Child Protection: A Profession In Need Of Reform

Public confidence in social workers’ abilities to protect vulnerable children has been rocked bv the case of Baby P.

Most commentators agree that something radical has to be done to restore confidence – nothing short of a complete overhaul of the profession is called for.

This is something that former social worker Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of the Children And Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), is acutely aware of. He believes that child protection has become so difficult that a complete rethink is needed about recruitment, qualifications and training.

“There has been a decrease in the extreme physical abuse of children, and an increase in multiple categorisation where you have combinations of neglect and emotional abuse, on top of dual diagnoses for many parents, combinations of mental health problems and substance misuse. Many of these cases you come across these days need the wisdom of Solomon. They are a challenge to people with 30 years’ experience in the job, never mind everyone else,” he said.

“It is pushing the job to the edge of being unmanageable, and I don’t think current training prepares workers for what they are going to face. Far too many social workers are pitched in too early and get their training when they are already on the front line. We need workforce reform.”

Lord Laming is examining the workforce in the light of Baby P on behalf of the Government and will report back in February. But Mr Douglas knows where he would start.

“When you look at what has been done with teachers over the last ten years on pay and recruitment, that is the sort of thing we need. We have to start on the academic threshold on entry. That is important. We need bright people. Then we need proper career development. And we need social workers to be able to earn a lot more while on the front line. A teacher can earn £55,000 in a classroom. With social work it stops at £40,000.”

Mr Douglas has experience of turning around almost impossible situations. Cafcass was set up, eight years ago, by Tony Blair to be the voice of children in the family courts, in both public law cases of care and adoption, and in private law contact and residence disputes. The work relies heavily on assessments and reports drawn up by its social workers.

It was a laudable ambition, but Cafcass has spent most of its life in the dog house. First, fathers said that Cafcass social workers sided with mothers in custody battles. Groups including the militant Fathers for Justice used high-profile stunts to draw attention to their view that Cafcass assumed children should stay with their mothers. Next, public spending and efficiency watchdogs criticised its backlog of 1,000 unallocated cases and a £4 million overspend. Most recently, Ofsted has begun to inspect its services and found them badly wanting.

But Mr Douglas believes that the service has turned a corner. It won a 7 per cent budget increase over three years and the cash has been spent almost exclusively on training and mentoring staff, coaching and boosting the skills of managers. Performance related pay has been introduced.

“The problems have been all about meeting the shift in expectations, going from a courts service, where we were working to their satisfaction, and then struggling to become a mainstream children’s organisation and meet the standards expected there.”

Mr Douglas hopes now to be able to turn his attention to the not insubstantial task of reforming social work and restoring confidence in the profession’s ability to protect children.

The lowdown

Who? Anthony Douglas, 58, is chief executive of Cafcass, the specialist national agency representing children and families in family courts throughout England, a post he has held since 2004. He was previously director of social services in the London Borough of Havering

What? Cafcass is the specialist national agency that represents children who are in custody and care proceedings in the family courts

When? After eight years of almost relentless criticism about its performance, Mr Douglas believes increased investment in staff, who are mostly social workers, and training means the agency has turned a corner and this year’s Ofsted reports will show a dramatic improvement

Why? Cafcass staff and other social workers are under scrutiny as never before after the case of Baby P. The work of Cafcass social workers in particular will be on show when the family courts are opened up to the media from April