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Social workers at risk of ‘burn-out’ as thousands of domestic abuse cases pile up

Social workers at risk of ‘burn-out’ as thousands of domestic abuse cases pile up

🕔19.Mar 2015

The latest Ofsted inspection of Birmingham children’s safeguarding services tells a familiar and depressing story. Social workers are at risk of being overwhelmed by the number of cases they have to deal with, too many mistakes are being made and a drive towards a more joined-up service is inhibited by poor IT systems.

In January Inspectors from Ofsted visited the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), a development which it is claimed will bring together social workers, police, health visitors, GPs and school staff and deliver swift and appropriate intervention in cases where children are thought to be at risk of abuse.

MASH is in the first of a three year development plan that the city council hopes will eventually lift children’s safeguarding services out of special measures for the first time since 2009.

Senior Ofsted Inspector Marie McGuinness filed her report, which makes difficult reading for the council and other public agencies.

While Ms McGuinness paid tribute to the determination to “go the extra mile” to make the MASH work, she also warned “the pace of work is relentless, workloads are high”.

Employees were at risk of “burnout” and of being overwhelmed by the amount of work they faced and no proper account had been taken of additional pressure caused by sickness and annual leave.

And far from delivering a seamless verdict on child protection cases, Ofsted picked up a number of mistakes where children that should have been rated high risk were given an amber light, and others at low risk were graded amber.

Cases were seen with no initial checks undertaken with schools or with health visitors, there was too much delay, particularly with amber cases, and a lack of clarity about risk assessment.

The report continued:

We saw cases that were rag rated red when they should have been amber, and in one case it was downgraded to green. Amber cases that could have been green if more information had been sought. The wrong application of thresholds puts more strain on an already very busy service and inhibits the flow through of work.

Ofsted also uncovered an “unacceptable” backlog of domestic abuse cases, running into thousands, which had not been dealt with.

IT systems used by the various agencies did not “talk to each other” and that led to drift and delay in gathering essential information with some cases waiting for two weeks before action could be taken.

Ms McGuinness added:

Staff are working at full capacity and over, and this makes the service vulnerable and leaves it very fragile. Planning and resourcing needs to take account of sickness and leave so that the service can continue to operate safely.

Some caseloads are too high and there is a real potential for staff to become overloaded and overwhelmed. Work is not moving as swiftly as it should be through the system. Strategy meetings need to be sharper, tighter and more focussed on the business to hand.

Information gathering needs to be more robust at the initial stages of contact, agencies needs to be contacted and information sought before cases are progressed through and risk assessed.

The backlog of unscreened domestic abuse notifications is unacceptable. Extra resources are being made available, but a clear plan of action needs to be put in place to risk assess and clear the backlog, so that any high risk cases can be identified and tackled and staff can then focus on work coming in.

Whilst there is some early help services, this whole area is weak, not joined up and the availability of support is not yet based on identified need. This is a significant vulnerability as the early help offer and availability of services and support is integral to the success of the MASH.”

In a progress report on the children’s improvement plan Peter Hay, the strategic director for people, refers to the additional workload with referrals up by a third at the end of last year.

Cabinet member Cllr Brigid Jones, when asked about the improvement process, told a full council meeting that improvement

is not a linear journey

The council continues to battle to attract and retain qualified social workers. In 2013 wages were increased by up to 68 per cent in an effort to make Birmingham competitive against other cities.

At the end of January 2015 there were 161 vacant permanent child protection social work posts covering grade 4 and grade 5 social worker posts and team manager positions at Birmingham city council.

The 161 vacant posts represent a third of the total workforce of 485 front line social work posts.

The council has extended a system of enhanced salaries and is paying agencies at the rate of £90,000 a year to provide social work team managers.

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