Public need to be the eyes and ears of social services

Harriet Dempster is calling for a public debate, but she may not get it on her own terms. The head of the body that represents Scotland’s social work chiefs wants to see communities and ordinary people taking more of a role in issues such as child protection and domestic violence, rather than leaving the burden on social workers.

She’d like a public discussion about the position of frontline workers who often feel they are damned if they do take action – for instance by taking a child into care – and damned if they don’t.

Dempster would also like to see a debate about what kind of social services we can afford. Whether, for example, we should move to a model of helping the elderly or disabled which sees shorter interventions which help people to cope for themselves, then reduce state involvement.

However, it is when she adds: “It would be useful to have that conversation in the wake of things not going wrong,” that she may be being over-ambitious.

It is telling that we are having this conversation in the week that a report into the death of Dundee toddler Brandon Muir is published. Inevitably the findings in that case are at the forefront of her thoughts.

When she took on the presidency of the Association of Directors of Social Work in May, Dempster inherited a campaign, Social Work Changes Lives, which the body is running to help promote the profession and address negative aspects of its public image.

She describes the task as “a marathon, not a sprint”, but believes the strategy is beginning to show results. It is a challenge, she says, to get positive stories into the media about social work, because they aren’t sensational.

But the campaign has had some success in highlighting the fact that people who use social work services value them, and in improving the confidence of social workers to talk about what they do. “The media has been quite hostile to social work in the past. But there is interest in social work and in the fascinating challenges that social workers face.”

Some of those challenges are exposed by the Brandon Muir case, in which a toddler was killed by a man of whom little is still known, although he is serving a sentence now for culpable homicide. Robert Cunningham moved in with Brandon’s mother, Heather Boyd, and within a few weeks the child was dead. Social services did not know the man was on the scene, and were also unaware that Boyd now had a drug problem and was working as a prostitute.

The circumstances were unique, but the pattern is more common, Dempster says. “Families are presenting with situations of much greater complexity. There is a cocktail of substance misuse, domestic violence, and alcohol, as well as transient men moving between families. It can be very difficult for social workers to make sense of that.”

That can mean that a situation for a child which may not have been causing concern can rapidly veer towards crisis. “Things can escalate terribly quickly. It comes back to communities and families being alert.”

As last week’s two reports acknowledged, social services can always do more, but she believes communities and the individuals within them have an important role. “They can pick up on things far more easily than agencies. These things are happening in their midst, but they have to feel confident in coming forward, she adds.

While social and health services were not held to blame for Brandon Muir’s death, the reports on the case said that communications between the agencies involved had been flawed.

Dempster has a proposal to tackle the compartmentalisation of professionals in different disciplines. “I think one of the big issues here is around training in child development to get doctors, teachers, social workers and nurses to train together. We need to be learning about and talking about these issues together.

“That would foster much more common understanding when people get out into the field.”

She also argues that past efforts to improve communication have already achieved a good deal. “It is very effective in a large number of cases that nobody hears about. There has been a big focus on reducing bureaucracy, bringing agencies together to decide at a very early stage who is the primary worker. For a child that might be the health worker, the social worker, the teacher. Universal services have become much more effective at providing support to children at the margins.”

However, she is wary of those who would argue that all children who are in a household where drugs are used are in danger or are inevitably harmed. “That is important in terms of getting people to think about the issue, but it is a very simplistic statement,” she says.

“To say all children have to come into care is also unhelpful. Where you come across issues of children with substance-abusing parents social workers have to be very careful to get right in there. But we have to balance the issues with the risks that accompany removing a child from their family. There can be relatives and other protective factors around.”

The public service union Unison would say that such tasks would be made easier if the workload for social workers was lessened. But Dempster says it isn’t the major factor. “Managers and directors of social work are always concerned that their staff have reasonable workloads,” she says. “In child protection inspection reports, workload hasn’t emerged as a major issue.”

She acknowledges though that resources are pressured and public sector budgets will only get worse. “It is going to be hugely challenging. That is why working together more effectively and efficiently is important for the outcomes of individual children.”

Budgets will also be a factor for other areas of social work – in particular community care, she adds. This is the other area that she feels merits public debate. “Ultimately it may need a dialogue about what the state provides and what people provide themselves.”

This could apply to areas such as elderly care and services for people with physical or learning disabilities, she says.

“In adult services, we tend to think of people being assessed for a service and then the service being there almost for perpetuity. Perhaps by giving people greater control, after a period of time they may not need so much of a service, allowing us to recover that resource and recycle more of the public pound.”

Edinburgh’s re-ablement teams have been doing just that, she points out, while North Lanarkshire has blazed a trail in promoting independence for people with learning difficulties.

One positive aspect has been the relatively positive response from politicians in Scotland, she adds. It is not the case elsewhere, with Ed Balls having alienated many in the workforce in England when he criticised social work broadly in the wake of the Baby Peter case.

“We are in a different position than other parts of Britain. We haven’t had the lambasting we’ve seen down south. I think that is good – if fingers of blame are pointed, it has a demoralising effect. I feel really proud and pleased that there hasn’t been that kind of response in Scotland.”