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Reliance on agency staff in Star Hobson authority highlights capacity issues in social work

The “reliance on agency social workers” in the local authority responsible for safeguarding Star Hobson highlights capacity issues in the social work profession, the Chair of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel has warned.

Star Hobson

Addressing the education select committee, Annie Hudson – who last month published Child Protection in England into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson – said that reliance on agency staff was potentially an issue in Bradford as well as in many other parts of the country, raising issues about capacity in the system.

“Now agency social workers can be good but as what happened in some instance during the course of the work with Star, the social worker, who was an agency social worker, left with one week’s notice and the assessment was unfinished and that had very problematic consequences,” said Annie Hudson.

Addressing a question around the quality of social work training, Ms Hudson said that there is some very good training and some excellent people coming off social work programmes, however, the overall picture is that training is variable. Furthermore, teaching and learning around using analytical skills and working in situations where families are not going to co-operate is an area that some students and teachers struggle with.

Ms Hudson added that often social workers are under so much pressure that they don’t get adequate time for reflective, challenging supervision.

“These are really, really difficult tasks and they require people to be well and supportively managed but also managed in a way where they are able to think through what they have just seen on a visit, what it is telling them and what they should do next, rather than rushing from visit to visit to visit without the chance to really percolate the thinking and assessments,” she added.

Ms Hudson highlighted that the independent review into children’s social care  published by Josh MacAlister makes “radical and important proposals about how the social work career pathway is managed” and the absence of a clear pathway has been “a real problem to date”.

Annie Hudson

Child Protection in England highlights that both the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and of Star Hobson were during the COVID19 pandemic and therefore the review sought to understand, as far as it is possible, whether the circumstances of this global crisis affected Arthur and Star, their families and the response of professionals to what was happening in their lives.

A member of the education select committee asked Ms Hudson whether she agreed that there was “much more chance” that Arthur’s death could have been prevented if he had been in school during this critical period.

“School is a protective factor for children, particularly vulnerable children, as teachers are the eyes and ears on children, particularly in primary school which take very seriously children’s emotional welfare,” said Ms Hudson. “So there is no doubt that if children are going to school they are much less likely to be hidden from sight.”

However, she acknowledged that it was not to say that some of what happened to Arthur would not have happened, had he been in school.

“It’s difficult to know what the impact would have been had he been going to school, but there would have been those extra eyes and ears without question,” said Ms Hudson. “But I don’t think we can say, because of what we know with Arthur, we can’t say for sure it would have been prevented.”

Ms Hudson was then asked whether she agreed that any further complete school closures should never happen again.

“I think if there were such a time again then there must be proper attention given to keeping children in sight. Complete school closures are really problematic for children who are vulnerable,” she said.

Ms Hudson was further probed about the issue of prejudice and professionals fearing being labelled as prejudiced as was seen in Star Hobson’s case. Star’s mother, Frankie Smith, had told a social worker that a referrals made by Star’s great-grandmother was malicious as she did not approve of same sex relationships and the report says that this explanation “was too readily accepted”.

Ms Hudson responded saying it is an important point, adding: “It is one of the reasons we are proposing the Multi-Agency Child Protection Units.  We believe that if you have key professionals working together in one team and working in a culture where it is right and good and healthy to be challenging one another about people’s assumptions you’re much more likely to get behind, for example, as was happening with Star as Star’s mother was saying that it was a malicious referral because they didn’t agree with same sex relationships. But actually if you’ve got a more challenging, critical working environment, people will be saying ‘Hold on a minute, is there something else going on here? Are we being deflected by this idea that it’s a malicious and prejudicial view from the families or is there more going on?’”

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