, broken ribs, mutilated fingertips and fingernails missing, and countless bruises, scratches and bite marks.

The case caused a national uproar, not least because Peter was seen by no fewer than 60 times by health or social workers over an eight-month period.

Politicians fell over themselves to assure the public that such a case should not be allowed to happen again. Launching a review of the child protection system in June 2010, to be led by Professor Eileen Munro, children's minister Tim Loughton said it would focus on getting social workers back to the frontline, where they could spend time "eyeballing" families face-to-face, rather than "shackled to their procedure manuals and computers".

Mr Loughton said "too many social workers are feeling undermined, overwhelmed and overburdened, and we can't afford for that to continue."

It was the right sentiment, but the government's actions since then - implementing a relentless agenda of cuts - have left pledges to protect frontline services in tatters. Cuts to support staff have left social workers exposed to more paperwork than ever; cuts to cleaning staff have added another layer of 'responsibility' that social workers should not have to bear.

This is plainly ridiculous, and a slap in the face for the profession. When was the last time you saw a judge, following proceedings in a family court, remove their wig and nip off to hoover the courthouse or clean the toilets?

One social worker described the situation in their team as "another serious case review waiting to happen". This is echoed by hundreds of comments made by social workers in the BASW survey.

Frank was equally honest, as he spoke to the journalist, carefully silhouetted so that he couldn't be recognised and, in turn, sacked by his employer for telling the public the truth: "It's as if management are more concerned about getting all the stats right, than about improving the quality of life of the child behind the numbers".

I thought about this again looking at pictures of five-year-old Tyler Whelan in this week's media, his mother's brutal boyfriend Elvis Lee having been sentenced to life for his murder after systematically kicking the life out of him.

Tyler died in hospital in March 2011 after collapsing at home in Peterborough. Details of the case would send shivers down the spine of any right minded person, not least because so many opportunities were missed to see what was happening to Tyler. No home visit was ever undertaken.

Discussing the failings in this case, Peterborough City Council said "significant improvements" had since been made to its social services department, tellingly stating that this had been achieved by employing an extra 25 social workers and by cutting workloads.

One social worker, unconnected to this case, told BASW's survey: "I recently left my job within a child protection team because even working 12 hour days and taking work home at weekends, I was unable to keep on top of my caseload, and could no longer operate in such risky, dangerous conditions. Many social workers feel they are sitting ducks, just waiting for something to go wrong."

It is dangerous. Social workers need time to build up a relationship with children in order that the children feel safe enough to talk freely. Without being able to do so, the risks to children rise.

They also need to be able to blow the whistle when they have concerns about poor practice, and be taken seriously, not bullied and punished by bosses for speaking out. One social worker told us they were coached in spouting positive platitudes to Ofsted inspectors, and warned by managers that if they spoke out they would face disciplinary action.

BASW has written to the Secretary of State Michael Gove to emphasise its deep concerns about the state of social work, and is also urging the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Social Work to hold an urgent inquiry into the risks to vulnerable children and adults of an overstretched social work service.

The Association is calling for urgent action to address the pressures, failings and dangers that social workers have highlighted in this survey, including three immediate measures, low-cost to suit the age, but designed to help, at least, to stop the rot:

1. let social workers get back to what they do best reallocating admin staff from other local authority services;

2. end the attacks on social worker morale with a ban on any further pay or allowance cuts;

3. act to reduce risk of unnecessary tragedies by placing a new onus on the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Ofsted in England, and CSSIW in Wales, to prioritise in all inspections the risks of high caseloads, including a focus on bullying.

Social work services were never beneficiaries of investment in the way other areas of public service were during the so called 'boom years', yet now they find themselves facing cuts every bit as deep as those in other sectors. They didn't have the good times, and now they're facing even worse times.

It can't go on. Even as you read this, children are being battered, burned, kicked and raped, and it is happening in their own homes, behind closed doors. Those doors are remaining closed, because social workers are sitting at computers filling in forms.

We cannot afford to wait any longer for urgent action from government. Lives that could be helped will be neglected, and lives that could quite literally be saved, will be lost, unless the response is swift, and total.