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Robin Sen, Christian Kerr & David Grimm Special Edition

Special Edition Editorial

Social Work 2020-21 under Covid 19 has the privilege of publishing here 28 thought provoking submissions for this special edition as well as David Grimm’s fantastic illustration below. We note our individual and collective partiality but also want to say that we think it’s a special, special edition too! It is one that is related to the announcement of the Government Review of children’s social care in England, but not defined or constrained by it. Its contents consider the review process and have some unflinching critical commentary on it, as well as alternative ways in which the Review could have been designed and run. But the edition also includes a far wider set of concerns – from analysis of elements of the children’s social care system which need reform, suggestions for practice and system changes, the wider politics of undertaking this Review or similar reviews elsewhere, and examples of hopes, challenges and realities from other jurisdictions from which England might learn. We carry articles focussing on aspects of social work reform in Aotearoa New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England. We also failed miserably in one of our initial aims of restricting all of our submissions to the initial word count restriction of 2,000 words! Some contributors had a lot to say and we felt we should allow them space to do so. Still, we have aimed to keep contributions short and accessible enough that they retain the accessibility and digestibility that characterised SW2020 submissions. We hope we have managed to strike that balance.

The Editorial Collective would want to go no further without us noting thanks to our wonderful peer review team of Taliah Drayak, Lys Eden, Denisha Killoh, Jimmy Paul and John Radoux for giving of their time, selves and expertise. We invited them to help us peer review because we knew their knowledge and expertise of, among many other things, direct personal experience of social care services would provide an insightful editorial dimension that the existing editorial collective simply could not. We want to thank Taliah, Lys, Denisha, Jimmy and John for their contributions and service to the magazine and to the communities they enrich and enhance through this and their various other endeavours and contributions. It really was a pleasure and a privilege to work with you on this edition and we hope our various paths cross again.

We also want to thank Dave Grimm, a care experienced student social worker, for providing us with the illustration that adorns this editorial below.

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‘The Care Review’ By David Grimm @DavetheCareBear

Finally we would like to pay our respects, alongside the many other heartfelt tributes that have been given, to one of the contributors to SW2020 who tragically died from Covid-19 in January this year: the amazing care experienced activist, artist, father, foster carer, and partner who was Yusuf McCormack. Rest In Power Yusuf. You will always be the difference, and we continue to learn from the lessons you left us.

We encouraged each of our peer reviewers to themselves submit pieces to the special edition.  John was persuaded by our persistent entreaties (read ‘pleas’!) to submit. We are grateful that he was. As John suggests at the start of his piece anger is a natural, powerful, emotion that humans cannot, and should not, seek to avoid. It should be appropriately channelled and John here channels his anger about a review, for which he had such earnestly high hopes, into a tour de force of analysis, humour and dignity.

This brings us to why we decided to re-open the magazine for another edition. In all honesty we were reluctant to do so. The previous five editions had seemed to us successful and valuable. They were enjoyable to produce as well. But they were also tiring and we were sure it was the right time to wind the magazine up in July 2020 as we emerged from (what would turn out to be) the first UK Covid lockdown. Several people asked us about re-opening the magazine at different points after this and we were not persuaded. However, shortly after the Chair of the Care Review was announced in January 2021, a previous contributor to SW2020 proposed that we re-open for the duration of the Care Review. We were still reluctant. The workload was one concern. However, most of all we feared a long goodbye and outstaying our utility and welcome. In the end we became persuaded by what we perceived as the lack of an alternative space for critical discussion and debate of issues relating to – and indeed beyond – the Care Review. We think this is an important point going forward and we want to therefore spend a little time exploring it here.

Firstly, we noted how reasonable critiques of the Care Review and its surrounding politics by social workers and others with a stake in the Review’s outcomes have been cast as unwarranted and unreasonable attacks. Passions run deep and feelings run high, leading to painful conflict and divisions between people and groups. Short-form platforms tend not to allow for deeper, reasoned excavation and exploration of important, emotive issues. Recognising that clipped, crossed and cross conversations occur too often on certain platforms and recognising also that at times it has, frankly, gotten a bit out of hand, we believed there was need to promote and preserve accessible spaces for critical but civil debate in social work.

We also believe that it is vital to harness the positive aspects of the platforms citizens access and use in order to publicise information, identify issues of concern, raise awareness of issues with a wider audience, and provide a degree of transparent accountability for those in positions of significant power.

It is to be noted how over the last decade significant decision making around children’s services in England has been shaped through largely hidden channels and the corridors of power flowing in, out and around the UK Government. We would also note the increasing influence of global corporations, often espousing social philanthropic aims, and who have now curiously started to take such a keen interest in social work and social care provision under the aegis of benevolent altruism. Beyond this review, as well as within it, there is an important, far-reaching, conversation to be had about social work. It is one that concerns the very nature, identity and role of social work and how it will and should be constructed and shaped, and by what and whom, in future.

It was in recognition of all these issues, and from a desire to contribute positively to that conversation, that we re-opened for this Special Edition.

Contents

Rather than providing an exceedingly long editorial by reviewing each of the 28 submissions we have been lucky enough to receive, we instead group them under five themes which may help readers in deciding which to read in which order. The groupings are inevitably subjective so do feel free to alternatively dive in to the contents list and make your own choices:

Theme 1: Critiques of the operation of the aspects of current social work system in England

Amanda Knowles

Beth Atkins

Ermintrude2

Theme 2: The wider politics and processes of undertaking social work reviews

Avery Bowser

David Anderson

Tupua Ulrich 

Theme 3: Imagining, re-imagining the possible futures of social care, social work and social work education

Becca Dove and Tim Fisher 

Dave Clarke

Kay Everard

Julia James, Matthew Davies, Arzu Bokhari, Catherine Davies and Hannah Osborn – the MASW Bursary Campaign 2020

Kate Parkinson

A principal social worker in England

Sally Holland

Thomas Croft and Diana Skelton

Sarah Jane Waters

Theme 4: Critiques of the English Care Review and its internal politics

Carolyne Willow

Ian Dickson

Janet Melville-Wiseman

Jo Warner

Joe Hanley

John Radoux

Nushra Mansuri

Paul Shuttleworth

Ray Jones

Richard Lynch-Smith

Steve Rogowski 

Theme 5: Analysis of elements of the current children’s social care system

Jane Tunstill

June Thoburn

The end of SW2020-21 under Covid-19

According to the maxim you should never say never, but we are doing so here. This will undoubtedly be the last edition of SW2020-21. In closing the magazine we would note that the number and quality of submissions and the general level of interest in the magazine has been brilliant and should give encouragement to any others in the social work field who may wish to operate a free, openly accessible platform, that is free of the constraints of corporate or large organisational control. We would encourage others minded to do so to try and are happy to provide any advice and support we can if that be the case.

For now from us it’s Good Night, and Good Luck.

Robin and Christian, on behalf of the Editorial Collective.

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Contents List Special Edition

Contents List

Special Edition – Care Review

Editorial – Robin Sen and Christian Kerr on behalf of the editorial collective, with an illustration – The Care Review – by David Grimm

Amanda Knowles – Why it is necessary to end the unfair disqualification of caregivers

Avery Bowser  – A curious notion?

Becca Dove and Tim Fisher  –The rewilding of helping human services

Beth Atkins  – Our experience

Carolyne Willow – Beware of another power grab

Dave Clarke –  Letter writing as case notes: Developing narrative in case files of Care Experienced individuals

David Anderson – Talking the talk

Ermintrude2  – Conflicts of interest and the Nolan principles

Ian Dickson – Experts by Experience

Jane Tunstill –  Family support services must be the foundation stone of any child welfare intervention

Janet Melville-Wiseman – Listening to the voices of care experienced individuals and communities and the disconcerting values of the Government children’s social care Review

Jo Warner- Legitimate outrage? The Government Review of children’s social care

Joe Hanley – Network ethnography and the Care Review

John Radoux – Reviews, independence and lies

Julia James, Matthew Davies, Arzu Bokhari, Catherine Davies and Hannah Osborn – The MASW bursary campaign 2020: An example of grassroots social work activism

June Thoburn – Routes to permanence for children who need out-of-home care: An evidence overview

Kate Parkinson – Family Group Conferences: the basis for an alternative child protection system?

Kay Everard – The Care Review – It’s not the system, but the people who make it – time to end restructures and invest in people

Nushra Mansuri –  A review of children’s social care in England or a social work apocalypse?

Paul Shuttleworth – Can an independent review provide meaning and ethical participation?

A principal social worker in England – The Care Review 2021: Knocking on the neighbour’s door

Ray Jones –  Prescience of paranoia? Reflecting on the future

Richard Lynch-Smith – Building their seat at the table

Sally Holland – Social work and children’s human rights in Wales in the pandemic- and beyond  

Sarah Jane Waters – How people who use services help create, deliver and appraise Social Work education

Steve Rogowski  – The Review of Children’s Social Care: Another Review Sham?

Thomas Croft and Diana Skelton– Poverty, the right to family life, and the need for poverty-aware guidelines for child protection policy and practice 

Tupua Ulrich  – Experiences of involvement in a youth advisory panel for a Government Care Review in Aotearoa New Zealand 

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Amanda Knowles Special Edition

Why it is necessary to end the unfair disqualification of caregivers

Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown on 20 March 2020, it is a date I will never forget. It was the day after my wedding anniversary, and a month since I had learned that Ofsted had refused to register another manager who had been in charge of a children’s home for over six months. This was the second manager application to be refused at this particular home in 18 months. Each one had a clear DBS check, was suitably qualified,  experienced with many years service, and had managed the children’s home in question for several months prior to the fit person interview.

It is the responsibility of the Disclosure and Barring Service to maintain the official list of people barred from working with vulnerable adults and children. They say this aspect of their work involves making fair, consistent and thorough decisions that are appropriate to the behaviour that has occurred and considering the risk of future harm. Ofsted is responsible for the Fit Person Process which is an assessment of good character and suitability to hold a regulated position. People who would not be deemed suitable include individuals listed on the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) list of individuals barred from working with children; a person convicted of certain offences against a child; a person made subject of an order related to the care of children such as a child being removed from their care; or a person whose registration as a childcare provider or manager of a children’s home has been refused or cancelled.

The relevant legislation is The Care Standards Act 2000 which introduced a requirement for managers of children’s homes to be registered with The Care Standards Commission.  The responsibility was transferred to Ofsted in 2007 when its remit was extended to include the registration of children’s homes and the fit person process. This legislation was introduced to create a level playing field between providers of regulated children’s social care in the public, voluntary and independent sector. The requirement for managers to be registered included legal responsibility for the service provided, and disqualification from the children’s workforce as a penalty for applicants who failed to meet the registration criteria in the Act.

Applicants are required to demonstrate they are of good character and have the relevant qualifications, experience and skills. The relevant qualification for registration is the level 3 CYP diploma and if registered the manager has two years to complete the level 5 Managers Award. Fitness is assessed by scrutiny of the information provided by the applicant, background checks and an interview with the inspector allocated to the home.

In some cases, the interview will take place at the home with the inspector only and in others the applicant will be required to attend another venue and a notetaker will be present. The notes are not shared with the applicant for validation at the end of the interview and requests from applicants for a copy of the notes are routinely refused.

At the time the applications referred to in this article were refused I knew that inspectors were no longer informing applicants whether or not they were recommending registration following fit person interviews. The reason for this policy change had been explained to me in response to a query I had raised with a senior Ofsted manager twelve months before:

Regarding feedback after the FPI [Fit Person Interview]. This is within guidance. Previously in situations where it was likely that we would refuse to register a manager (or refuse a registration) the inspector would inform the applicant of the likely outcome. This gave the applicant time to withdraw their application, which they are well within their rights to do and Ofsted have to accept the withdrawal. However, in a small number of circumstances we come across people who we do not believe should be operating within social care and want to be able to ‘refuse’ them without giving them the opportunity to withdraw. By not giving immediate feedback to anyone, this allows parity….

Before this, I had not seen or heard an announcement to this effect even though I was a regular attender at the quarterly provider forum hosted by Ofsted for almost a decade, and I had not previously paid attention to the legislative small print. I was shocked that an applicant who had worked in children’s homes for over twenty years, and in the role of responsible individual for twelve of these, was refused registration after managing a home for seven months. No steps had been taken to remove the applicant from the role of the responsible individual or the duty to supervise the management of the home but the reasons given for refusal related to events that occurred during this period. Surely this applicant was not on an unofficial ‘barred’ list being operated by Ofsted?

Freedom of Information requests for the notes taken at the fit person interview were submitted but these were refused for the legally untested reasons given below,  and in any event the reply did not arrive until after the 28-day appeal deadline. The enormity of this refusal and the immediate disqualification from the children’s workforce this carries with it should not be underestimated and I was worried about this person’s wellbeing when I became aware of this. The stress of unemployment without rights, financial hardship, a lost career, and reduced employment prospects was enough to tip even the most resilient person over the edge and lead to a nervous breakdown or worse.

In another case I am familiar with, the applicant had been in post for seven months when her application was refused. The employer had completed all safer recruitment checks and the manager took up the position in mid-July 2019. In the period leading up to the fit person interview that took place two weeks before Christmas, young people at the home were reported to be making good progress, feedback from social workers was positive and Regulation 44 reports did not raise any concerns.

At the fit person interview the applicant was asked to explain the reasons for the disciplinary sanction declared on the application form and was made aware of another disciplinary sanction that was disputed. But again, Ofsted refused the Freedom of Information request for the notes from the fit person interview for the following reasons:

Section 7 of schedule 2 of the Data Protection Act 2018 explains where the data controller has “functions designed to protect the public” disclosure may be restricted. This would apply where a government department has a function in either of the two following areas:

  • To protect the public from unfitness or incompetence
  • To protect persons other than those at work against risk to health and safety arising out of or in connection with the actions of persons at work

Ofsted is not required to provide personal data where doing so would be likely to harm the proper discharge of those functions…. We are satisfied that disclosure would harm the proper discharge of our regulatory functions and consequently are refusing your request at this time.

A few days after the fit person interview two Ofsted inspectors completed an interim inspection at the home and rated it to have improved effectiveness, but two months later the applicant was disqualified from working in the children’s workforce and refused a waiver to work in any capacity.  As lockdown loomed, the applicant was unemployed, the employer had lost the services of an experienced and suitably qualified manager, the children had suffered another loss, and the team had lost their leader.

What unfolded was a disturbing chain of events driven, as a result of deterrent regulation in a commercial environment that has outpaced relevant legislation in my opinion. The Care Standards Act 2000 pre-dates the regulators’ code and when it was written I doubt that the commercial value of good Ofsted ratings, and the routes some might take to achieve this were fully appreciated. It is the difference between financial success and financial ruin, and this has the potential to drive unethical regulation and business practice.

Registered managers have a legal responsibility to ensure compliance which includes safer recruitment and a duty to ensure children living at the home are suitably matched, but managers are easily overruled by the power of more senior managers who are required to maintain staffing levels and high levels of occupancy to ensure financial targets are met. In other words, senior managers may be willing to throw lower ranking mangers under the bus for financial gain or blame managers for shortfalls they had no control over to save themselves from poor Ofsted ratings or prosecution.  It is also possible that inspectors may be willing to overlook serious regulatory shortfalls for a fee as it is not beyond the realms of possibility that inspectors may have financial interests in the homes they inspect or other related businesses.

It was not until 2008 that the regulators’ compliance code was introduced and a further six years before it was replaced in 2014 by the current code which was developed following consultation with national regulators, local authorities, businesses and trade bodies. The code provides a flexible, principles-based, framework for regulatory delivery that supports and enables regulators to design their service and enforcement policies in a manner that best suits the needs of businesses and other regulated entities. The code reads well but it bears no resemblance to regulatory practices that I have witnessed in recent years. Not least, the secretive nature of decision-making processes, the lack of transparency and misuse of power that has created the potential for unfair decision making undeniably evident in this unannounced policy change.

When you stop to think about this, the ramifications for individuals, businesses and children’s social care are enormous, and it is for these reasons that I set up the campaign to ‘End the Unfair Disqualification of Caregivers’. It cannot be right that a person’s career is taken away by a process that denies the right to see the evidence on which that decision has been reached. Or that justice relies on an individual’s emotional and financial ability to pursue this through an equally secretive tribunal process that will cost in the region of twelve to fifteen thousand pounds in legal fees.

Despite these odds, the second refused applicant was fortunate enough to be able to make a tribunal appeal because she had familial access to affordable legal representation. During the hearing significant gaps were identified in the employment law knowledge of inspectors responsible for the decision to disqualify but the panel still did not think the applicant should be rewarded with manager registration. The applicant was judged to have failed to be sufficiently candid about highly questionable historical disciplinary action which resulted in the lowest sanction possible at the end of October 2017. At the time she was not made fully aware of the allegations against her or provided with the evidence on which these were based. A first written warning to be held on file for six months until 30 April 2018. The judge also said it was evident from those well qualified to speak over two years later, she had undoubted childcare skills which should not be ignored and that imposing a permanent ban on playing any role in her chosen career would be excessive.

Whether the weight given to this lack of candor was proportionate is debatable given the way Ofsted phrased the questions at the fit person interview and in view of the fact that the disciplinary was unfair and  the sanction was spent. It is also noteworthy that certain criminal offences are filtered by DBS, and an applicant is not required to declare them. But the tribunal decision is final and, unlike a criminal conviction disqualification is not time limited and hearings are not recorded. Whilst this prevents repeat appeals, it also prevent evidence from being revisited and eradicates the opportunity for learning, and even if a waiver is granted it is job-specific which means reapplying for permission to change jobs.

It is also of significance that during this hearing the solicitor for Ofsted drew the court’s attention to case law that would have made the whole process a costly pointless exercise because the decision relates specifically to the home where the applicant was employed. In other words, if the vacancy had been filled the case would have been automatically dismissed. But on this occasion, the vacancy had not been filled in the months preceding the hearing.

There was already a national shortage of suitable managers affecting the sector when lockdown began and before Ofsted registered 177 new homes of which over fifty percent were applications from new providers with no background in children’s services. All that is required to open a new children’s home is an applicant with a level 3 diploma in children’s residential care who has been employed in a supervisory position for two years and Ofsted’s blessing.

It is not that I am opposed to rules or regulation, but against this backdrop, recent calls for more regulation and plans for Ofsted’s reach to be extended ahead of the Independent Care Review promised by Boris Johnson risk mistakes. It is not that I am opposed to rules or regulation, it is the current interpretation and application of these, the lack of transparency and secretive decision-making processes, and above all the unchecked power in the hands of inspectors who are well protected by Ofsted’s impenetrable defences that deeply concern me. Ofsted have recently declined freedom of information requests for its policy on inspectors working for companies operating children’s homes at the same time they are working for Ofsted and data related to the disqualification of manager by region and reason.

Surely, given the level of responsibility located in the role of the registered manager and the impact of this on the lives of the most vulnerable children in society it makes more sense for the professional status of registered mangers to be raised, for them to be registered in the same way as social workers and to disentangle the fit person process for managers from all commercial interests, ethical or otherwise. I would also strongly suggest the registration of children’s homes should include a fit person process for share-holder directors because in the commercial world this is where the real decision-making power that affects children’s lives is located. This would also eradicate the need for the highly questionable ‘unofficial barred list’ deployed by Ofsted.

To find out more about this campaign please see here.

Amanda Knowles MBE

21 February, 2021                                                                                       

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Avery Bowser Special Edition

A curious notion?

It’s somewhere around 1986. A classroom on an upper floor of the Tower building at the University of Ulster, Coleraine (as it was then). The Anglo-Irish Agreement is still far from getting a universal welcome. Joey Dunlop is winning motorcycle races. And Madonna is very famous. Meanwhile, in the aforementioned classroom, there is a discussion deep in analytical, metaphysical and moral considerations – as should be hoped for on a philosophy course. Our tutor, the master of understatement, Prof Terry O’Keeffe, is about to utter a phrase that will serve us all well for the rest of our lives.

‘Curious notion’

Within this special edition, I am confident that you will be able to read more than one detailed analysis of the events, influences and relationships leading up to and embodied in the review of Children’s Social Care in England.  Following events unfold from a distance I have been struck by the quality and depth of ‘street level’ journalism that has come from within social work.  I am sure you will also hear care experienced voices and they will demand and deserve our collective attention, respect and reflection.  There will be disappointment, frustration, anger, even fear about what this review and the conditions of its establishment signal for the future – for those who will come into care; for those who are there now; for those still making sense of and living with their care experience. Those for whom care might be avoided in a better world. And for social work.

In this space I wanted to identify some of the broader themes into which the review and the concern it has generated fit. Before that, a moment of clarity.  The suggestion that the review is meaningfully independent is not credible. The questions and objections that have been raised regarding the selection of the chair, the relationship between the chair and the Department for Education, the scope and scoping of the review, and how the review is to be conducted are all pertinent.

Parliament, democracy and reviews

These have been troubling times in Western democracies for those who think that open, transparent and accountable government is a key building block of a free, democratic and modern society. The impact of the financial crash on global politics, the rise of nationalism and isolationism, austerity, Brexit, Trumpism, the growth of social media and the changes in the Fourth Estate, and the war being fought in cyberspace, have all contributed to the current state of play in the UK where there are no consequences for ministers or government departments pursuing policies and actions that are palpably not credible, up to and including misleading Parliament and failing to properly answer questions from Parliamentary committees.[1] The approach that has been taken to the review of Children’s Social Care in England is of this piece.

It has been announced as a ‘once in a generation’ review but all the evidence that has emerged so far points to a departmental review which is tightly controlled from the outset. There will be consultation and engagement to point to in the process and the reporting, but be under no illusion, this is not open inquiry, and there are favoured outcomes. There is clear meta-messaging in the selection of the chair, the chair’s contract and the terms of reference. It could also be viewed as designed to fail. Even for a review that focused on the experience of care and after care, the timescale would have been unrealistically tight. In recent weeks the scope of the review has increased to a point where it’s aims are undeliverable.

Delivering an effective and credible review is a bit like facilitating a Family Group Conference. The secret is in the preparation. This knowledge exists in the civil service – the importance of properly scoping a review, the identification of interested parties and pre-review engagement to work out what the issues are and where the sticking points are likely to be. This process will help you work out who might both be suitably qualified to lead/conduct a review and have the necessary credibility with the individuals and groups who have a stake in the outcomes from the review.  Initial discussion of the review arrangements focused on the Nolan Principles in Public Life – the Gunning Principles in relation to consultation are also instructive. [2]

If this is a genuine once in a generation review, then it probably should have been led by a panel, probably with a judge as its chair, but one who was comfortable and skilled as working as part of a team. There should have been a social worker, probably a respected academic. There should have been someone with care experience, who, while not burdened with the unrealistic expectation of representing all those with care experience, would be credible to and have broad support from the care experienced community.

The review should most certainly have been a creature of Parliament, with Education Committee oversight of the Department for Education as lead body.  A mature political and oversight process might have seen joint hearings with other relevant committees given that a number of other government departments will be interested in the review, and will be key to delivering change and future outcomes for care experienced people.

Marketisation

A detailed analysis of the growth of marketisation in social care generally, and children’s services specifically, is well documented and has been front and centre of the questioning of the review to date. Within the sector a clear aspiration for any review of how children in care are looked after by the State, was that it would look at the negative impact of marketisation on the cost, availability and location of suitable foster families and residential homes – places that could provide home and family when children’s own families were unable to do so. Places from which children could move back to their own families; from where they might move on to a permanent place to live; or where they might stay for the long term. As with the selection of the chair of the recently published report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities [3], so with the selection of the chair of the review into Children’s Social Care – despite all public protestations to the contrary, the Minister and the Department are sending a very clear meta-message about what they want and what they don’t want – for those who have ears. For a really clear view of why the provision of care for children is not and never will be a proper market, and the negative outcomes that leads to, please take a look at Kathy Evans excellent chapter in Kittens are Evil: Little Heresies in Public Policy.[4] You will discover that ‘monopsony’ was the word you had spent a lifetime looking for.

To borrow a phrase from finance and switch it to a human rights context – the bottom line in all this is, that apart from the fact that we have a carefully constructed system that prioritises the transfer of public money for the care of children into the hands of shareholders over using that money for services that benefit those very children, the decades long fetishising of markets in public policy and commissioning has led us to a position where children are commodities – placements and units. There is no human rights, social justice, ethical or moral frame in which that can ever be right.

Co-production

The review is already a missed opportunity to do things differently. It has been extremely painful to listen to the voices of care experienced people who feel that despite the public reassurances, this review looks like business as usual. Why has this happened? Philosophy and haste. It’s clear that an engagement process is underway, but a lot of that work should have been done in the scoping of the review, building up networks in the care experienced community, asking them who they thought their authoritative and representative voices were.  Quite rightly, the concerns over the Department’s control of the findings and process of the review (i.e. its independence) as set out in the chair’s contract, do leave those with lived experience of care wondering if their contribution is meaningful or a fig leaf for the future.  We need to be moving beyond consultation and engagement. There was an opportunity here to go beyond participation. Meaningful co-production could have started at the scoping and design stage, with engagement with groups and networks, and care experienced people working alongside civil servants on scoping and design. This would include care experienced people as part of the selection process for an independent chair. It would as already suggested have involved a care experienced person as part of the panel leading the review, allied to a network of sub-groups for care experienced people, drawing heavily on existing groups and networks. In the work of the review it would be possible to have service users engaged in the gathering and analysis of data – co-produced research is  an established model. It would certainly underpin care experienced people being part of deciding what constitute ‘outcomes’ and which are the ones that should be prioritised.

And a gentle reminder – government Departments and other agencies engaged in joint work is not co-production. That’s called ‘working together’. Co-production must involve people with lived experience of using services, working alongside staff from departments and agencies, with power shared in access to information and decision making.

It’s about mindset at every stage and it takes time.

Social Work

The first item on the agenda of any radical movement is – ‘when do we split?’. I know we live in a social media age where conversation and debate become superheated very quickly, and it’s very difficult to have nuanced discussion.  As I set out earlier, it is not helped by the political times we are in, where lies have currency as the policies of governments, accountability is routinely dodged, and expertise has no value.  If you hold the view that the review as it is currently configured is fatally flawed, then for social workers and those with care experience, it is correct to wonder if it is wise to lend the review a veneer of legitimacy through taking part or contributing.  Equally, there is also merit in the pragmatic view around how power is exercised, that if you are ‘in the room where it happens’ at least there is a possibility of some influence and amelioration of the worst recommendations, as well as having first hand witness accounts of how things are being done.  We really don’t want to be a caricature of a scene from Monty Python, and the more divided we are as a profession the easier we make life for those who want to advance agendas that will not help those with care experience and which will further marginalise social work and social workers. 

On that point, while the predicament we find ourselves in as a profession is a product of many external forces, this episode should cause us to reflect on our part in generating a situation where governments, of all persuasions, find it expedient to ignore us – be it the invite to the launch of a once in a generation review of children’s social care or a response to a global pandemic.  Social work is a tricky profession for any government, because done right and well, social work will point to social injustice, unmet need and amplify the voices of people who are marginalised. That rarely makes for good photo opportunities. Governments may wish to regulate but it is difficult to see where the self-interest lies in developing a professional ‘awkward squad’. But we also need to look to ourselves, how we as a profession have not brought ourselves together sufficiently over the years and haven’t created a mass membership professional association, that would be a powerful voice for social work, social workers and the people we serve. How we sleepwalked into the dismantling of UK structures for education and regulation. When we disagree, which is good, let’s not make it easy for others to divide and rule by fragmenting ourselves.

What’s to be done?

We need to work together on several fronts, from within and from without the review, being kind to each other, supporting each other, and showing solidarity with the folk at the heart of this – those with lived experience of being in the care of the state.

We must support the voices who are courageously providing scrutiny of the review. In a society in which Parliament and investigative journalism aren’t working, this type of analysis and critique are an essential path to accountability.

We need to support and stay connected to those who manage to get into the work of the review. At a future point where they might need to leave the process or disassociate themselves from findings and recommendations, they will need the support of their social work community. We need to play smarter as a collective.

We must keep this review in the public eye – the recent decisions on accommodation for 16 and 17 year olds show how vital this is.

We need parliamentarians and journalists to get interested in the issues here – apart from a conversation on social media and within the profession there is just about zero interest more widely.

We need to do all this to ensure that ‘curious notions’ at best, and ‘destabilised perceptions’ at worst, don’t become tomorrow’s ‘dangerous nonsense’.

And above all, as social workers, we need to help care experienced people have their voices heard, support them to get involved and stay the course, and get out of the way when they speak for themselves.

Avery Bowser

April 2021

About the Author

A key area of contention in relation to the review of Children’s Social Care has been the issue of conflict of interest, actual and perceived. The first thing to be said is that the views expressed here are entirely my own. That said, and in the context of taking conflict of interest and bias seriously, it is right to set out my own context.  I have been a qualified social worker for 27 years working entirely with families and children in Northern Ireland. I am currently a Children’s Services Manager responsible for Action for Children’s regional fostering service in Northern Ireland. I am co-chair of the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership [5]. I am a BASW member and I chaired the Editorial Board of Professional Social Work from 2012-2018. I am an adoptive parent who currently makes use of health and social care services for children.

Notes

  1. For an instructive guide to all things ‘dead cat’ and distraction take a look at Adam Curtis’ prescient short film for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe in 2014 – Oh Dearism II – contains the phrase ‘destabilised perception’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p07c6mjk/adam-curtis-shorts-oh-dearism-ii
  2. The Gunning Principles were set out by Stephen Sedley QC in a 1985 court case relating to a school closure consultation (R v London Borough of Brent ex parte Gunning) and have subsequently formed a basis for judicial review of the legitimacy of consultations. The principles pose four tests – are the proposals at a formative stage; has sufficient information been given for there to be ‘intelligent consideration’ of what is proposed; is there adequate time for consideration and response; has ‘conscientious consideration’ been given to the consultation responses before a decision has been made?  I am very grateful to Dave Milliken, my co-chair of the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership for introducing me to the Gunning Principles in preparing this article.
  3. Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (March 2021) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974507/20210331_-_CRED_Report_-_FINAL_-_Web_Accessible.pdf
  4. Evans, K. (2016), Public service markets aren’t working for the public good…or as markets in Kittens are Evil: Little heresies in public policy Pell, C.; Wilson, R. and Lowe, T. Axminster, Devon: Triarchy Press. Public Service Markets Aren’t Working for the Public Good… or as markets | Children England
  5. As a companion piece on the impact of the financial crash and austerity, and the underlying market/procurement forces that were already in play before 2008, pages 5-17 of Perfect Storms: an analysis of the operating conditions for the children, young people and families voluntary sector (September 2012)by Nick Davies and Kathy Evans from Children England is very useful. Having re-read it recently it could have been written yesterday. Perfect Storms | Children England
  6. The Belfast Local Engagement Partnership is part of the Northern Ireland Social Work Strategy. The five partnerships share their boundaries with the five NI Health and Social Care Trusts. The partnership brings together social workers and services users to promote and improve social work. The Belfast Partnership is co-chaired by a social worker and a person with experience of using social work services.
Categories
Becca Dove & Tim Fisher Special Edition

The rewilding of helping human services

The Care Reveiew should provide a space to think about how children’s social care services may be re-imagined and re-set. In this piece we use a metaphor from the environment ‘rewilding’ to consider this question.

The notion that the future is a commons”, said @mwiyas in a tweet on 22 March 2021, “and one that is best cared for in the present is both fantastically thrilling and nerve-wracking…… thrilling because each day’s efforts compound, eventually leading to a better future…. nerve-wracking because deferring progress also compounds, building an inactivity debt that requires a lot more effort to undo before any progress can be achieved… stewardship of the future is one of those things that is non-deferrable”.

Mwiya may have been referring to the future of the environment, but it doesn’t take much effort to apply the sentiment to the future of helping human services. If there was a best time and a worst time to be re-imagining those compounds, a global pandemic was both. The panic of COVID tamped the old ideologies down deep, at precisely the same time as the freedom to think differently offered fresh ground for emergent ideas.

The idea of rewilding helping human services takes a hopeful stance on this dilemma, and it doesn’t require the imagination stretch you might think. Take this text from Rewilding Britainconservation has worked hard for decades, with passion and dedication, to save wildlife… but it’s time to move beyond saving certain species and patches of nature… rewilding takes a big picture approach, aiming to restore the wider natural processes that support life”. Now replace the words conservation, wildlife and nature with words connected to social work, to family welfare work, to helping human services, and the journeys feel markedly similar. 

Nature as a model is a fundamental; we are dependent on each other just as our human systems are contingent on natural ecologies.  To help and to be helped is to support life. As we contemplate the future of helping services in the wake of COVID and the enduring impact it will have on family life, we might do well to consider the role helping services could play in restoring those wider natural processes and rhythms. In what ways could helping human services emphasise the essential parts of the human condition that support life and living things?

Even in the era of relationship-based narratives and strengths-based approaches, the practice of helping humans can still feel more akin to a clinical, individualized ethos than a social or ecological one. The sharp reveal in the last year of structural inequalities and weaknesses in the social safety net might give some small insight into why. After all, when the safety net has holes in it but the helpers don’t have the tools to mend the holes and despair of why others who have the tools don’t fix the holes, the helper’s gaze might start to turn to the last awful option – to treat the problem as ‘inside people’.

When the soil a seed sits in feels so damaged, and repairing the soil feels beyond our control, the last thing left to try and fix is the seed, even though that might serve only to sustain the inequality. Little wonder then that the family experience of help and the safety net can sometimes be a deeply painful one. No helper wants it to feel that way. They don’t want to practice that way either. 

Against that backdrop, what could ‘progress’ in helping children and families mean? How might we lean into a more ethically-sustainable, ecologically-connected way of thinking about help that doesn’t rely on fixing seeds? What agency do the helpers and helped have over that future, when the power to change the safety net soil feels tightly gripped elsewhere? We’ve asked ourselves three questions to provoke discussion.

Firstly, in what ways might it be useful to re-imagine the future of helping children and families as ‘a commons’? To borrow language from the On The Commons movement, the commons are “the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come”. A ‘helping commons’ might mean renewing the ethic of shared stewardship, where the people around you have a role to play in helping find a path through the fog of difficult times. This stewardship has been shown countless times during the pandemic and is already present in some forms of family welfare work (think family group conference for example). Certainly not a new idea in the 160-year history of our discipline, but one perhaps worthy of reconnecting to.

A ‘helping commons’ might also ask whether and how a 21st century helping human service could be imagined as a shared stewardship that we all inherit, create and sustain mutually. A ‘helping commons’ might radically reframe questions of power, mutual benefit and how decisions might be governed equitably and for the good of all, present and future. 

To put it another way, just as nature and human life can’t exist in single, enclosed systems, so the practice or system of helping people can’t either. As Tyson Yunkaporta puts it, “we live in big, vast, dynamic, infinitely overlapping systems that are in a constant state of exchange and flux with each other”. The future of helping services could connect with the idea of a shared, interdependent way of being, where the energy and ability to thrive comes from multiple sources in multiple ways.

The safety net we talked about earlier is one of those sources. Thinking like a ‘helping commons’ must include using our justice-seeking tools to push for the soil to be repaired and the net to be secured, in order for the helping commons to be sustained into the future.

Secondly, in what ways could the surfacing of power – the elevating of family voices and with it the writing of new stories of help and knowledge – provide an opportunity to till and nourish tired, clay-soaked soil? A renewed commitment to this idea has been quietly growing throughout the last 12 months. Local authorities across the UK are now walking a desire path carved across the helping landscape by organisations like Love Barrow Families and New Beginnings. From Bath and Southwark to Glasgow and Cardiff, spaces are opening not just for listening to alternative stories about help, but for a more distributive and equal share in decision-making and subsequent actions.

Walking that desire path can sometimes mean working at the edges rather than with huge fanfare. Camden Conversations, our family-led enquiry into child protection in 2018, created both the momentum and opportunity for Camden Family Changemakers in 2021; a participatory design project where local families, who know their communities best, designed what good help for families should look and feel like after COVID. Both projects happened quietly in the margins, but in doing so enabled what Margaret Wheatley[1] spoke of so eloquently, “the things we fear most in organisations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity”.

The creativity in Camden Conversations and Camden Family Changemakers came not from the system but from a commons ethos. It came from families and collaboration, through inquiry and processes that valued people and reciprocity. New ideas about help, simple ideas, regenerative ideas, rebalancing ideas, all emerged through those spaces. And because there is a shared knowledge and ownership of the ideas, the shared knowledge and ownership of bringing the solutions to life feels more attainable.

Thirdly, in what ways could relational activism germinate those new seeds sown in a helping commons? Relational activism has long held the idea that change is compounded by people who change the piece of the world they can touch, the ground underneath their feet. The social movements and irresistible calls for change which have characterized the year since the Social Work under COVID-19 Magazine was first published, show a rising consciousness that people have a right to that – to claim their ground, to own the horizon. It is simultaneously an individual and collective endeavour.

The recent videos produced by SWAG (the Social Work Action Group) are one example. Individuals recorded their thoughts, ideas and stories about language used by helpers. The short videos travel on social media and into discourse and conversation. The discourse turns the soil and plants seeds that help create change for a more just and ethical language. Neither help nor change are an exclusive property reserved for the few. All of us can dig where we stand.

Our deliberate choice to draw on environmental and ecological metaphors in this article might seem fanciful, abstract even. But when re-imagining big global challenges – from social infrastructure to climate change – is firmly on the table, the idea of “learning from strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges”“, including how children and families are helped, is not so farfetched. Whatever happens in future, the pandemic has shown the human capacity to help and be helped. To exist as a helper or someone helped, we need a space we can inhabit, one that is living and responsive. So perhaps the future of helping human services could stand to be open to the idea of transitioning back to deep relationships with land, life and nature, with an ethic of mutual care at its core.

We might take our cue from the practice of coppicing. Coppicing means to cut trees down to 15cm from the ground, carried out in winter while the tree is dormant. Coppicing not only encourages growth of small, new shoots from the tree stump, but in doing so extends the tree’s lifespan. By allowing greater amounts of light to reach the ground, woodland biodiversity can thrive, and horizons can be renewed.

Perhaps some compounded gains, as Mwiya described, might come from being prepared to coppice our own trees. To enable fresh ideas to find the sunlight, to work against as well as with the cluster of long established, privileged voices, for more diversity of opinion and other ways of knowing to thrive, and for the soil to regenerate so that we no longer imagine that fixing the seeds is the answer. We can apply this to both our daily practice in the present, and to the practice of imagining the future. Maybe this is how our rewilding begins.

As it seeks to play its part in ensuring thriving families and communities into the future, the rewilding of helping human services could reconnect it and reset it to its natural cause – and could mean the liberation of it.

Let it, at least for a while, act wild.

Becca Dove (@BeccaDove2) is a family worker and Head of Service for Family Early Help. Tim Fisher (@familygroupmeet) is a social worker and Service Manager for Family Group Conference and Restorative Practice. Both work for the London Borough of Camden.


[1] Wheatley, Margaret J. (2006). Leadership and the new science : discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, CA :Berrett-Koehler,

Categories
Beth Atkins Special Edition

Our experience

We started on the autism pathway when my son was young, just 3 years old. They said he had many traits but not enough for a diagnosis. School lied about his behaviour in school, but other parents told me what their kids witnessed what my son was doing: hiding under tables, hissing at other children like a cat, he couldn’t go in the food hall as he believed the ceiling would cave in.

I was my son’s punching bag. He couldn’t cope with anything. As he grew older, the voices in his head started telling him to kill himself and others. The paediatrician was useless – in her words, ‘’YOUR SON IS NOT LIKE MINE SO HE CANNOT BE AUTISTIC!’’ At 8 years-old he attempted suicide for the first time. He was sent to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and our nightmare began. After having play therapy for a year they asked me would I be willing to talk to someone too. So I did. If they could help it would be great! My son got worse, so I panicked. I was barely sleeping in case he hurt me or himself. I told CAHMS I was panicking. My son drew pictures of himself going with death. He drew pictures of himself with 2 faces, good M and evil M. He said he was 2 people. The more I told CAHMS of how M lived the more they twisted what I had said. I tried to get a second opinion, but the two women stopped it saying it was me who was ill not my son.

They decided I had Munchausen by proxy syndrome/ Fabricated Induced llness (FII) and after 4 years with CAHMS and 9 suicide attempts they brought in social services! They had my son placed on an at risk register AGAINST ME! The social worker who came said, ‘’I am going to say a lot of stuff you don’t like, but tough, that’s my job!’ I finally found Parent Partnership, who fought by my side for a second opinion away from CAHMS. The man who saw my son asked why, when he had OCD, struggled with change, new people, new places, loud noises, clothes on his skin, stimming, same tiny diet of food, had no one redone an autism assessment? I cried! He said that he wanted a Multiagency Autism Assessment Team (MAAT) assessment done. Every person who came to do their part in the MAAT assessment all agreed he WAS Aspergers! He got his official diagnosis in December 2013.

In January 2014, he was removed from the At Risk register. No sorry, no nothing! The people from CAHMS involved in our case lost their jobs. But they broke my son by their actions. After talking at length to my son I found out his CAHMS lady was telling my son not to trust me as I was poorly in the brain! His one support was me. His dad died while I was pregnant with him. All he had was me and they did this to him! I put in complaint after complaint, but no one ever listened. It took 9 years in all to get his diagnosis from a man that finally listened! This is just a snapshot of 9 years of hell. My son is now 20 in March and he is in counselling for the damage CAHMS and Social Services did to him. He has had a girlfriend for over a year, and he is due to move in with her soon.

Our experience has been a whirlwind, but they never broke our bond.

That is our story.

Beth Atkins

Categories
Carolyne Willow Special Edition

Beware of another power grab

One of my earliest experiences of what we now call ‘participation’ was around 30 years ago, when I accompanied members of a children in care group to a meeting with a director of social services. They made two practical requests – that signs outside children’s homes be taken away, and that mini-buses no longer identify children travelling within them as connected to the council.

On hearing how embarrassed children felt having wooden notices conspicuously standing in their front gardens, the director agreed straightaway to have them uprooted and carried away from every children’s home in the county. He also listened well to children describing how they felt being dropped off at school in a mini-bus advertising social services, and he committed to investigate having council graphics and signwriting removed from vehicles. These were the days of oversized children’s homes; that a large family car could be used instead was beyond our imaginations.

I was reminded of these two requests for what amounted to humane treatment when reading the reports from the Scottish Care Review last year, with one of its many calls being that members of staff refrain from wearing lanyards and badges. And, again, at the online launch of Sheffield Children in Care Council’s outstanding anthology of writing. Called ‘The Can in Can’t’, this brilliant collection of poems and prose powerfully signposts all that is wonderful and all that is wrong about our so-called care system. The last line of the following two verses from a group piece called ‘Some People’ are among the many words which go straight to my heart:

Some people don’t know what it’s like to have their life written
into a book, in a certain language, because it’s all so much to take in.
To get muddled from workers, and stories and new information.
To know inconsistency and what it’s like to start again and again.

Or what it’s like to have a teacher announce… ‘Your

foster carer’s outside’ in front of the class, or to listen to adults
talk about you like you’re not there, or have a worker visit

when you’re having tea, keeping their shoes on like it’s an office.

It’s precisely these kinds of insights, generously shared, which should be the beating pulse of England’s care review. Children and adults who have direct experience of the care system know, really know, the fine detail of what works and what doesn’t – for them, and often for the people they love and care about – and I have yet to see any stronger driver of change than the stories of real human beings.

But more than six weeks into England’s care review, we are not in a good place. After the publication of the Chair Josh MacAlister’s contract with government, we now know the scope is much wider than the children’s social care system and children’s experiences of the youth justice system (both included in the terms of reference published on the review’s website) and includes the impact on children of the family court and legal process.

Let’s recall that the Conservative Party 2019 election manifesto promised to review the care system; this is what care experienced campaigners had been pushing for, having been inspired by the Scottish Care Review.

Despite the very wide terrain, the ‘what needs changing’ evidence-gathering stage is proceeding with haste. Josh MacAlister doesn’t deny the speed at which he is working. In his early plans document published on 1 March, he explained in a section titled ‘Achieving whole system change’: “One question I have been frequently asked is how the review can look at such a broad scope in enough detail to achieve real deliverable change. Part of this will be about me and everyone who supports me moving at pace and building on the significant amount of work that already exists”. He doesn’t explain why he is “moving at pace”; neither does he answer how the review has started with the conclusion that whole system change is required.

A call for evidence, aimed principally at “the research community and those with robust evidence”, ran throughout March – just one month. The review’s website states that Josh MacAlister will produce his case for change in the summer, though the Yorkshire Post quotes him as saying this will be published at the end of May. Whichever is right, this time period is indecently short, particularly for a chair who has no professional experience of the matters he is investigating.

We are told, “The review will then begin to build recommendations for how the system can be improved, still feeding in a wide range of views, culminating in the review’s final recommendations and report”. The equivalent on the micro level would be a social worker spending two or three minutes asking a child about their life, then holding a two-hour meeting where the child can contribute if they want, followed by months and years aiming to fix the child’s life with analysis that was flawed from the outset. We should learn the lessons of the review conducted by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, whose process was similarly compressed. Now that Commissioners have gone public on their lack of involvement, and the whistle has been blown on Number 10’s role in writing “much” of the document, we can see why that particular review marched at speed. It is not conspiratorial to wonder whether the same Number 10 personnel are holding the reins of the care review.

At least those conducting the race review were made public from the start. Nine Commissioners and a further two members were announced alongside the chair of that review when its work began. With the government’s care review, there was no such transparency at the start about who was to be involved – this began to unfold once MacAlister’s contract was published on an online tender service. Then, several weeks in, the names and expertise of those advising the review were announced, split into two groups with one focusing on evidence and the other on designing recommendations. Consistent with MacAlister’s contract, the government-established What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care will assist the review by “producing and commissioning evidence summaries, rapid reviews and new analysis”. The government’s Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, and the former director of children’s social care policy at the Department for Education, are both members of the Design Group.

The role of the Experts by Experience Board, also convened in haste (1,011 applications assessed within 9 days), appears to be focused on helping the review hear the views and experiences of those with direct knowledge of the various systems. This is a vitally important task, but will this Board also get to influence the review’s findings and recommendations? Just two members of the Experts by Experience Board sit on each of the Evidence and Design Groups.

Many of us have had mixed feelings about this review, desperately wanting it to be independent of government and a rocket-booster for affirming all that is right and righting all that is wrong in the care system, while at the same time anxious that the outcomes may be already broadly written. The revelation that MacAlister has signed a contract agreeing that not a single penny extra will be given to children and families because of this ‘bold’ review – any recommendations he makes which have price-tags must be partnered with proposals for cutting costs elsewhere – puts the pendulum on the side of fear, not hope.

This review follows a decade of successive attempts by government to deregulate children’s social care, making it easier for services to be moved from local authorities and to achieve the academisation of social work.

First, came the Cabinet Office’s red tape challenge, which ran from 2011 to 2014 and invited members of the public and others to recommend removal of regulations in 29 policy areas, including children’s services. In April 2011, the then Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to all government ministers telling them of the ‘one in, one out’ rule whereby new regulations could only be introduced once others had been removed. The message was loud and clear:

Be in no doubt: all those unnecessary rules that place ridiculous burdens on our businesses and on society – they must go, once and for all.


None of the secondary legislation protecting children in care was taken away through the Red Tape Challenge; civil servants appearing before the so-called ‘Star Chamber’ were able to defend those that still applied and only a few regulations no longer in use were deleted (for those wanting to learn about any of the other 28 policy areas, Grenfell Tower is the most distressing case study). However, conceptually putting the care and protection of children into a deregulation drive alongside health and safety, employment law, manufacturing, equalities legislation and housing and construction has cast a very long shadow. We have had a decade of children’s social care policy makers nudging and messaging that legal rules are for fools, and many have come to believe it.  

Then in 2014 came a proposal to change the law to allow local authorities to outsource nearly all of their children’s social care functions. This was fiercely rejected by social work academics, children’s charities and others. The final regulations didn’t permit private companies to take on child protection and other functions though the Explanatory Memorandum produced by government advised that they “will not prevent an otherwise profit-making company from setting up a separate non-profit making subsidiary to enable them to undertake such functions”.

The exemption clauses arrived next in 2016. These were provisions in the Children and Social Work Bill allowing local authorities in England to opt out of any number of their children’s social care duties for a period of up to six years. The plan was for local experimentation to be pilots for national deregulation. Ministers were to be given the power to remove duties from councils who were failing to meet their statutory obligations. There had been no Green or White Paper setting out these plans. Very few individuals or organisations supported the move, though the current Chief Social Worker for Children and Families was a notable cheerleader. In the end, and after Professor Eileen Munro publicly withdrew her support, the then Education Secretary Justine Greening added her name to Labour’s amendment to the Bill deleting all of the clauses.

Then came the 2018 report from a foster care review undertaken by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, whose recommendations repeated two of the controversial proposals for which government had intended to use the exemption clauses – the abolition of independent reviewing officers and children in long-term foster care to no longer have their own social worker. The report also urged an end to the presumption that brothers and sisters in care would live together wherever possible. Those of us who had defended children’s rights against the exemption clauses reunited to try and persuade the Department for Education not to implement these proposals, and, luckily, our concerns were heard.

A ‘myth busting’ guide followed several months later. Produced by the Department for Education to advise councils on the content of statutory guidance relating to children in care, care leavers and children in contact with the criminal justice system, this again covered similar territory to the exemption clauses. It contained many inaccuracies about the statutory framework and was withdrawn in March 2019 after my charity started judicial review proceedings.

The most recent attempt at radical deregulation was using secondary legislation, The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (known as Statutory Instrument 445). Introduced one month after the first COVID-19 lockdown, in April 2020, Statutory Instrument 445 overnight deleted and diluted 65 safeguards for children in care. This shocking move followed earlier themes, in removing duties around reviews, social worker visits and short breaks for disabled children.

No time was given for parliamentary debate or public consultation, though a select number of local authorities and other organisations were asked by the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families and other civil servants to provide their views in confidence. Hundreds of individuals, and some supportive organisations, very kindly donated to a crowdfunding appeal so my charity could once again take legal action. In November last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Education Secretary had acted unlawfully in making “substantial and wide-ranging” changes to children’s legal protections without consulting the Children’s Commissioner for England or any other body concerned with children’s rights.

While care experienced people, social workers, lawyers, trade unionists and others have been able to systematically defend individual safeguards, there is a wider point concerning the importance of a rule-based system where decisions and actions can be questioned, challenged, and changed in the interests of children. This is the strength of having rights and entitlements written into law; individuals and communities no longer (at least on paper – implementation is another story) need rely upon persuasion and charity. Rights convey dignity and they redistribute power. They hold decision-makers to account. A child wanting to see her little brother, whom she took care of when they lived together at home; a care leaver at university worried about where he will stay in the holidays; a child who wants to see more of her social worker – these all presently have rights in law that make their positions stronger, and their voices louder. I have seen countless times the marked difference that rights, and the absence of them, make for children and young people getting what they need. As the spectacle of the Red Tape Challenge showed us, when social protections were put up for auction, one politician’s burden can be a whole community’s lifeline.

‘The Can in Can’t’ anthology of writing can be purchased (£7) from Sheffield’s Children in Care Council by contacting clare.holdsworth@sheffield.gov.uk

Carolyne Willow is Founder Director of Article 39 children’s rights charity and a social worker; carolyne.willow@article39.org.uk

Categories
David Clarke Special Edition

Letter writing as case notes: Developing narrative in case files of Care Experienced individuals

Background

The significant administrative demands placed on social workers mean that they only spend 20% of their time in direct contact with families, yet must meet strict statutory timescales in respect of how frequently they visit the many children they support. I know from experience that many social workers feel frustrated such demands, particularly those that constrain time to interact with those whom they seek to serve. Therefore, it is without surprise that many social workers see aspects of case recording practices as burdensome, and writing up case notes is commonly done late into the evening, with whatever energy remains. Muirhead’s (2019) scoping review on recording practice outlines:

“records become conduits for decision-making rather than a vessel that retains a person’s narrative”.

While I can understand why social workers may view case notes as an administrative exercise, I argue that more emphasis should be placed on developing a narrative throughout records, particularly for Care Experienced individuals. For this community, accessing care records is known to be a significantly challenging experience (CELCIS, 2019). For some, this can be a therapeutic process whereby gaps in memory are filled, and questions about their childhood are answered. For others, this can compound their traumatic childhood experiences. Outcomes from accessing files are linked to the quality of recording within (Hoyle, 2020). However, research is often negative about this practice:

 “Social work files damn people to a written history of their past mistakes” (Hogan, 2001, p.11);

[Notes are] “written by a succession of professionals and rarely include the perspective of the person they are written about”  (Buchanan, 2014, p.26).

Within, I reflect on my experience of attempting to develop narrative through recording case notes as written letters. This builds on Kay Everard’s (2020) article in this very magazine that asks “Can children, young people & their families ‘own’ their records?”. She advocates for the adoption of a collaborative approach to case recording. Like Kay Everard, I was also inspired by Fergus Hogan’s (2001) article on Letter Writing and Collaborative Note Making in Social Work Practice. This champions writing letters as case notes as a means of building Life Stories, and I contend that this approach achieves this, and much more.

Gravitating towards letter writing as case notes

I was never formally taught how to write case notes. My education came from copying others, which, on reflection, did not serve me well. I learned to write in a formal style, using third-person tense throughout. In written form, I was ‘The writer’:

            “The writer visited Katie today…”

Regretfully, I admit that as a nervous early-career practitioner, I viewed case recording mainly as a means of evidencing competence and defending practice decisions, particularly in the event of a significant incident. I soon grew tired of recording this way and became more confident in practice, to the point that if I did something in practice, I was going to ‘own it’:

            “I visited Katie today…”

Using first-person tense in case notes was like an epiphany for me. I soon blended this style into assessments, and reports, including those intended for review in Children’s Hearings and the Sheriff Court. By being explicit in respect of authorship and attribution of professional judgements, each assessment came with my personal stamp of approval, underpinned by my professional integrity.

My recording then evolved to writing in a letter format after a brave and creative colleague (whom I am eternally grateful to) shared that she was trialling this in respect of two Care Experienced young people’s case files. At the time, I was a foster carer and a child I was supporting was undertaking Life Story work. Narrative was a big deal for him, and for me at this time. Through this, I needed little encouragement to try out this unique form of recording.

‘Doing’ letter writing as case notes

Simply put, this method of recording takes the form of a traditional written letter. Start the letter by addressing the child (although I find it’s helpful to write ‘to’ the care experienced adult of the future):

“Dear Katie, I visited you today…”

The main body of the letter outlines what you might capture in a traditional case note including the description and analysis of the encounter. However, the principle that underpins this method of case note recording is to develop a narrative throughout. This requires social workers to:

  • Make links to the previous and next case note
  • Include soft facts and other observations that might be important to the future adult (even if it is not important for the purpose of assessment or risk management)
  • Acknowledge that they are an active participant in the encounter
  • Pose questions or statements to the future adult to support analysis
  • Be transparent and accountable for their actions and decisions

Read the following letter case note example:

“Dear Katie, I promised you two weeks ago that I would visit you at school instead of home, so I came to Greenview Primary today. I was keen to chat with you before your review meeting (this is where we look over your care plan to see that you’re getting all the supports you need). You’ll see that I wrote the last time that I was a bit worried about how you were sometimes hiding your packed lunch at school. I remember you did this when you were 5 when you were worried about mum and I wonder if might be something you’re thinking about just now?

Your teacher Miss Edgar brought you to see me. You were upset that I had come during your gym time. I’m really sorry about this- I should have checked the timetable as I know you love football and you’re really good at it. In fact, you had your blue and white school football strip on with your name and number 10 on the back- you might remember this? I asked if you preferred to go back to gym and you said you would.

I still hope to get your views about things at home and school before your meeting, so I’m going to pick you up tomorrow and drive you to school and hope we can chat along the way.

Your social worker,

David”

On review, notice how the case note makes links to the previous case note (“two weeks ago…”), and the next one through promises (“I’m going to pick you up…”). This helps to weave a thread through Katie’s busy case file.  

I am fortunate enough that my parents are able to tell me what food I liked when I was 5-years-old, my favourite toys, and songs we would sing in the car. For many Care Experienced individuals, these identity-forming soft facts are often missing, and I would argue that case notes are the ideal place to record these. In the example recording, note the precise descriptions of Katie’s football strip and her talent for the sport. This, of course, would have little bearing on an assessment of risk, but will undoubtedly be important to Katie to read in adulthood.

Whether adults who request files remember their social worker(s) or not, on reading their records, it is obvious that their social worker held a significant amount of power and responsibility over their lives. I therefore contend that social workers should acknowledge the importance of their role, and include their professional selves in case notes, including reflections, their own behaviour, actions and words. In the above example, the social worker is clearly identified as an active participant, going as far to apologise to the future adult.

There is evidence of analysis and reflection within. Posing questions to the person we write about is a more empathetic way of recording concerns we have than coldly listing them in written form.

Lastly, the note ends with a kind sign-off, and acknowledges who is recording and their relationship to Katie.

It may be useful to compare the above example to how I might have recorded the encounter as a newly-qualified social worker:

“Writer visited Katie at school to record views ahead of review meeting and to explore concerns relating to hiding lunches/snacks. Katie upset with writer about arriving during gym time. Katie returned to gym. Writer to pick Katie up for school tomorrow and discuss above along the way”

I invite readers to compare these two notes, and undertake an honest appraisal of each. By doing so, you may identify some of the pros and cons of letter writing as case notes, as follows.

Benefits of letter writing as case notes

I believe that adopting this method supports me to develop Care Experienced individuals’ Life Story whereby reading the case notes alone would offer much in respect of a narrative of their childhood. Further, despite curious colleagues raising concerns to the contrary, I find that letter writing supports analysis. Posing questions and statements throughout e.g. “I wonder if this is because…” or “I think you might have said this because…” is both relational and analytical in nature. Further, this style enables me to report difficult issues, while surrounding them with a more relational and empathetic tone. This enables notes to serve a number of audiences. Next, I cannot overstate how much better I feel recording in this way. Writing as per the first example aligns much more closely to my professional value base, which makes the task more easy to manage, even late at night(!). Last, and importantly, writing letters to the future adult is an effective way of reflecting on, and then moving on from very difficult encounters. In practice, I have written letter-style case notes to children whom I have removed from home on an emergency basis, as a means of documenting what happened, why and acknowledge the trauma experienced by the child:

“Dear James, this was a really, really difficult day for you and you’ll probably remember this”;

“We were all really worried about your safety and…”;

“…You were really upset when I told you this and I absolutely expected you to feel this way…”

Therefore, in a sense, letter writing allows you to emotionally connect with the future adult, documenting difficult encounters sensitively and humanely.

Limitations of letter writing as case notes

The obvious downside to writing letters is that they can take a lot of time, particularly when starting out or recording a significant incident. It takes commitment from social workers and those supervising them to adopt this method of recording. I would suggest to social workers to outline their intentions in supervision, and pilot this approach within their own department as a means of evaluating this method. While I may have persuaded some that this is a worthwhile approach with benefits to service users and professionals alike, as outlined at the start, social workers do not usually have the luxury of spare time. As such, I reserve this style for explaining significant decisions, or documenting personal encounters, rather than recording, for example, brief telephone calls or suchlike. Further, as I reflected earlier, it took me a while in practice to develop enough confidence to write in the first person, and longer to write in a way considered to be unorthodox. It may be difficult, particularly for newly-qualified social workers to fly in the face of established recording cultures within their agency. 

In closing

By sheer coincidence, a former colleague recently sent me a message to tell me they had shared some of my case notes with a young person I used to support:

“how you write your case notes…has really helped a young person…It felt so much more personal they remember the day when reading…there was a mixture of tears and smiles…was so powerful I think for this young person it’s helped go back to those days and their thinking”

In bringing this reflective article to a close, I hope that this inspires others to, at least, consider both how and why they record and the extent to which their recording practice promotes narrative for Care Experienced individuals. As outlined, letter writing as case notes is not without difficulty, but I would invite readers to give this a try and contact me with feedback.

References

Hoyle, V., Shepherd, E., Lomas, E. and Flinn, A. (2020). Recordkeeping and the life-long memory and identity needs of care-experienced children and young people. Child and family social work. [online]. 25(4), pp. 935-945.

David M Clarke

Social Worker

Twitter: @dcSWer

Categories
David Anderson Special Edition

Talking the talk

Discourse is hugely significant in determining the dominant narrative as it ‘talks’ about children within a care system. We only have to look back at the then Labour Government of 1997 who spoke at length about ‘antisocial behaviour’ and the way in which this changed the language and interventions of Social Work at that time and for some years after. Further back we can see the same occurring with notions of the deserving and undeserving poor of the Victorian Workhouses. The dominant narrative was neither written or influenced by the young people tagged and criminalised during the Labour years nor the destitute masses of those years much earlier. It was always so-called ‘experts’ and ‘leaders’ who put forward the narrative, society took note and followed suit. The voices of those truly expert in their own realities were marginalised, exploited or just silenced.

Recently, there has been a move to validate the idea of co-production and lived experience leadership at a level not seen before. Whereas in the past – to be frank – it has often been tokenistic or riddled with power imbalance. Now the voice of the care community is being amplified throughout the systems of the nations of the UK. Not only are demands for change being heard, people and organisations are taking matters into their own hands and changing the narrative both past and present. The idea being, that the future will belong to us and us alone when it comes to speaking for ourselves. Should someone write about the community then it will be the community who either agree with or challenges their efforts.

One such event has raised expectations to their highest ever. Recently, the review of care. in Scotland listened as never before to the voices of the care community and those involved in care provision. There were people with experience at every level and stage of that three-year process to produce recommendations. These recommendations – intended to completely transform the system in Scotland – were translated into a promise from Scotland to children in care. I contributed to that process along with thousands of other voices. However, that is not to say that the care community waited patiently for the recommendations to arrive. Work went on to enable change at the very earliest opportunity. The charity Who Cares Scotland put their members front and centre to voice their demands for immediate change. With some success. The Government programme of 2020 included changes to the system that came from a document given to the First Minister with a list of 40 asks. It demonstrated the power of directing the narrative from within the community. The successes to date have served to give even more determination to keep pushing for systemic change until true care is the norm.

There are other endeavours that seek to change the enduring narrative of children in care as deserving of sympathy or being in some way responsible for their situation, the ‘that’s way it is for kids like that’ belief. For example, Care Experienced History Month is a project I am lucky to be playing a part in. This is a global endeavour, one in which several countries are exploring their care history in a month-long celebration and remembrance. This will include celebrating the lives of those with experience, a day of remembrance for those who have passed, information sharing about supports and services, and articles on the different aspects of care and how that has impacted on people throughout time. There will also be poems, videos, lectures and all sorts of creative output to both showcase and inform of the diversity and talent within the care community.

In our working group in Scotland, we have decided to offer the chance for people to ‘re-write wrongs’. This will see anyone who believes they have come across a piece of discourse that has wrongly represented the care community offer up their opinion or alternative version. This gives readers the opportunity to reimagine things from a care experienced narrative. It is an exciting project. We have worked hard to produce articles etc. on such things as the MARS training ship in Dundee. Young boys were sent to this ship to be trained for a life at sea. The dominant narrative about those boys was that despite the hardship, it was a ‘good thing’ for them to be sent there. We have made efforts to show a different perspective, offering up information in a way that should hopefully honour the lives of those boys in a way that has been missing from most historical accounts whilst also giving other reasons for the existence of such a ship.

There has also been an article written that directly challenges a more recent piece of writing in a newspaper. This too offers up a nuanced take on things from a care experienced perspective and not through the eyes of a journalist seeking eye-catching headlines. The idea is not only to take control of the present and to create the narrative of now and the future, but to explore ways in which we can add to the cache of historical accounts with our own observations, in the hope those reading about the past will now be presented with that more nuanced history.

The thing is, the ‘expertise’ has always been there within the community. Sometimes it was hidden, even due to shame of admitting you had experience. More often, it just wasn’t listened to, or our voice was filtered and interpreted by others before presentation to the wider world. We are challenging that and seeking others to do the same. Check out https://www.careexperiencedhistorymonth.org to learn more. Our voices will be heard, your voice too is one that can add to these efforts. There are an estimated 250,000 people with some experience of care in Scotland, maybe you are one. Come and join us, it is a welcoming and inclusive family.

David Anderson

Categories
Ermintrude2 Special Edition

Conflicts of interest and the Nolan Principles

At first glance, it might seem like a strange connection between an analysis of conflicts of interest and openness in Social Work England and the Care Review about which this edition is based. For me, the relevance is one of oversight and of governance. It is a linked to the understanding, or lack of understanding of the Nolan Principles in the social work and social care sphere. In some ways, it is a practical demonstration of why principles which govern public life, need to operate in practice and why signing up to these principles by taking the leadership roles need more than lip service. While it might seem that I am diving down a rabbit hole, it shows the need to take these principles and the professional ethics and values as social workers. On a personal level, as a social worker with no ‘skin in the game’ so to speak, in the circles of professional leadership, and holding on to the desire to do my job to the best of my ability and with honesty, clarity and integrity – it disappoints me that those who are lead within the profession so scant regard to those same values.

The Nolan Principles have required a bit of a workout recently. If you are not aware of them, they were based on the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by Lord Nolan, published in 1995. The principles apply to ‘all those elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, the courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies and in health, education, social and care services’ (Committee on the Standards in Public Life)

As a social worker, I see them being bound up with professional ethics and standards but these are specific and the reason I was trawling through them was to explore the role that the Chair of Social Work England has in maintaining these standards.

Lord Patel of Bradford is the said Chair of Social Work England. He was appointed as the regulator’s inaugural chair. He has, of course, a distinguished career and was seen to be suitable to hold the role. It’s not my place to comment on that. I want an effective regulator but don’t have the experience to know too much about the details.

So why I am bothered? What led me to the Nolan Principles?   At the end of March 2021, I saw a tweet mentioning a new appointment to the Cygnet Hospital ‘family’. I went to the website of Cygnet and saw that Lord Patel had been appointed as Senior Independent Board Director of Cygnet in April 2020.  It’s curious that Cygnet don’t mention on their website that he is the Chair of Social Work England – especially when you consider that Cygnet directly employs social workers. I would have assumed that may have been relevant.

More concerning to me, in lines of the requirements of non-executive board members of public bodies to maintain the Nolan Principles, was the lack of any mention at all on the Social Work England website. This was the last week of March 2021. The appointment was announced in April 2020, when we were probably all a little distracted. Nothing.

I tweeted about this when I noticed it, in March 2021, because I thought it was a matter of interest to the social work community, for us to know that the chair of our regulator has been appointed to a post by a provider with a somewhat mixed (and that is me being very kind) history in terms of the quality of delivery of services. Problems with Cygnet services are easy enough to find but they don’t, by any means, all predate Lord Patel’s appointment.  The information is available and accessible from CQC.

Does this mean he doesn’t have the right to take an appointment with Cygnet? Perhaps that’s another argument for another day. It is enough though to make me curious and concerned that this appointment did not appear on the register of interests of the board of Social Work England.

Lord Patel’s appointment to the board of Cygnet was placed on the Social Work England register of interests on the 24 March, 2021. Before that, this information was not publicly available on the website of Social Work England.  It was coincidence that found me on the Cygnet website, a place I don’t often frequent, and an old piece of news about the appointment of Lord Patel.

So back to Social Work England, who, the day after of the tweet I sent, updated their register of interests to include Cygnet under Lord Patel’s listing here.  That’s an awful lot of interests. Again, this may be fine, but why the lack of honesty, openness and integrity (some of those Nolan Principles again), when the page on the register of interests was updated in November 2020, a good eight months after the appointment was made? 

So when does the register of interests need to be updated? This is from their website

The register of interests is updated as material changes occur and reviewed at least annually. To ensure that our board members remain in an optimal position to manage any real or perceived conflict, it is standard practice for the chair to ask for board members to declare any potential conflicts at the start of each board and sub-committee meetings.

While there could be an argument they ‘got there’ within the year (the website was updated on 24 March 2021 and Cygnet announced the appointment on their website on 2 April 2020. But I believe this would be an entirely disingenuous argument. My argument would be that this appointment was a ‘material change’ and that the review is ‘at least’ annually. Cygnet employ social workers. If Patel is declaring his appointment to the BBFC as potentially relevant, surely being appointed onto the board of a private healthcare company that employs social workers directly, has to be of interest. But maybe it’s just the website not being updated? Nope.

I went to look at the board Papers for 26 June 2020 and out of the 31 interests that Lord Patel declares to the board, Cygnet Healthcare is not among them. We get to the minutes though and it looks like there was some mention of some ‘interests’ but they weren’t updated:

2.2 The Chair declared there would be a reduction in his commitments and several amendments to his declarations. These will be sent to Alison Edbury as soon as possible.

Oh, ok, he seems to have acknowledged ‘changes’ by June but wait, there’s no mention of what those changes are, despite the other director with changes making it explicit in the minutes:

2.1 Andrew McCulloch (AMC) declared that there is a live contract between GMC Services International, for which he is the Chair of the Board, and Social Work England. Mark Lam (MLA) declared that he became Chair of East London NHS Foundation Trust on 1 June 2020.

So why doesn’t it say in the minutes that Lord Patel was appointed to Cygnet Hospital?  And why wasn’t the register of interests updated with this information when we know the Social Work England website was otherwise updated in November 2020?  I mean, the updated register of interests was attached with the June Board Papers (so presumably would be updated with the information referred to in the minutes of the February meeting – but there is no mention of Cygnet). Curiously, the September and October board papers don’t have the register of interests published (they should be published at every board meeting).

So we get to the minutes of the December 2020 meeting where:

The Chair declared that he had recently been appointed as Chair to the Independent Health Providers Network.

That’s nice, but there is still no mention on the Social Work England website of Cygnet, which itself had announced Lord Patel’s appointment to their board in April 2020. And, when there was mention of ‘changes’ to Lord Patel’s interests. There was no reference to Cygnet in the minutes of the relevant Social Work England Board meeting. My interpretation is that it seems there is some embarrassment about linking Lord Patel to Cygnet. There is no mention of his Social Work England connection on the Cygnet site, despite it being relevant to their core business. There is (or at least, wasn’t until late March 2021) any mention of them on Social Work England’s site in relation to Lord Patel’s interests. Curious. If it is an ‘oversight’ it is a particularly convenient one.

So why does it matter? I don’t work for Cygnet. I have no issue with the operation of Social Work England. I want the regulator to operate well. For me, though, it is a matter of integrity, openness, and honesty.

There were veiled references to changes in the register of interests in the minutes of the February meeting, and then no update in the June board meeting, which is the last time the register of interests appears in the Board papers on the website. Is it conspiracy? I don’t think so, but it does appear to be obfuscation.

Adding to the published register of interests off the back of a tweet, without any acknowledgement of the lack of update is poor, because by the time of the update on 24th March, 2021, he had been on the board of Cygnet for nearly a year, possibly more, as that’s only when the announcement of the appointment was made by Cygnet.

So it remains a problem for the regulator and Lord Patel, if they wish to be taken seriously as ethical and transparent regulators, who operate as they expect social workers to operate. And if you say ‘oh, but it’s not a conflict of interest’ I’d say the register is clear about declaring potential conflicts. If Lord Patel is declaring being on the British Board of Film Classification, how can being on the board of an organisation which employs social workers not be a declarable interest?

This will end with the website now, having been updated, but it shines a light on problem with overall governance. It indicates that either there is an intentional obfuscation at worse and at best, a governance team which is not able to keep on top of their responsibilities. This is because, while it might not be of material interest to many people, it is a matter of values, judgement, and confidence. It’s a matter of what you agree to when you join the board of a organisation about being held to the Nolan Principles. It’s about openness.

How can we have confidence that the regulator is an open and honest regulator if they did not, despite many, many opportunities (updating the website, publishing the register of interests along with the board papers), do so until challenged? You don’t ‘forget’ you are on the board of Cygnet.  Yet here we are, as if values and honesty are an optional extra. It’s not just social workers let down by this, it is the decent people working for Social Work England who get tarred with this brush.

Governance matters. It might not be interesting to many, but it reflects the values of organisations.  I want a regulator I can have confidence in and I’m afraid I feel that incidents like these damages that trust.  

I’d like Social Work England, and Lord Patel, personally, to acknowledge this gap, explain how being paid by Cygnet fits with his role at the top of Social Work England and an explanation of the lack of honesty in not publishing the information when a new, directly relevant interest arose. I find it hard to understand how someone can build a portfolio of other 30 appointments and forget the one that has direct relevance to social work.

This is what I’d like. Moving back to the Care Review to link up, I’d say that it is a further erosion of faith in social work leadership and the direction of social care when the same people  have their fingers in multiple pies and one has to unravel the declared (or, in this case, non-declared) interests and actively research a swathe of private companies and their much cloudier governance processions to work out who is involved with what.

Ermintrude2  – a pseudonym for a social worker based in London