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FRONT LINE FIRST - SOCIAL SERVICES

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Social work has taken a hammering in recent months. The Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie has revea...
Social work has taken a hammering in recent months. The Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie has revealed some unpalatable facts about the state of child protection work in one London borough council.

A lot of the evidence given to the inquiry makes uncomfortable reading for anyone who cares about the future of the profession. The danger is ministers will be panicked into making sweeping changes which will not solve the problems highlighted by the inquiry but will cause more difficulty and dislocation.

When something goes as badly wrong as it did in the Climbie case, the temptation for politicians is to look for structural solutions. These may give the appearance of offering major changes but usually fail to take account of the day-to-day reality of the organisations in which social work is practised. The Laming team were told again and again by witnesses that it is resources - not structures or procedures - which underlie the problems which face social work.

When Unison officers were talking to members in Haringey and trying to understand the trauma they were going through, we decided to try to find out if the demoralisation being expressed by staff there was common to other child protection teams across the country.

So we asked every Unison branch throughout the UK a series of simple questions about how the social work teams deal with children and families.

The results of the survey highlight the severe problems staff face but also suggest that social work staff's commitment is as strong as ever.

When asked about staffing levels, 55% of respondents reported vacancy rates of over 20%. But most respondents believed that even if all the vacancies were filled there would not be sufficient staff to carry the workload. An overwhelming majority of respondents said children and family teams were characterised by a very high turnover of staff and that case loads are generally regarded as too high.

Some 94% of respondents identified high stress levels as common features of children and families teams, while 64% said they would characterise the day-to-day running of their department as crisis management.

Despite all this it is clear most staff are doing work that goes way beyond what their contracts require. According to 86% of respondents, staff were accumulating large amounts of 'time off in lieu' which they are unable to take. The long hours worked by many social workers demonstrate, despite all the attacks and criticism, they are still displaying the dedication to serving the community which is the hallmark of the profession.

Unison makes no apologies for publicising the outcome of this survey. But the survey does not paint a picture of a service damaged beyond repair. Properly funded and resourced, they are still the right way to provide child protection services.

It really is necessary to make the point to government that the capacity to improve standards in child protection work is already there if only they will provide the resources to allow it to happen.

Owen Davies

National officer, Unison

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