Jeremy Laurance: Social Workers Need More Support, Too

The scandal of Baby P has placed the role of the individuals assigned to protect him in the spotlight. Unlike previous child abuse scandals in which the victims have slipped through the net, unnoticed until it was too late, Baby P was recognised as being at risk of child abuse and placed on the child protection register eight months before he died.

To that extent, the system worked and the child should have been safe. The subsequent failure to prevent the horrific injuries that he suffered, leading to his death, raises serious doubts about the individual skills, training and supervision of the social workers (and others) involved.

Senior social workers said yesterday that the case highlighted poor training and inadequate supervision. The frontline workers in contact with the family failed to focus on the child, to handle or examine him, and had “not taken sufficiently seriously the need to be distanced and sceptical”, according to Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

In addition, “individual social workers were being asked to make very finely tuned decisions on their own,” without proper oversight by managers, she said. No one was standing behind the staff involved.

These are glaring shortcomings. But the scandal also raises wider issues. Social work has always been a Cinderella service, underpaid, understaffed and under-resourced. Social work does not enjoy the reputation and intellectual standing of medicine nor the national pay scales and career path of teachers. A social worker with 10 years’ experience will be lucky to earn over £30,000. The result is that the most difficult and damaged children end up being looked after by the least able and worst paid staff.

Many of the families social workers have to deal with are frankly intimidating. They work in an uncomfortable environment, carrying a personal and professional responsibility untypical of their peers, often with little experience. In many parts of the country staff shortages are running at 20 to 30 per cent, higher in London. Where there are shortages of staff, case loads grow, there is heavy reliance on agency workers unfamiliar with the families and the area and the risks of disaster increase. Yet the children, numbering more than 20,000 nationally on the at-risk register at any one time, need a high quality service delivered by fully professional, highly trained and motivated staff.

In the past 30 years the status of social workers, which was never high, has declined. The review ordered by the Government must come up with proposals to attract staff of the right calibre, provide the right training and proper supervision if it is to deliver the protection tragically denied to Baby P.