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A look back at 2022 with WillisPalmer's Head of Practice, Lucy Hopkins…

2022 saw people trying to get back to some degree of normality following the Covid-19 lockdowns, restrictions and school closures that we had faced for the previous two years. However, the impact of Covid-19 continued and many services experienced, and continue to experience, backlogs and difficulties, including those services relating to children and families.

Social worker recruitment and retention

Many local authorities are struggling with the recruitment and retention of social workers, placed increased pressures of those who remain on the frontline, working tirelessly to protect and safeguard children; many social workers continue to feel overworked and underappreciated by senior managers. Cafcass have reported similar issues, in that many Family Court Advisers and Children’s Guardians have been leaving the organisation, and the current disputes regarding pay will continue into the New Year. A decade ago Family Court Advisers and Children’s Guardians, who are Cafcass social workers, were paid around the same salary as local authority team managers, reflecting the knowledge and expertise they brought to the role. As local authorities increased social worker salaries, Cafcass did not do the same, and some local authorities now pay social workers qualified for just a few years the same salary as a Cafcass social worker whose role it is to advise the Court on serious and life changing decisions for children and bring significant expertise to a case before the Court. The matter of Cafcass staff leaving the organisation is like to have had, and still be having, a further impact on the family courts who are already dealing with an unprecedented backlog as a result of the pandemic.

Covid-19

Many children starting school during 2021/2022 had missed out on attending nursery, playschools, and generally the opportunity to mix with and socialise with a range of adults and other children. Whilst many parents were having to work at home or were furloughed during this time, and it may have been expected that they would spend more time with their young children as a result, schools have seen an increase in children, now in Reception and Year 1, who are showing signs of delayed development in relation to what would usually be expected for a child of their age; this has included an increase in children with speech and language delay, children who are not toilet trained, children who lack the ability to play with other children, and children who cannot be contained within a classroom. Schools are therefore having to spend a significant amount of time and resources on trying to help these children “catch up” and reach their milestones before they advance at primary school and more expectations are put on them in terms of academic work. However, schools do not have the funds to be able to employ the number of Learning Support Assistants and 1:1 workers to meet the needs of all of these children who require extra support and support staff work hard to divide their time between a number of children.

War in Ukraine

On 24th February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Children and families who have fled the country will suffer the impact of war for the rest of their lives. Children were leaving Ukraine and travelling into neighbouring Poland to seek safety and refuge, many without their parents.

Social workers in Ukraine were helping families by trying to reunite them, providing food, water, and shelter.

Children fleeing war torn Ukraine were missing education, had no healthcare provision, were being separated from their families, and had a lack of food and resources. In addition, they experience an instability of environment, their homes being evacuated, a loss of stability, security and safety, and no opportunity to make plans in the short or long term.

Those children, along with vulnerable adults, were at considerable risk of being trafficked and exploited by adults taking advantage of their situation, at a time when they needed additional safeguarding and care. There were risks that they would disappear into the background due to the focus being on the war itself, or that they would disappear altogether with their whereabouts being unknown.

Children from Ukraine arriving and settling in the UK are likely to need considerable support and therapeutic interventions to help them deal with the trauma they have suffered and to help them make sense of their life experiences.

Care Review

Josh MacAlister led the Care Review that was published in May of this year, and set out a range of recommendations that included the need for a focus on early help, specialist child protection teams staffed by experienced social workers, a social work pay scale to reflect the skills and experience of social workers, and the abolition of the IRO role.

The British Association of Social Workers said: “The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) welcomes the report’s stated aims: to develop and advance the children’s social care system; to put children’s needs and voices at the heart of planning; to enable professionals to work together better; to support and develop the social work workforce; and to put healthy relationships at the heart of support for children."

“However, these changes will only be possible with an end to unfeasibly high workloads, inconsistent supervision and mentoring, and poor career and development pathways, which drive desperately-needed, experienced social workers out of the profession."

“While tackling poverty and funding cuts are mentioned in the report, the Review needs to be unequivocal in asking Government to act on poverty and the structural underfunding of preventive and universal services, which is increasing demand on social services and inequalities between areas.”

Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said: “The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care must be a milestone moment in reforming and fixing this broken system which is letting down our most vulnerable children."

“The Review is totally right to identify that too often we wait for children to be harmed before they are offered help. The Review’s compelling big answer to this big problem is that we need to see a big switch from a system geared to putting children into care, to a system geared to preventing the need for children to go into care in the first place."

“Our own research shows that 64,000 children every year are missing out on early help services and then being re-referred to social care within 12 months. Children’s social care services need to be proactive and intervene before it becomes too late."

“Now it's time to turn these words into action. The government must grasp this opportunity to urgently reform the system, working alongside care-experienced young people.”

Many social workers and organisations who work with children and families agree that there needs to be more focus on early help, rather than services becoming involved to provide an intervention when families are at crisis point. For more about early help, you can read our article here: www.willispalmer.com/early-help-care-reviews-josh-macalister-is-executive-chair-of-new-body-to-help-with-early-interventions-for-children-and-families

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA)

IICSA was established in 2015 under the Inquiries Act 2005 and although a statutory inquiry it was not part of the government, but had a wide-ranging remit which included the "authority to compel witnesses and request any material necessary to investigate where institutions failed to protect children in their care.".

The final IICSA report was published in October 2022 and 20 concluding recommendations were made leading to a total of 107 recommendations being made during the course of IICSA’s work.

“The Inquiry has encountered extensive failures – by a range of statutory agencies as well as other institutions and organisations – to keep pace with the increase in the pernicious and constantly evolving sexual abuse of children. Those State and non-State institutional failings identified across the Inquiry’s work suggest that large numbers of victims and survivors have been let down by the institutions that should have protected them, today as well as in the past. Addressing the past and present concerns requires prompt and effective action.”

“This report includes the Inquiry’s 20 concluding recommendations (including six from earlier reports which are reiterated). In total, the Inquiry has made 107 recommendations during the course of its work to 33 specified institutions as well as a number of other organisations and settings (see Annex 3). Those recommendations are designed to provide a comprehensive response by the State, as well as institutions and organisations which work with children, to address the very current problems in preventing, reporting and responding to child sexual abuse. Together they will better protect children from sexual abuse and the harm that results.”

Cost of Living Crisis

The cost of living crisis is likely to have an impact on families during the winter of 2022 and into 2023. Many families will have started to get back to normal life after the pandemic but are now feeling the pressures of rising electricity bills, the cost of food increasing, and interest rates soaring meaning that mortgage repayments are increasing significantly. This will undoubtedly affect the way parents are able to meet their basic needs and those of their children, and additional problems, such as poor mental health, substance and alcohol misuse, and domestic abuse, may be exacerbated, subsequently placing children at an increased risk of harm. Local authority thresholds for intervention are high and there is a considerable risk that many children will slip through the net and that families will not receive the support they need to prevent further harm.

Child Deaths

This year we saw a review published into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.

In the case of Arthur Labinjo-Jones, the review found a “systemic flaw in the quality of multi-agency working” in Solihull, with “an overreliance on single agency processes with superficial joint working and joint decision making”. Similarly, it said that professionals in Bradford working with Star had a limited understanding of what life was life for her, did not listen to members of the wider family and referrals “were significantly weakened by the lack of formal multi-agency child protection processes”; it also found that child and family assessments undertaken by children’s services “were not fit for purpose”.

There were several recommendations made in the review, including two key recommendations that apply to child protection practice in general:

  • Multi-agency arrangements for safeguarding children are too fragmented, with inadequate information sharing making it “extremely difficult” to build and maintain an accurate picture of what life is like for the child.
  • A need for “sharper specialist child protection skills and expertise, especially in relation to complex risk assessment and decision making; engaging reluctant parents; understanding the daily life of children; and domestic abuse”.

We also heard about the death of Logan Mwangi, whose mother and step father were found to have repeatedly lied to professionals and the review into his death found that social workers experienced “working environments under pressure that [did] not enable and create organisational conditions that support such complex work”, with limited opportunity for practitioners to reflect on cases. Bridgend’s children’s services were found to have had “an inconsistent approach to the quality assurance of assessments and planning across several areas of case management”, with a lack of evidence to show that child protection plans were adequately reviewed by managers.

It is always extremely sad and disappointing to hear about children who have died and the involvement they have had with social workers. It is important that as professionals working with children we carefully consider the reviews that are undertaken in relation to child deaths and are able to take some learning from their findings and recommendations so that we can continuously reflect and improve our own practice. I remember reading The Victoria Climbie Inquiry when I was a student social worker and the Baby P serious case review some years later, both of which had a considerable impact on how I practice as a social worker, and so I encourage social workers to read all published serious case reviews and reviews into the deaths or serious harm of children, because we can learn so much from these reports and understand them in the context of our own work.

As we leave behind 2022 and move into 2023, WillisPalmer wants to continue growing our range of experts – social workers, psychologists, and forensic risk assessors – along with our Family Support service, so that we can continue to provide robust, high quality reports for family courts and local authorities in order to help timely decisions to be made for children, particularly during challenging times when staffing may be an issue for local authorities and Cafcass; provide family support workers to assist families with all aspects of parenting so that there is an increased chance of children being able to remain in the care of their parents without ongoing local authority interventions; and undertake many more our multidisciplinary assessments which have had great success in 2022, with 75% of our Multidisciplinary Family Assessments (where children remain with their parents whilst the parents are being assessed by a social worker and psychologist in the family home, supported by family support workers up to 24 hours per day) recommending that children are able to remain in the care of their parents.

We wish everyone a Happy Christmas and look forward to working with many of you in the New Year.

Working Together For Children

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