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Social workers meet families for first time at crisis point due to lack of early intervention

Social workers are frequently meeting families for the first time at crisis point, a survey by UNISON has found.

Social workers who took part in the survey carried out by the public sector union repeatedly said their first point of contact with families was ​often only at crisis point because they have no time for early intervention and preventative work.

93% of social work respondents cited staff shortages as a major challenge to their role. Unmanageable caseloads (90%) and long hours (80%) were also identified by social workers as major concerns affecting their ability to do their job​s.

The survey of 3,000 social workers found excessive workloads, high stress levels and low morale are rife among social workers who are at breaking point.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Unacceptable levels of pressure on social work teams will end up costing lives. The safety of vulnerable children, adults and their families must be paramount and that can only be achieved with a strong and valued workforce.

“Social workers’ skills and interventions keep people safe from harm and change lives. But there simply aren’t enough of them to deal with ​increasing demand. New recruits and experienced workers are at breaking point and ​are leaving the profession in their droves,” she added.

The survey found:

  • Seven in ten (72%) said their workload has increased during the pandemic.
  • 89% are worried about the level of service they are able to provide to the public.
  • Many face threats of violence to not only them, but ​to their families ​too, from frustrated families in desperate need of support.
  • Social workers described being ‘grabbed and pushed’, receiving death threats and being told by those they’re helping that their houses would be burned down.
  • More than three quarters (78%) of social workers said they had experienced increased stress levels.
  • 77% of respondents were worried about their mental health due to the pressure they’re under.
  • Seven in ten (70%) also said morale has decreased
  • Almost half (49%) said they​ Are ​now less likely to stay in their jobs.

Four in ten believed harassment and abuse have increased during the pandemic, while a similar number said they had experienced emotional distress. As many as 78% worry about being blamed publicly in connection with cases.

One worker said: “We get so much blame and hostility, but we have no protection. We have nothing to keep us safe. We’re expected to do so much but no one considers the threat and danger we face. Social workers are disliked as much as the police. But the police don’t find their personal details being used and aren’t at risk of being followed home.”

UNISON says that while the recommendations of the recent MacAlister review address serious failings in England, local authorities and the government need to do much more to ensure safe services for children.

UNISON is calling on the government to invest properly in social work so families in need can receive help in good time. This must also allow social workers to operate in a safe environment, free from bullying and harassment.

“Ministers must take these findings seriously. Councils must be sufficiently funded to recruit and retain social workers to ensure communities are properly protected,” concluded Christina McAnea.

Steve Crocker, ADCS President, said: “This report contains important messages from social workers about the issues affecting their work with children and families, and the impact of Covid-19. We have been raising many of the issues highlighted in this report with government for a number of years. After more than a decade of austerity and year on year local government budget cuts the ability of children’s services to help children and families at the earliest opportunity, when we can make the biggest difference to their life chances, has been reduced. We urgently need properly and sustainably funded children’s services which will reduce demand for children’s social care and improve outcomes for children and families – we hope the Treasury is listening.

“It is difficult to read that during the pandemic, when social workers, like our NHS colleagues, continued their critically important and often lifesaving work with children and families, too many also faced a rise in harassment and abuse against them. Sadly, abuse against social workers is not a new issue but, let me be clear, it is unacceptable. Social workers have a very challenging role, often in extremely difficult circumstances. If they are to do their jobs well, then they need to be protected from harassment and abuse in all its forms and to be confident that should they experience this that their employer and the police will take appropriate action. To protect the children and families we work with we must protect the staff who work with them.

“As employers, we recognise the impact of the pandemic on our staff; directors of children’s services are working hard to create the conditions in which good social work can thrive, where social workers feel well supported and valued in their work so they can effectively manage the emotional and practical demands of the role. Having caseloads that are too high, feeling stressed and not being supported with that clearly impacts on a social worker’s ability to form good relationships with children and families, do the job well and on their mental health and wellbeing. Every local authority is working hard to recruit a permanent social work workforce and reduce our reliance on agencies which has a knock-on effect on caseloads. However, we still don’t have enough social workers to meet the level of need in our communities, and Covid-19 has increased that need. The independent review of children’s social care recommends a national recruitment strategy for social workers, we urge the Department for Education to develop this and roll it out at pace. This should also aim to promote greater understanding amongst professionals and the public of the important work social workers do,” he concluded.

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