Volunteers must not take the place of professional social workers

Tim Loughton, children’s minister, promotes the use of volunteers in child protection work as “an additional resource that, at a time when we are well stretched, it makes a lot of sense to explore” (Minister calls for more social work volunteers, 29 October). “Financially it is a sensible thing to do,” he says.

We are alarmed by this initiative. It is based on an American model and has been piloted here by Community Service Volunteers. The proposed implementation more widely in the UK is prompted not by the safety of children but by a strategy steered by cuts in services using unqualified and minimally trained volunteers to visit children with complex protection needs. The potential for subjecting these volunteers to risk, both physical and emotional, is significant. But more concerning is that volunteers may place vulnerable children at greater risk of harm, however good their intentions, merely by their inexperience and lack of accountability.

Projects and services that depend on the hard work of volunteers have been successfully collaborating with statutory children’s services for many years. Proactive child protection depends on the active involvement of communities in ensuring children are safe from harm. This lay involvement, however, risks becoming, at a time of ever-reducing welfare services, a substitute for the professional expertise that vulnerable, abused children are entitled to.

Loughton claims he is “not asking for an army of volunteer social workers to take the place of professional social workers”, but that is precisely what this government’s strategy is – to cut workers in the welfare state. “The introduction of volunteers to supplement the work of frontline child protection officers was an example of how the Tories’ ‘big society’ might work in action and would save local authorities money,” your article reports Loughton as saying.

The minister acknowledges a very troubling fact within child protection work – that social workers “can only afford the snatched half an hour visit every week” – yet the need for skilled professional social workers to spend more time with children and families is one of the key messages from numerous child death inquiries. Such contact is less likely to happen with financially driven initiatives such as the minister is proposing. Money-saving schemes could well see the law of unintended consequences realised, with traumatic results for children and social workers once again taking any blame.

Reconciling the task of protecting children with the limitations of the public purse is already a daily reality for social work staff. It would be dangerous to place further pressure on this fragile system. At a time when child protection is the subject of a government review, and the country is reeling from the impact of the banking crisis, for the minister to call on “retired City bankers or ex-insurance brokers” to become extra “eyes and ears” in keeping children safe is premature, crass and an insult to the profession of social work.

A shorter version of this article was signed by the following:

John Barraclough Senior lecturer in social work, London Metropolitan University

Professor Peter Beresford Chair of Shaping our Lives, the service user organisation and network

Rohan Burke Senior lecturer, South Bank University

Edd Carter Senior lecturer in social work, London Metropolitan University

Martin C Calder Independent child protection consultant

Sinclair Coward Senior lecturer in social work, London Metropolitan University

Dr Liz Davies Senior lecturer in social work London Metropolitan University

Dr Donna Dustin

Nora Duckett Senior lecturer in social work, London Metropolitan University

Dr Wendy Fitzgibbon Senior lecturer in criminology, London Metropolitan University

Stephen Fox Head of social work school, Buckingham University

Phil Frampton

Anna Gupta Head of department of health and social care, Royal Holloway, University of London

Evelyn Kerrigan Lebloch Senior lecturer in social work, London Metropolitan University

Siobhan King Social worker

Sharon Lambley Lecturer in social work, Sussex University

Michelle Lefevre Senior lecturer in social work and social care, University of Sussex

Nigel Lempriere Social worker

Marie McNay

Martin Murray

Kieran Travers Social worker

Helga Pile