Frontline social workers looking out for children, caring for whole families

WHEN Tracey Connelly and her boyfriend Steven Barker were convicted in 2008 of killing her infant son – known to the world as Baby P – social services in Enfield were faced with a massive surge in calls about children suspected of being at risk of abuse.

Members of the public, teachers, doctors and many more were petrified the scandal that hit Haringey would be repeated across the border in Enfield, and social workers were suddenly faced with a workload that had doubled in size.

“The surprising thing is that those calls ended up being genuine,” said Karen, a manager of the referral and assessment unit at Enfield Council’s Children In Need department.

“We thought that there would be lots of calls from people worrying about children for no reason, but that was not the case at all and so we ended up with a lot of extra work,” she added. “We got about 100 per cent more calls in. It tailed off a bit but then it plateaued and it is not unusual to get 135 calls in one day – it is impossible for us to assess 135
families a day. We took on four extra social workers to help us cope.

“But the response from our senior managers has been really good. The managers always listen to us if people have suggestions about how we might do things differently.”

There are 28 social workers in the referral and assessment unit, five of them men, looking after about 500 children currently on the system – including some children who have not even been born yet.

When a call comes in – they can come from schools, hospitals, neighbours, or even self-referrals – there is an initial assessment. The deputy managers will look at the cases and refer them to individual social workers. But a child would only be removed from their parents if the threshold of being “suffering from, or at risk of suffering serious harm” has been reached.

Karen said: “Sometimes the power we have is misrepresented. We can’t legally remove a child without a court order and the magistrates do say no sometimes. We do have to provide evidence. People are worried that we have come round to take a child away and those parents will never see that child again. That’s not what happens.”

“We always try to place a child with a friend or relative if we can,” added Linda. “It is very frightening for a child to be taken away from their parents, but it is much less traumatic if we can place them with someone whom they know.”

Children in court will also be appointed a “guardian ad litem” who will represent their interests. It will be a social worker who has no connections with the local authority in question and will not have previously worked for them.

Karen and Linda have both worked within social services for about 25 years and they say certain things have changed, but much has stayed the same. “Well firstly, everything now is electronic, which I think is a good thing,” said Karen. “We used to have big filing cabinets with all the information on.

“Child abuse is still child abuse and that has not changed, but there are now more support services available to help us and the parents. We have also become much better at not allowing a child to drift in the system.

“For example, when I first worked in social care I was allocated a disabled child who was being fostered because his mum had a high-profile job. This child had drifted in the care system his whole life. Very small children need a permanent family.

“There is a lot of paperwork but we have to have evidence and we need to record that somewhere. But we also need to ensure the social worker maintains contact with the child – so we need flexibility and balance.”

Social workers often come in to contact with violence and as a result they carry personal alarms and are even tracked by satellite. “Social workers have been killed before,” said Linda. “But our skill lies in assessing what is going on, building a bridge and talking to people.

“The main thing is being honest with people. If they think we are lying to them they will get angry. They may not like what I am saying but at least I am honest.

“I find that works and I have said some really difficult things to people.

“I have sometimes stood on someone’s doorstep speaking to them through a letterbox for an hour trying to get them to talk to me. Social workers don’t have a good reputation at the moment, but we like working with children and families and we do our job because we want to make a difference.”