The increasing use of volunteers in sensitive fields such as child protection needs to be held up to public scrutiny. While volunteers can make an immense contribution, there is a danger that their use could be a slippery slope, ending with more holes in the safety net for vulnerable children.
Community Service Volunteers in Bromley, Islington, and several other councils across the country, provide intensive early-intervention services that are valuable to both families and hard-pressed social workers.
Practical support with parenting skills used to be the responsibility of homecarers and family support workers employed in local authority social services departments.
However, years of underfunding, and recent cuts to social service budgets, have seen these services disappear. No wonder many councils have welcomed CSV volunteers as a means of filling the gap.
Keeping up dialogue and sharing knowledge between staff involved with vulnerable children is vital. We believe that moves to hand over early-intervention work to volunteers could make the exchange of information and monitoring more complex to manage. Ultimately, it will still be social workers who are accountable.
In Unison’s submission to the Lord Laming review, the union called for local authority-run homecare services for children and families to be reintroduced. We also warned that social workers must continue to have direct involvement in early-intervention work because of the need for a professional overview and critical assessment of children’s needs.
But also because, to avoid burn-out, social workers need caseloads that mix more rewarding work with heavy-end crisis intervention.
While the CSV volunteers are being trained in how to support parents, this training will not cover family dynamics, legal thresholds and how to judge critically and prioritise the needs of the children.
This makes supervision critical. Yet voluntary work is often approached with a different attitude from permanent employment, and the rigour of professional supervision can be onerous to maintain.
In addition, many voluntary organisations have precarious funding structures. If they shut down, or if volunteers change their minds, parents and children face being left in the lurch.
We believe now is a critical time to make the case for early-intervention work, for supporting families to be a core service, properly funded and consistently delivered.
Volunteers will always have a lot to offer. But sustainable and reliable early intervention saves money in the longer run - and that must be worth paying for.
Helga Pile, national officer for social services, Unison