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Blame culture results in risk aversion in social work

A blame culture in social work impacts on risk aversion in the social work profession, some respondents to The Case for Change have warned.

Publishing the Case for Change in June, chair of the independent review of children’s social care Josh MacAlister said: “This Case for Change sets out the urgent need for a new approach to children’s social care in England. Our children’s social care system is a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky.”

The Case for Change was published just three months after the review started and set out initial thoughts. It asked for feedback on their interpretation of the evidence and have also asked important questions where the team would like ideas, views and further evidence. Responses will be used to help shape the future work of the review.

Publishing the feedback the review had received, it acknowledged that some responses were critical that social workers were unfairly represented.

BASW’S response said: “There was concern that despite being peppered with a few platitudes, the Case for Change explicitly mentions social workers acting too soon, being unskilled, unknowledgeable, not understanding the profound impact of change and loss and having poor decision-making skills”.

Respondents also raised the following issues:

● Some respondents with personal experience of children’s social care highlighted the need for more accountability and checking of professional decisions.

● Some respondents felt there was a blame culture in social work that impacted on risk aversion.

● The impact of high profile cases on risk aversion within local authorities

● The role of Ofsted in influencing decision making and practice

● The impact of high case-loads leading to limited time working with families and critically reflecting on cases

● The need for good relationships and open and honest communication with families that they can understand to come to effective and fair decisions

● The role of advocacy to ensure children’s voices are heard in decision making as an important means of ensuring their rights are respected.

In its response, the independent review into children’s social care stated: “The review focused on the impact of organisational cultures, bureaucracy and increasing numbers of child protection cases on the ability to hold risk and get to know families. The Case for Change also highlighted that increasing proceduralisation of practice were poor replacements for professional knowledge and judgement. Alongside this, the review highlighted research and the views of those with lived and professional experience that there are gaps in social worker knowledge and skill. We do not suggest that the skills of individual social workers are the main cause for system issues.”

Chapter Two made an overarching argument that the children’s social care system too often focuses its efforts on investigating and assessing parents rather than providing the help that families need. The three-fold increase in section 47 investigations that did not result in a child protection plan over the past 10 years, as well as the reductions in spend on help were highlighted by the review.

However, in its response, Ofsted said that while the review is right to highlight the increase in the number of child protection inquiries, Ofsted’s inspection findings do not generally suggest that local authorities are carrying out unnecessary child protection investigations. In fact, Ofsted said it was more likely to report that a local authority is too slow to take decisive action when children may be at serious risk of harm.

Chapter Four in the Case for Change looked at providing a child protection system that keeps children safe through more effective support and decisive action and the review asked: How do we raise the quality of decision making in child protection?

The most common theme was the need for better multi-agency work with genuine joint decision making. This was particularly notable in the social care workforce which identified the need for better sharing of information, constructive challenge from colleagues and shared responsibility for risk.

Respondents also generally acknowledged that the balance of time currently spent by social workers on direct work and other activities is not optimal and more time should be spent with children and families by social workers. Many respondents commented that a significant organisational and administrative change in the children’s social care system is required to address this balance. Respondents frequently pointed to the need for high quality leadership across the system to create a supportive, reflective and less risk averse culture. A number of respondents raised the role of inspection in driving additional work and risk aversion.

More than 320 responses were received by the independent review.

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