Fine judgements key to protecting vulnerable children

 keeping children safe and supporting vulnerable families requires many fine judgements

Keeping children safe and supporting vulnerable families requires many fine judgements - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the most profound responsibilities that Devon County Council has is the protection of vulnerable children and young people.

Every so often in Britain there is a high profile case where a child dies at the hands of a family member.

Subsequently the child's social workers are often pilloried in Parliament and the press for not preventing  the tragedy. Sometimes that criticism is justified, sometimes it isn't.

But keeping children safe and supporting vulnerable families requires many fine judgements and decisions by social workers who sincerely believe they are doing the best for the children involved at the time.

One of the many effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been to exacerbate hardship and increase tensions in some families and since the second lockdown ended in Devon we have seen an increase in the number of children taken into care - up from 780 to 806 - and the numbers on child protection plans - up from 530 to 590.

At the same time there are only so many experienced and qualified social workers and recruitment nationally is highly competitive. That means many councils have to rely on agency workers to fill vacancies and that becomes expensive because they cost £28,000 more a year than a permanent member of staff because of all the add-on expenses. And a temporary member of staff is also, by definition, unlikely to build up the long-term relationship with their clients  that the best social work practice requires.

We currently have significant shortages of social workers in some key areas such as support for the most vulnerable children and families, care for disabled children and our safeguarding hub.

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We have had to employ agency staff to fill the gaps and this is hampering our attempts to improve our children's services across the board.

So last week the county council’s Cabinet agreed a package of measures to recruit more social workers and, just as importantly, to make sure that they stay with us and develop their careers.

This will cost £1.1 million in this current financial year and £3.4 million in a full financial year.

The measures inevitably include better pay for key roles so that we are competitive with other county and unitary councils in the region as well as more clerical support to free up social workers from administrative tasks and an expansion of our training schemes and workforce development so that we can effectively ‘grow our own’ staff.

Currently there are 195 full-time equivalent social worker posts in Devon's frontline teams. Last December, 44.5 per cent of those roles were filled by agency staff. We've now got that down to 30 per cent but we are still running with 19 per cent of our vacancies unfilled.

We obviously want the best possible results for all children in Devon, especially those in the most challenged circumstances. The best way of achieving that is through relationships with them and their families but it's much harder without a stable and high performing workforce.
So in addition to this new package of measures we have already launched a new recruitment website through which we've employed 12 advanced social workers, six permanent social workers and three permanent team managers. In addition, 14 newly qualified social workers started this year and eight students on a Master's degree course have been placed in Devon.  They'll qualify next year and remain with the county council.

So we're doing everything in our power to make Devon a place where social workers want to come and help us provide an excellent service to our most vulnerable children and families and keep them safe.

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