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Nushra Mansuri Special Edition

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

Waking up on Friday 15 January 2021 in a Covid world, I had no reason to think that this day would be any more remarkable than any other during lockdown where life has become to some extent, a bit more mundane and predictable; I was however, proved wrong very quickly.  My phone was buzzing as furious text messages arrived from colleagues and friends announcing ‘the end of children’s services as we know it’.  I was barely fully awake trying to make sense of the malaise in the social work world.  What possibly could have happened? 

We all now know that it was the day that the Government launched the Children’s Social Care Review in England dubbed a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul a system’ which it claimed was ‘failing vulnerable young people and creaking under the strain of rising numbers of children entering care’.   I have to admit these words alone made me groan as I have seen endless reviews, consultations, green papers, white papers by governments of various political persuasions promising to reform particular parts of children’s social care over the years but never quite delivering.  Nevertheless, Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education pledged “this review will be bold, wide-ranging and will not shy away from exposing problems where they exist.”  I wondered if he was a secret Star Trek fan as this definitely had shades of Captain Kirk going to other galaxies where no other government review had ever been before!  

Joking aside, the minister’s words did not fill me with optimism as I suspected this latest quest was based on a deficit model of social work which is not necessarily new. A former education secretary Nicky Morgan wrote in the Sunday Times in September 2015 that social workers are to face an ‘MOT’ test and risk being “weeded out” if they are not “up to scratch”.  A year later, then prime minister David Cameron also wrote in the same newspaper that children in care had been ‘let down for too long’ paving the way for the Children and Social Work Act 2017 which included post-qualifying accreditation for child and family social workers alongside a new regulator.  In 2016, Morgan also announced further reforms to children’s social work including increased funding for fast track social work programmes Frontline and Step Up and a new What Works Centre for social workers to apparently enable us to learn from best practice.  Clearly it was not just social work services that were under fire but also university social work education programmes and research. This is no great surprise to many of us given that another former education secretary Michael Gove in 2013 wanted to ‘strip out’ the dogma dominating children’s social work and dispossess children’s social workers of theories dominated by inequality and social injustices explaining the disempowerment of those with lived experience.  Consequently, he appointed Martin Narey to conduct a review of social work education which was published in 2014 which created a lot of disquiet in the social work world.

I have to admit, that I have felt a lot more optimistic in previous times about social work’s future in England, ironically following notable child abuse tragedies.  I cast my mind back to the Victoria Climbié Inquiry led by Lord Laming culminating in a lengthy report of 432 pages with 108 recommendations in 2003.  It was a very difficult time for social workers as once again we faced the opprobrium of the media and public opinion, nevertheless Lord Laming himself was not on the warpath with the profession and even stated that accountability should not lie with those working on the front line but rather with those in senior positions.  His report also devoted (arguably) more equal coverage to children’s social care, health and the police.  A number of things emerged from this review; the social work qualification changed from a two year diploma to a three year undergraduate degree programme; Every Child Matters became the new mantra which was widely embraced by both those working in social work, education and the third sector as a broad set of principles to support children; new concepts were introduced such as Extended Schools which was based on the idea of a wraparound service for children who might benefit from provisions such as breakfast clubs and after school childcare ; children’s social work was moved to the DfE from the DHSC which was a major change separating it from adult social care and aligning it with education.  Consequently, Ofsted became the inspectorate of children’s social care.  Some feared this move would lead to social work being dwarfed by education and the new inspectorate being intent on measuring things that were measurable rather than understanding the complexities of social work; The Children Act 2004 came on stream and introduced some key legislative changes including  a Children’s Commissioner in England (although without the mention of rights initially, that came later in 2012), Children’s Trusts Boards (which have re-emerged as a different animal) were developed to stimulate partnership arrangements between various organisations in order to improve outcomes for children although there was a lot of local variation and finally, Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) replaced Area Child Protection Committees which were arguably stronger than their predecessor given that they were on a statutory footing.  This period also coincided in 2003 with the independent regulation of social work for the first time by the General Social Care Council (GSCC).  Whilst I did not necessarily agree with all of Laming’s recommendations, (which sadly not all have come to bear fruit as a result of resourcing), I felt that on the whole they were well intentioned and principled.

In 2007, we found ourselves back in familiar territory as another child death had taken place in Haringey, Peter Connelly.  This brought out the worst in some well known red tops as well as prominent MPs.  The Sun went after the social workers involved in the case as well as the Director of Children’s Services, Sharon Shoesmith in a particularly vitriolic campaign including a petition signed by 1.6 million people that was delivered to number 10 calling for them o be sacked.  The then Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, duly obliged and announced on live TV that Shoesmith had been removed from her post, without following due process.  Shoesmith subsequently challenged her dismissal in court and won her case in 2011.  Social worker Sylvia Henry also took The Sun to the High Court in 2011 and received an apology from the newspaper as well as substantial damages.  This, of course, got very little coverage in comparison to the onslaught the individuals faced at the time and that will be the abiding memory of many. 

So how could I possibly feel any sort of optimism as a result of all of this?  Firstly, what I observed was that social workers themselves were angry and had had enough and found their voice including myself!  I was just returning from maternity leave in 2008 when the assault of our profession was in full swing and found myself regularly shouting at the radio.  I worked for BASW back then and upon my return to work ended up having to put my money where my mouth was by doing a succession of live interviews on Sky News and other media outlets, on some occasions, following Ed Balls and Sharon Shoesmith, challenging the discourse of blame being apportioned to social work and the lack of proportionality, context and analysis of child protection social work.  What I was really proud of at the time was our profession.  I remember so many social workers getting in touch with BASW talking about the realities of the work that we do and some of the impossible pressures and working conditions.  Some brave social workers even appeared on Panorama (in silhouette) to talk about these realities. 

The Chair of BASW’s Children and Families Committee declared that we needed to do a roadshow and talk to social workers in all 9 regions of England about their experiences of children’s social work and what needed to change.  We duly did this and shared our evidence of social workers ‘lived experience’ with the Social Work Taskforce (SWTF) in 2009 which had been set up to improve the recruitment, training and the overall quality and status of the profession in England led by Moira Gibb, herself a social worker and former director of social services.  Lord Laming also re-emerged with a review of child protection which for most of us painted a fair and accurate picture of what was going on at ground level: “low staff morale, poor supervision, high caseloads, excessive bureaucracy, and under resourcing”.  The work of the SWTF (succeeded by the Social Work Reform Board) and Laming’s review led to in my opinion, some valuable changes including: greater protection of newly qualified social workers in terms of the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE); a review of the Integrated Children’s System which had been roundly criticised by social workers and academics such as Professor Sue White as unwieldy; and finally, the introduction of Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England by the Local Government Association, including a ‘health check’ to ‘assess whether the practice conditions and working environment of the social work workforce are safe, effective, caring, responsive and well-led’.  All of these initiatives merit a gold star in my book and are more reflective of an approach which is about listening to the voices of the profession and, to some degree, being led by social workers who at least, had prominent positions on the Social Work Taskforce and Social Work Reform Board.  Therefore, these changes felt much more sector led and from the bottom up, although I am disappointed that the ‘health check’ has never really got off the ground, due to its lack of teeth as there are no real sanctions if practice conditions are unsafe. 

I did worry in 2010 with a change in government that some of the momentum that had been gained in trying to address some of the serious issues plaguing children’s social work would be lost, but that was not my initial impression.  One of the first acts of the coalition Government was for Michael Gove to commission an independent review of child protection and social work in England led by Professor Elieen Munro.  Its remit was to examine how the barriers and bureaucracy preventing social workers spending valuable time with children could be removed.  Nothing wrong with that and very much in keeping with the trajectory I have previously described.  The Children’s Minister Tim Loughton also called for Serious Case Reviews to be published in 2010, which I have to say I agreed with – that was certainly the position that BASW took at the time, as it had been notoriously difficult for individuals to get hold of them prior to this, which begged the question, ‘How can lessons be learned if we can’t even gain access to the reviews?’  My recollection of the Munro review was one of collaboration: BASW was invited to meet with Professor Munro on a number of occasions and share our evidence which was based on the direct experience of BASW members working in children’s services, together with input from academics and other social work perspectives.  I remember the BASW parliamentary officer excitedly texting me from a live session in parliament where the review was being discussed to say that our evidence was being quoted and that it was very important to the Children’s Minister to have the support of the profession. 

Nevertheless, my optimism had started to wane once David Cameron and George Osborne imposed austerity on public services in 2010, which has proved to be devastating to preventative children’s services and the third sector, from which so much important provision has simply disappeared due to the withdrawal of funding.  This contrasts with the previous administration’s pledge to end child poverty by 2020.  Sadly, the reverse has happened as more and more children and families are living in poverty in the UK despite the Government’s protestations to any form of scrutiny provided notably by UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston in 2019 as the Government dismissed his findings as ‘barely believable’.

Equally, I have lost faith in the progress that I believe was being made on the social policy front following the Munro review and the work of the SWTF and Reform Board which felt much more collaborative and inclusive even though I also had my points of difference. my assessment of things now is that the Government has reverted to a top down, finger wagging approach to the profession. I believe this is quite deliberate, in order to usher in further privatisation with the increased marketisation of provision which, in my view, will denigrate the rights of children.  I have witnessed a contracting culture in the last ten years where organisations with no proven track record in social work and social care are being favoured above those that have which does not make any sense to me.  The direction of travel also significantly changed on the policy front with the advent of chief social workers and the improvement agenda which feels like the reverse of Munro with greater prescription from central Government and certainly very little collaboration with the profession but rather a ‘command and control’ model.

Returning to the current review, unlike, others in the sector who according to Patrick Butler (15.1.21) broadly welcomed it, I don’t.  It has left me feeling both disappointed and concerned.  I was shocked to discover,  that my professional body, BASW, was not even invited to attend the launch of the review on 15 January 2021. Why not when so much of it is about the organisation of social work services, its structures and how it is delivered?? I don’t believe any other profession would accept standing to one side whilst it’s functions and delivery were being reviewed and overhauled.  We have more recently learnt that there is no specific workstream for social work and there is only one practising social worker in the other workstreams which beggars belief.  I feel that the review is deliberately being mis-sold to us as a care review when it is actually encompasses much more than that.  I question the appointment of its Chair in terms of his credentials to oversee such an important review when some of the previous chairs I have mentioned were widely recognised in the sector as being highly experienced, knowledgeable and suitably independent of the Government of the day. 

I therefore, can only draw the conclusion that has already been drawn by others: this review is a foregone conclusion and merely the mechanism to drive the Government’s agenda to privatise statutory social work and the delivery of social work education.  We have all seen the blueprints and the contract between the chair and the Government making it clear that this is about efficiencies rather than investment.  I don’t believe that this review will be brave enough to turn the tables on the Government and address the questions that need to be answered;   the chronic underfunding of children’s social care, the inevitable increase in referrals in the face of a depletion of support and early help.   Meanwhile the usual suspects sadly continue being drawn into the child protection system, alongside rising levels of poverty, widening social divisions characterised by food banks and insecure and lowly paid employment for many.

Nushra Mansuri

Social Work Academic

ac8667@coventry.ac.uk

@NushraMansuri

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Paul Shuttleworth Special Edition

Can an independent review provide meaningful and ethical participation?

The drive to divorce social work expertise from social work experts is not new. Neither is the drive to divorce meaningful research from social work researchers and social work academics. As a social worker and a social work researcher, I have experienced these struggles for recognition first-hand. There have been consistent dismissals of social work as a profession and as an academic discipline.

Such struggles usually stem from the age-old debate about whether we should strive towards more individualised services that ’empower’ service users or focus more on the redistribution of resources. According to the literature and the global definition of social work, both are important. We are to instigate both individual change and societal change. However, this means that we a have “kind of inferiority complex” because others often perceive us as floundering in the middle ground with no alleged definitive social work theory or practice (Lorenz, 2016:456). Yet this is the well-trodden space in which we work. This continuous battle between the liberal left and the liberal right is what makes social work unique. The questioning of the state’s involvement in private family life ensures that reflection and reflexivity are the bedrock of our practice. What is my role, and what is my position in relation to the government and the families I work with? Are they troubled families or troubling ones? More regulation or less regulation? How can early intervention be achieved whilst accommodating risk, diminishing resources and an increase in poverty? Evidence-based versus evidence-informed? Medical, behaviourist, socialisation theories or more critical sociological and political ones? Care versus control? Service users or clients? I could go on. However, what is important to note is that these arguments consist of seeming opposites, of dualisms. They are divisive by their very nature, and because of this, they can easily lead others to dismiss our profession, academic discipline, practice, ethics, history and knowledge.

Unfortunately, when we place non-social worker Josh MacAlister’s appointment and the independent review into this space, things do not become clearer, less divisive, or less emotive. Many, such as Dr Steve Rogowski, have commented on the seeming crony capitalism inherent in his appointment. There are also concerns that the review’s recommendations will echo the contemporary neoliberal Buurtzorg model, which informed his blueprint. This can permit the steady demise into the privatisation of services which many, including Professor Ray Jones, are rightly cautious. It questions the review’s independence. However, despite the persuasive arguments, at the moment, this is all speculation. While early indicators do not alleviate anxieties, we will not know for sure until the final report has been released.

The concern for me is that rich debates in research and social work will be dismissed, simplified, and under-theorised by Josh MacAlister and his team of civil servants. I know that he has written some well thought out non-peer-reviewed articles on social work. However, I would propose that the lack of social work training and experience often hinders his perspective. For example, I will focus on the methodology of participation, as this is something I have spent the last three years researching and thinking about in depth.

My social work research demonstrates that the voice(s) of the child and the voices of those that use services are worthy of shaping services. They should be the starting points of our debates. Such meaningful participation is something that we all can seemingly agree on but is rarely put into practice. This is why, at first glance, we should welcome the review. The review heralds that an Experts by Experience group is central to gaining access to children’s views. However, for participation to be ethical and meaningful, there must be a recognition of the socio-political space in which it occupies.

The current socio-political space suggests the steering of social work towards managerialism, individualism, evidence-based practice. This is well-documented and evident.  Social work has also been increasingly plagued by introducing market disciplines. This modernisation of social work focuses on best value, consumerism and performance. We now experience this daily. It makes our work often seem unsustainable and unjust. It also conflicts with our social work ethics. Social work must not only be explanatory but anti-oppressive and emancipatory. Fair redistribution of resources must also be at the heart of social work practice and research. Even though Josh MacAlister has stated that he is aware of this, this is something that the more traditional, rationalist, pragmatic, evidence-based studies, practice and stances will often fail to address (Pawson, 2006). This is the first issue with such an approach to participation.

When we place the Experts by Experience into the space of childhood studies and previous social work research, the review’s process for participation unravels further. Such definitive solutions to treat everybody’s voice as equal does not consider the privileging of self-determination or how the system may be inadvertently biased. It may, to many, seem ideologically sound, yet it is problematic in practice. For example, for a child to contest or challenge their rights, they must possess a certain status. A more vocal, able-bodied, white, educated, well-connected, socio-economically wealthy child is more likely to speak up and be heard if they do. They must also make a claim within the system already set up. Overall then, such universalism proposes that invitations to collaborate are handed down from ‘on-high’. This is dependent on prior status, notoriety and how well they fit into traditional concepts of child ability and participation. It can quickly become a Catch 22 situation. You need status and to be perceived worthy of status in order to receive it.

This handing down of rights from ‘on high’ is especially relevant for care-experienced children who are often marginalised and rarely heard. Such perspectives mean that many children, whilst they may be seen as equal, do not have the correct tools or structures to ensure they are treated as such. Their voices are missed whilst the privileged few that have been permitted to be heard become the voice of the marginalised. Methodologically, this leads to a blindness to the constraints of ethnicity, class, poverty, gender, and age. For example, will there be younger children included in the review at all, and if so, how? Despite Josh MacAlister’s self-proclaimed awareness of these constraints, without proper recognition, reflexivity, and time appropriate for such a large scope, participation can unwittingly embed the exploitation and marginalisation it is meant to rectify.

Without a sound methodology for participation, the review will again further re-engage the divisive, emotive debates between the liberal left and the liberal right with little resolve. These debates will also, again, be one step further removed from our expertise and experience. Without a sound knowledge of social work theory, participatory methods, a limited timeframe and without experience of the realities of social work practice, the all-important in-between space in which we work will not be adequately (re)explored. Instead, there will be an overly pragmatic and possibly unethical approach to find solutions. The review may even revert to predetermined outcomes and further encourage marginalisation. As a social worker and social work researcher, such exploitation is a central concern to my everyday practice—one which I have yet seen to be fully alleviated by the review’s remarks or processes.

Paul Daniel Shuttleworth

Social Worker and Social Work Researcher

@pshuttle3

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A Principal Social Worker in England Special Edition

The Care Review 2021: Knocking on the neighbour’s door

The failures of the Care System are the failures of individualism and scientific reductivism. The Care Review must seek its answers in the communities and cultures of the children it serves. It must see children as strands in Te Taura Tangata, the great rope of humanity, twisted and interwoven together into family and community, existing only because of our connections to one another. It must seek evidence not in the musings of academics, but in the slow evolution of cultural norms. Here we see child abuse not as correlated to the ‘toxic trio’ but as a symptom itself of the failure of community to nurture, of society to provide. Here we see solutions not in removing a child from their family, but in strengthening the family around the child, and their relationships with the society (our society) from which they have become disconnected.

The French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard described the disjointed way in which human knowledge moves forward, not smoothly, but through the introduction of fundamentally different paradigms that cause epistemological breaks — cracks appear in the prevailing worldview and it quite quickly crumbles, being replaced by something completely new (Wikipedia, n.d.). Our understanding of the human condition appears to be currently progressing through such a break. The battle between left and right to define the individual is slowly appearing more and more misguided as conceptions of the relational self emerge from diverse fields of research and thought. Instead of seeing relationships as being constructed by individuals, we are seeing more and more evidence that individuals are constructed by relationships. This new paradigm sees the fundamental component of the human experience not as the individual, but as the relational. At the same time, neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Lisa Feldman Barret are establishing the fundamental role that our emotional, non-conscious mind plays in our consciousness, and the fundamental role our social context plays in forming our emotional landscape (Damasio, 2012), (Barrett, 2017). We are, even as individuals, fundamentally a constructed relationship between conscious, non-conscious, in turn constructed via our relationships with others.

Viewed through this relational paradigm, recent (small) phenomena such as the rise of the ‘flat’ organisational structure, the growth of the Bromley by Bow Centre’s model of social prescribing , and the success of the community paradigm in Local Government become part of the same story; when the individual experiences those around them as ‘knowable’ (i.e. their behaviour is reasonable and relatable) and trustworthy, these relationships provide the scaffolding for a healthy construction of self and others, and the healthy behaviours that emerge from these.

There is a mentoring programme in Baltimore called Thread, whose name denotes a ‘social fabric’ and since 2004 has woven a social fabric consisting of five volunteer mentors ‘an extended family’ who support at risk young people for nearly ten years. Thread is a single project, set up by volunteers, but it’s outcomes are astonishing when set against the average Children’s Services Department outcomes, and it’s retention rate of unpaid volunteers is much higher that most Department’s retention rate of paid social workers.

If the relational paradigm is one of the contextual foundations for the Care Review, the other must be the increasing tribalisation of our political discourse.  Jonathan Haidt explores how conservative morality and liberal morality are built on different interpretations of similar concerns, but our emotions then entrench this interpretation, closing us off from constructive debate (Haidt, 2012).  Many in Children’s Social Work see inequality, and particularly poverty, as the most powerful driver of significant harm to children. There is a deep lack of trust in Conservative morality, and a discourse that often rejects the possibility of collaboration and compromise. This is harmful because it precedes the possibility of influence. When we see a change of Government as the only possible route to influence, our impact on the wider political discourse as a profession over the past 50 years must be interpreted as being almost zero. If we choose not to acknowledge this, and the fact that our Government is mandated by a democratic vote and so reflects the collective views of the society in which we function, we are truly allowing our emotional need to feel correct to overwhelm our moral obligation to engage and contribute.

So let us consider the Care Review in this context — the problems and solutions that individuals face should be constructed as having primarily relational causes and consequences, and we should seek solutions to these problems through improving these relationships. The role for the Care System is to provide stability, not of housing or legal status, but of relationships. For children, of course, these relationships must provide for them more fundamentally — giving them the message that they are loveable and loved, an important thread woven within an unbreakable fabric of trusting relationships.

Anyone familiar with the Care System will have seen the incredible damage done to children by early relationships that have taught them other lessons — that people are frightening or at least unreliable, that they are worthless or flawed, that their emotional experiences should be hidden away from themselves and others. It’s not possible (or certainly not healthy), I think, to remember working with children like these as a social worker, without being filled with a deep sense of sadness, of injustice, and sometimes of shame at our inability to help them. It is so difficult to retain hope within a practice system that so regularly fails to achieve any positive change whatsoever. Caseloads may be high, levels of bureaucracy ridiculous, but it is the sense of hopelessness more than anything else that has led to so many good social workers leaving professional practice.

And yet we all have our happy stories too, a parent we really connected with, a young person we persevered with, or a child we enjoyed visiting and getting to know. We carry their memories with us as we move through our careers, and some of us are lucky enough to accumulate decades of memories — the intrinsic reward of the helper who has helped. Our Quality Assurance systems scratch around for more meaningful measures that can be collated from case files or even used to predict future risk, but seeing these measures as priority organisational tasks is absurd when considered from the context of the happy practitioner.

Although the solutions to the care crisis should be sought in communities, the Care Review should look also to the mechanisms of the practice system. Although the systems of checks and balances are well documented, what is less documented is the irreducible fact that there is only one single mechanism by which the entire practice system can actually create change for a child. That mechanism is the relationship between the practitioner and the family. The Care Review must propose radical changes that funnel all attention and resources back to this relationship — the skilful practice of social work. Everything else is simply noise. Below I suggest some starting points.

For a profession obsessed with measuring, we know shockingly little about outcomes.  We don’t know whether children supported by ‘outstanding’ departments do any better that children supported by ‘inadequate’ departments. Nor is there any clear correlation between spending and outcomes.  We don’t systematically measure or even agree on what to measure as long-term outcomes for children in need.  We know what their long-term outcomes are through longitudinal studies such as the ACEs study, but we have absolutely no idea, or even a cohesive logic model, for how our assessment and planning activities impact upon them.

Although it has totally failed to correlate it’s inspection findings with actual child outcomes, Ofsted has been highly effective in shifting organisational attention away from children and families and toward performance indicators, and the impact on social workers’ mental health everywhere has been horrific. No other organisation has caused such damage to our professional craft. The discourse on its negativity has been so limited because of its cult-like status amongst senior leaders.  The Association of Directors of Children’s Services  is populated with otherwise intelligent and highly capable leaders who for some reason find it difficult to acknowledge that Ofsted inspections are largely meaningless beyond the incredible resources and distress expended at their anticipated arrival, constructed on the stories of being shamed and fired. Ofsted fixation is also arguably the main explanation as to why the path forward set out in wonderfully convincing argument by the Munro Review has remained largely untrodden.

In 2019 the Rees Centre put enormous energy and thought into an outcomes framework for the children’s social care.  Sadly it has not been widely used or even debated.  By starting with outcomes, Children’s Services departments, in collaboration with their lead members, could be expected to map out their service plans onto a logic model, and present this to Ofsted prior to inspection. The intended outcomes could be set by Central Govt, or simply be a defensible interpretation of the Rees Centre’s framework. An Ofsted inspection would then simply become an observation of fidelity to the proposed activities, and a robust ‘in practice’ conversation about whether the logic model’s assumptions need to be reconsidered.

My partner is a pharmacist in a large hospital. Twenty years in to a successful career she is in the second tier of senior management of the hospital. But she still does ward rounds three days a week, along with teaching at a local University. Social work is the only profession I know of where the task of applying our professional specialist knowledge is given over to the least experienced, and where the most successful are rewarded by being moved further and further away from professional practice. An average DCS will have four layers of managers between themselves and the practice of social work, and 15–20 years of time passed since they were in practice themselves.  In YOS, Leaving Care, and Early Help Services we have highly skilled practitioners with years of experience of social work, who we don’t allow to call themselves social workers or to benefit from the higher salary and security that comes with. Teaching partnerships and co-delivered programmes have taken a step in the right direction, but our profession is still top heavy with senior managers and academics who have had to choose between practice and career progression. The Care Review should remove this choice. Every social worker must have as a requirement of their registration that they continue to practice directly with children and families.

The fundamental relationships in a child’s life should always be sought within their family and their community. It is necessary sometimes that children be cared for by a paid stranger, but this should always be seen as scaffolding — a framework on which to repair the existing social fabric around a child. This admittedly can sound naïve — but when we step back from the rigidity of the Care system there are huge opportunities for creative engagement.

I remember sitting outside the Courtroom door as a young social worker.  In this instance the parties were waiting to present an agreed plan back to the judge, so were relaxed. The two barristers (mine and the parents’) started discussing their recent holidays in the South of France with smiles on their faces and private school education in their voices. I looked at the parents and wondered how it felt to have the person supposed to represent you so deeply embedded in the world that is judging you. I suppose it felt hopeless. It is a feeling that grows the further up the hierarchy of concerns a child’s welfare moves, until the Judge calls all parties back in and reads out their findings, and it is proven true with a legal Order.

If the bonds of social fabric are trust and love (and they are), the Judicial system’s affect is to ignore their importance, and often to actively weaken them. Our legal system is premised on the idea of justice being built upon fairness. Yet the processes themselves are deeply unfair on parents and incredibly wasteful. For thousands of years groups of human beings sat around the campfire and resolved their differences through participative democracy. When we compare the choreographed performance of the Courtroom to these traditional community restorative practices they become farcical. We have an organisation in CAFCASS, filled with highly experienced social workers, who visit a child once and are then expected to advise the Court and critique the Local Authority.

But there are alternatives — In New York parents who had already had their own children removed started organising and advocating on behalf of other parents in current proceedings. These ‘parent advocates’ and their allies in social work obtained power and influence and directed money saved from having fewer children in care to finance support for families (Tobis, 2013). In the UK so often these parents are isolated and without meaningful support. CAFCASS resources should be repurposed from being just another layer of monitoring social work, and toward advocating for and supporting families in a proactive and generative way. CAFCASS should be overseen by a Board of parent advocates and Care Leavers, it’s primary tools should be focussed around bringing wider families together to support and sustain parents, and holding the Local Authority to account for resourcing and enacting the support the family needs.

We should also significantly reduce the need for judicial intervention in the first place. The legal threshold for being in Care should be lifted significantly so a 2–3 week respite placement arranged by a community organisation isn’t considered Care. Too often what families need is respite and intensive support, and they should be able to access this without crossing the threshold for statutory interventions, and certainly without triggering the ‘permanency process’.

Cuts to early intervention services have left many Local Authorities caught in a vicious circle of directing more and more resources to high level, crisis driven work, and to extremely expensive placements when intervention comes too late. The ‘Grasping the Nettle’ Report and the Early Help Offer have become a distant memory for many LAs and when faced with 50% funding cuts these non-statutory services have been largely discontinued.  And yet we have very clear evidence that Early Help services save money over time when delivered well. There is a huge opportunity here for central Government to take a similar funding pot to the Innovation Programme and offer it as 10–20 year bond linked to promising evidence informed early intervention projects, overseen by the WWC-CSC. The funding, along with the later savings, would be ring-fenced from other Council budgets, allowing Councils to employ permanent staff, secure leases on buildings, and to plan and monitor services in ways that are difficult when funding is rolled over every 6–12 months.

This paper has made four suggestions; Ofsted inspections to test logic models of practice, all managers and academics to keep a hand in practice, CAFCASS repurposed toward family advocacy, and long term bonds to fund expanded early help services. But as the relational paradigm emerges, we must also more fundamentally redefine our professional craft. I attended one of Camden Council’s wonderful community activism conferences in 2018, where I learned of a community-base family group conferencing model which captures the paradigm shift we need to make. The model showcased how the entire floor of an elderly woman’s council block had attended her family group conference and collaborated to make a plan for her support. We in Children’s Services need to reconstruct our professional task to be about engaging, supporting, nurturing the systems of family, culture, community around a child. We need to be brave enough, when a family needs support, to knock on the neighbour’s door and invite them to participate a little more in their community. I love the power of this idea and what it captures, how it challenges our thinking. Social work must return to its communities, sit within them, and build meaningful relationships with them. The Care System doesn’t so much need to be rebuilt as redefined — children already have a care system around them made up of people and relationships — we have enough evidence now that ignoring or trying to wholesale replace these has not worked. It is time to bow our heads in humility, and knock on the neighbour’s door.

A Principal Social Worker in England

References

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Hifflin Harcourt.

Damasio, A. (2012). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. Vintage.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind. Vintage.

Tobis, D. (2013). From Pariahs to Partners: How parents and their allies changed New York City’s child welfare system. OUP USA.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/epistemological_rupture.

Categories
Ray Jones Special Edition

Prescience of paranoia? Reflecting on the future

As the Department for Education’s MacAlister once-in-a-lifetime review of children’s social care hurtles at pace to its premature conclusions and recommendations, what might be expected to be the outcome? Trying to see the future by reading the tea leaves or gazing into a crystal ball may not be surest way of predicting what is ahead but projecting forward from current trajectories suggests the future direction of travel unless some significant re-routing is to be undertaken.  And plotting and picturing the direction of travel is assisted by recalling what those close to government have been advising and advocating and what the government itself has stated as its intentions.

The Influencers

Isabelle Trowler has been the chief social worker in the Department for Education since 2013. As such, she is the civil servant who is paid to advise ministers on children’s social work and social care. She has stated that social workers still had to earn the trust and respect of the public, that their education and who can be a social worker should be politically-controlled by government ministers, and Tweeted that those who argued against increasing privatisation and commercialisation of children’s social work were like the pigs and other animals in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ who thought ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ (@IsabelleTrowler June 30 2014).

She had previously worked within Hackney with Alan Wood as the director of children’s services. He also has become a favoured government advisor.  Like the chief social worker, he too was ‘relaxed’ about increasing involvement of private companies in children’s social services and child protection and also considered that newly-qualifying social workers from traditional university courses were ‘crap’.

Along with the chief social worker and Sir Julian Le Grand, of whom more below, Alan Wood was appointed by the government to oversee and advise the market analysis company LaingBuisson on how to create more of a market within children’s social services and social work for what Prime Minister Cameron had called ‘market insurgents’and the Department for Education (DfE) called ‘NewCos’ (new companies) to provide children’s social services. The intention has been that all children’s social services should be outside of local authorities and ‘academicised’ by 2022 .

To create the statutory platform for the privatisation and marketisation of children’s social service in 2014 the government changed the regulations (The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (Relevant Care Functions) (England) Regulations 2014 ) so that the ‘market insurgents’ and ‘newcos’ could take on and be paid to provide child protection assessments and to initiate court proceedings to have children removed from their families and then to decide with whom and where they should live – may be in the foster homes and children’s home they provided to generate their profits

Now knighted, Sir Alan has received many government appointments to review and lead on changes within children’s social care, including chairing the ‘What Works Centre’, reviewing secure training centres, re-shaping child protection processes and procedures …

Another knighted by the post-2010 Conservative-led governments is Sir Julian Le Grand. He was the author of Tony Blair’s New Labour’s social work practises. They were set up in 2006 as pilots to allow statutory social work services to be contracted out to not-for-profit and profit-making companies. The pilots were not a success – the companies were not sustainable and too isolated from other services.

But no matter. In 2016 he wrote that the Conservative government led by David Cameron was  ‘flailing around’ with ‘creative turmoil’ as it sought to improve children’s social services and that ‘whatever the outcome is I am certain it will be better’. May be this certainty follows from Le Grand’s argument that those working in the public sector were not seen as public servants and well-motivated knights seeking to assist others but instead were seen as self-interested and self-protecting knavesKnights, knaves, pawns and queens: attitudes to behaviour in postwar Britain. More recently, Sir Julian has been a board member of ‘Think Ahead’, the specialist fast-track social work training programme in mental health which in many ways mirrors ‘Frontline’, the fore-shortened social work training programme for children and families social workers, of which more below.

Sir Martin Narey is an advisor to the post-2010 Conservative governments who has also been knighted.  Like Sir Alan and Sir Julian above Sir Martin is not a social worker and has no direct practice experience in children’s social care. He was the civil servant who had a lead role in the privatisation of prisonsbefore becoming chief executive of the children’s charity Barnardo’s.

Like others above, he has argued for more private sector involvement, has been an advocate alongside government ministers such as Michael Gove for more children to be adopted and adoptedmore quickly, and has shared with Mr Gove the concern that social workers and their education have given too much time and attention to the impact of poverty and deprivation on children and families.

Commissioned by Mr Gove to report on social work education Sir Martin recommended an initial training for social workers who would work with children separate from those who would work with adults. It was a model which was implemented with considerable funding from the government. It is notably defined in the DfE contract Mr. MacAlister has signed for the children’s social care review as “[t]he fast-track social work training programme provided by the Frontline organisation on behalf of the Department [italics added]. It also has financial and other inputs from a hedge fund and international management consultancy and accountancy companies.

It was the international management accountancy company KPMG which, along with Morning Lane Associates(see below), was fundedby the government to shape theKnowledge and Skills Statement for Child and Family Social Work (KSS) which was created, following Sir Martin Narey’s recommendations, by the chief social worker. It has undermined the profession and career spanning Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF)carefully and skilfully developed by social workers. It was the decision within the DfE with the chief social worker to award the lucrative KSS development contract to KPMG and MLA rather than to the College of Social Work which led to the final demise of the College.

Like Sir Alan above, Sir Martin has been appointed by the government to key posts within children’s social care, including reviews of foster care and residential care as well as social work education. He has also been appointed as an advisor to the Children’s Commissioner in England. Sir Martin gained some notoriety when he challenged a damning Ofsted report of a children’s secure training centre run by the security out-sourcing company G4S. There was a flurry of concern when it became known that Sir Martin had previously been paid as a consultant by G4S. More recently Sir Martin has joined the board of Sanctuary. Sanctuary is a private company making sizeable profits as a social worker employment agency. It is now expanding and diversifying in to the provision of private children’s homes.

When Isabelle Trowler was working within Hackney’s children’s services her immediate line manager was Steve Goodman. He has been described by the chief social worker as a ‘close and personal friend’ and  there was an investigation by the National Audit Office into the millions of pounds of public money the small company Morning Lane Associates (MLA) had received from the government.

Steve Goodman and Isabelle Trowler, directors of Morning Lane Associates
Steve Goodman with Isabelle Trowler

MLA had been formed by Mr Goodman with the chief social worker, before she was appointed to her DfE role, along with Mary Jackson (now the chief executive of Frontline). They had all worked together in Hackney’s children’s services when Sir Alan Wood was the director of children’s services. Like the chief social worker, who has stated there is enough money already for children’s social services, but it is being badly spent. Mr Goodman has Tweeted that it is directors of children’s services who are responsible for the high numbers of children in the care of councils not the government cuts in funding for services which help families (@Morning_Lane, 5.54 am, 14 October 2017).

Mr Goodman’s networks also encompass Josh MacAlister. Mr Goodman was paid as the social work advisor to Frontline, the social work training company formed by Mr MacAlister and which has benefitted from substantial government funding including in 2019 an allocation of £45m.

Frontline’s chair is Camilla Cavendish. She was formerly a columnist with The Times and Sunday Times and which included award winning campaigning claiming that social workers misused their powers and misled courts to get children removed from familiesand, more recently, that it was their failings which led to the killing of an adopted child. Prior to her key role within Frontline she was Prime Minister Cameron’s strategic policy advisor, he appointed her to the House of Lords as Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice, and Prime Minister Johnson has appointed her to review adult social care. Her husband has been an advisor to the Bank of England and is described as having “vast experience of both the asset management and banking industry”.

Cameron puts ex Times writer Camilla Cavendish in charge of policy at No 10  | The Times
Camilla Cavendish with Prime Minister Cameron

Indeed investment banking and the finance industry seems to be a thread which now runs through much of social work and children’s social care’s shaping and development. For example, it was reported in 2015 that:

Frontline’s founding partners include international children’s charity Ark, which was set up by a group of hedge-fund financiers and runs 34 academy schools, the Boston Consulting Group and the Credit Suisse financial services group. In addition to £3.7m of government funding (£6m if student bursaries are included), it says it has received £1.2m in “support from elsewhere”.

A somewhat similar incursion by bankers and hedge funds was to be found within the board of the DfE’s Children’s Innovation Fund. Alongside Alan Wood and Isabelle Trowler the three other board members had backgrounds in the financial sector managing hedge and investment funds.There was comment that while Wood and Trowler were board  members MLA were a significant beneficiary of the Innovation Fund  alongside other DfE financial awards to MLA with concerns expressed by the British Association of Social Workers. When MLA was voluntarily wound up and closed in 2019 its company accounts showed that it had assets of £2.2m. Its sole shareholder was Steve Goodman. Another major beneficiary of the Innovation Fund was Frontline.

A recurring link across children’s social services is the influence of multi-academy schools trusts such as ARK. ARK was an integral co-founder of Frontline:

Josh McAllister first came to Ark Ventures in early 2012, wanting funding to prepare a research paper with the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) exploring a “Teach First for social work”. Ark Ventures felt that Josh and the idea were of high potential, so offered feedback and support and introduced Josh to our network to facilitate the development of this paper.

ARK has its roots in the USA and was founded by hedge fund managers as an international provider of children’s education. Its expansion into the UK was led by Amanda Spielman who was a founding member of ARK’s management team.  She had a background as an accountant and in corporate finance. In 2016 it was reported that “Of the eight members of the trust’s board – who are effectively the governors of all 34 schools, since the local governing bodies have no statutory powers – five are hedge fund managers.  None have any background in education.”

Amanda Spielman is married to the managing director of Citigroup, a multi-national investment bank.  In 2016 Amanda Spielman was appointed by the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, to be the chief executive of Ofsted, an appointment which was unsuccessfully opposed by the cross-party Education Select Committee because she had no teaching experience, lacked vision and passion, and “Ms Spielman’s responses on child protection were particularly troubling and did not inspire confidence that she grasped the importance of Ofsted’s inspections in preventing children being held at risk through service failure”.

Another significant and controversial appointment for children’s social care from within multi-academy trusts is Rachel de Souza, the new children’s commissioner in England. With a background as a teacher and school principal, she was the founding chief executive of the Inspiration Multi-Academy School Trust. It was established byLord Agnew, a Conservative life peer. Hewas a non-executive board member of the Department for Education and chairman of its Academies Board from 2013 to 2015. He was appointed lead non-executive board member of the Ministry of Justice in July 2015at the same that Sir Martin Narey was appointed to the board when Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Justice. Mr. MacAlister’s contract for the children’s social care review requires that he links with the Ministry of Justice and the review covers youth justice services.

Mwa ha ha ha ha! De Souza, Agnew, and Academies Minister Lord Nash chuckling it up at our expense. And they're coming to a school near YOU.
Lord Agnew, Academies Minister Lord Nash, and Rachel de Souza

Rachel de Souza caused controversy when she, unlike the children’s commissioners in Wales and Scotland, refused to support banning the smacking of children, and her appointment as children’s  commissioner in England was also controversial because of her close links to the Conservative Party.  She has been reported as saying that ‘The Government needs to “make real change” and reform a failing social care system by opening up opportunities for every child [and that] Dame Rachel de Souza made the plea amid concerns a long-awaited independent review of children’s social care review will not deliver the necessary changes.’ Her involvement and immersion in the MacAlister review, rather than what might be expected in terms of independence, includes Mr MacAlister accompanying the children’s commissioner on visits to children’s homes. The children’s commissioner has also launched a “once-in-a-generation Beveridge Report for children” with an on-line survey in partnership with Oak National Academy – which was founded and is led by Josh MacAlister’s partner.

And if there is any thought that the Conservative government now led by Mr Johnson has since the governments of Mr Cameron and Mrs Maychanged ideology and the intention of moving the education of children outside of local authorities and the public sector, Gavin Williamson, the current secretary of state for education has stated that he wants more schools within multi-academy trusts by 2025.

The allocation of substantial government funding to Frontline as a newly founded social work training company may seem exceptional, but Mr MacAlister is the husband of Matt Hood who in 2020 set up an on-line education aids company which received start up costs of £500,000 and then a further £4.3mfrom the DfE. Both were trained as teachers through the fast track ‘Teach First’ programme but after short careers as teachers have left the front-line and have become entrepreneurs favoured by the government. 

Michael Gove at Frontline film screening
Mr MacAlister with Mr Gove at a Frontline event

The chief social worker has Tweeted to Mr MacAlister on his birthday ‘may the sun always shine on you’ (@IsabelleTrowler 3 March 2017), something which may be a little surprising as a public Tweet from a senior civil servant to someone who has significant contracts from the government  department in which she works. The networks of friendships and admiration seem to have lessened the distance and distinction which might be expected between beneficiaries of, and the civil servants who advise and decide on, assignments and funding allocations from the government.

The government and DfE sun continues to shine on Mr MacAlister. He has now been given the role by the government of shaping the vision for the future of children’s social care. He has already signed up to a ‘blue print’ for the future of children’s social services. It is a blueprint written by Boston Consulting Group along with Mr MacAlister. The Boston Consulting Group is an (American) company which has already benefitted, for example, from government contracts and funding during the coronavirus pandemic , with its management consultants being paid up to £6,250 a day to work on Serco-led Track and Trace. In the ten months between May 2020 and March 2021 BCG had received at least 29 government consultancy contracts generating an income of more than £315m.

Whose Vision?

What is the picture which emerges from those who have been advising government and who are often closely networked together? First, the views expressed about social workers have often been critical and negative, including that social workers still had to earn public trust, that newly qualifying social workers were ‘crap’, that their education and regulation should be politically controlled, and that they and their professional education have been too concerned about the impact of poverty and deprivation. Second, those who have been appointed to advise government rarely have a practice grounding or personal experience within children’s social care. Third, increasing privatisation within children’s social services is seen as positive and the way forward. This is reflected in the growing appointment and presence of international management accountants and consultancies in shaping social work and children’s services and of investment bankers and hedge funds moving into children’s social care.

There is the fear of a future of more fragmented and privatised children’s social care with children and families as commodities in a profit-focussed market place, and that this could be the vision – although not so explicitly packaged – which is the outcome of the DfE’s MacAlister review. It is a review where Mr MacAlister has already committed not to seek any reversal of ten years plus of government cuts and which is being overseen by the Treasury.  If this is the outcome of the review it will leave families with less help and children more vulnerable.

It might also be of note that very few of those who alongside government are leading the re-shaping of children’s social care have any practice or personal experience within children’s social care. There are more than 80,00 children in care at any one time, many hundreds of thousands of generations of care experienced people,  the identification of almost 400,000 children in need and their families, 95,000 registered social workers in England, 22,000 members of the British association of Social Workers, 152 local authorities with directors of children’s social services (albeit some shared across councils),  more than 80 past and former professors of social work within the Association of Professors of Social Work, and in 2018 there were 166,000 charities in England and Wales registered with the Charity Commission of which 59% listed children as their core beneficiary (Body, 2020, p. 12). 

And yet it is a small network of people with influence and connections but very limited experience who are seen to hold the expertise and wisdom to lead the re-shaping of children’s social care. The experience which seems to be most valued is in banking and the for-profit finance sectors of investment trusts and hedge funds, and the international management accountancy and consultancy companies which are champions for privatisation. 

Surely the hundreds of thousands of people with practice and personal experience of children’s social care cannot all be lumped within the ‘blob’, the term Mr. Gove (with Dominic Cummings as his advisor) when Secretary of State for Education used to describe teachers. It may be shocking but not a surprise that those with personal and practice experience might be invited and allowed to give their views but the vision is to be decided by a small networked and interwoven coterie with little relevant experience or knowledge.

The issues in this paper are recounted and explored more fully in two recent books by Ray Jones:

  • In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Social Work and Child Protection (Policy Press, 2019)
  • A History of the Personal Social Services in England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)

Additional Reference

  • Body, A. (2020) Children’s Charities in Crisis: Early Intervention and The State, Bristol, Policy Press.

Ray Jones

Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London

Categories
Richard Lynch-Smith Special Edition

Building their seat at the table: why privatisation can never deliver for children in need of state support

‘The form of wood … is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.’ – Marx, Capital Volume One

*

The youth services in the area where I used to work are buffeted by the sounds of an A-road. Articulated lorries fly over the heads of social workers. Homework clubs take shelter in the underpass.

I used to wonder, in my less-interesting moments, whether there was a correlation between traffic pollution and government funding. The noise is deafening for those who have had to carve out space in the arterial roads.

A young person I worked with, Yasmine[i], could define her years in those spaces. When she was first in foster care there was the art therapist who it took her a year to trust. For months on end their silences would be punctuated by the buses. When she eventually found her voice she tested it in the microphones of the music centre, her words rising above the car horn section. 

Yasmine will become eighteen when the Care Review makes its provisional recommendations. As one of those concerned about the proximity of the chair, Josh MacAlister, to government and corporate interests, I have been left wondering what its findings may mean for her. 

*

The chair’s sympathy to public-private partnerships has been well-documented. Social impact investing was first entertained under New Labour, but emerged with vigour after the 2008 crash. Its proponents portray it as a no-brainer, with the competition and oversight of the market leading to innovation in the solving of social problems.

As Ray Jones has shown, privatisation will not emerge overnight. It is likely that the review will make some sound recommendations. It is possible to believe in the good intentions of those involved whilst holding concern about their proximity to the interests of private capital. It is not just who is sat at the table, but the space they are leaving for others to build their seat.

Yasmine has been living with Em, an agency foster carer, for the past eight years. Her agency is owned by a private equity firm, with the familiar business model of buying up smaller agencies, restructuring and selling on. The agency is one of the three that receive 45% of independent fostering council funds. This cartelisation has led to a vast increase in unregulated, remote and costly placements.

Em began working for the agency after being offered a slightly improved rate. When the firm was first sold on, she found that the conditions worsened. There are limited avenues open to the capitalist looking to restructure and profit from a care provision. The exploitation of the cheap labour of foster care is a reliable means of instilling confidence in the market.

One of MacAlister’s first actions as chair was to appoint the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate the provision of care. The parameters of this seem opaque, and it appears highly unlikely that they will challenge the structures that make profit the paramount principle. Until this happens, the goodwill of foster carers like Em will continue to be exploited.

There is also an urgent question around what would happen if one of these companies failed.

Financialised systems of care breed a dangerous short-termism, with price distortions being one of the risks. This means debts further down the line, and desperate attempts to shore up profit. If failure can be avoided it is through harsher working conditions for people like Em, not the appropriation of funds from offshore tax havens.   

The rhetoric around the review has been one of asking difficult questions. My social work training -through Frontline – stressed the importance of ‘radical candour’. The instability that Em lives and works through helps me to understand why this idea never quite clicked for me. You can hold as many difficult conversations as you like, but when you ignore the exploitation hard-wired into the system then your candour will never be enough.

*

When I think of life under the A-road, I don’t think of services that provide a neat solution to a social problem. It is difficult to quantify the value of Yasmine sitting silently on the art therapist’s couch. The CD that she made in the music centre didn’t add to any statistics for children out of education, employment or training.

This quantification is integral to market-driven investment. Mechanisms such as social impact bonds (SIBs) allow public bodies to seek private investment for specific interventions. The ability to quantify outcomes is essential, as investors only receive returns once specific outcomes are met.

For councils, this creates an impetus to provide clear metrics on social outcomes. Measures of cost-effectiveness are necessary at the level of commissioning, and in order to attract investment on capital markets. The government’s own guide on SIBs points to the correlation between closely measurable outcomes and increased investment.

As Emma Dowling shows in The Care Crisis, the vast majority of SIB-funded projects are about supporting an individual to adapt to the demands of society. An example would be a CBT-based project designed to reduce rates of recidivism. The metric could be the net savings to society if someone remained out of prison for a defined period of time. Once a set measure is reached, investors begin to receive a return.

This is unsavoury on two levels. Firstly, this means that private investors are pocketing profit from the savings that they set out to make for the public. Inequality and disadvantage effectively become a revenue stream. As with private equity firms, this is not the work of a few bad-faith actors, but integral to the system of financialisation.

The second concern I have is for the services that may be available for Yasmine in future. Some of those she benefited from were chaotic in organisation, or formed in defiance of the council. I don’t know if it’s possible to quantify self-expression or political awakenings, even if the market had any interest in doing so. More than anything I worry that Yasmine will be taught to adapt to society, rather than to use her voice to demand more from it.

*

Mechanisms like SIBs are yet to live up to their promises. Shortfalls in returns are often met by central government, through schemes such as the Cabinet Office’s £20 million ‘Social Outcomes Fund’. Ronnie Horesch, the conservative economist credited with driving SIBs forwards, places the blame in their lack of ‘tradeability’.

The argument goes that their focus is too short-term, which means there is limited time for new entrants to the market. A secondary market, in which investors would bet on the likelihood of these outcomes being achieved, would allow for the necessary growth. This would increase the pressure on bond holders, and make it more likely that outcomes are met. 

What this could lead to is a situation where risk is simply insured, or sold on in other forms of securitisation. We could face a situation where the slightest sign of risk leads to investors pulling out. Services that were once-rooted in communities become subject to the undulations of the market.

It is also here that concerns around vested interests come to the fore. What started out as pro-bono corporate social responsibility becomes a mechanism for influence. Those who traverse capital markets and the boards of prominent charities should be firmly on the radar of those who plan to resist. 

Of course, this corporate capture of children’s services will not be contained in the report’s recommendations. The involvement of private equity in fostering is more developed than the advance of SIBs. Developments take place at different paces, but they are part of the same trajectory. Market principles cannot be adopted selectively, as profit will always take precedence over public good.

This is the lens through which any attempts at reform must be seen. The market cannot provide for the communities that we serve; it can only fragment and individualise them. The problems we face are economic and social, and have to be met as such. There can be only one answer – solidarity.

Solidarity with Yasmine, as she uses her voice to demand better.

Solidarity with Em, whose labour is exploited by those who profit from her goodwill.

If they do not have a space at the table, we must build them one.  

Richard Lynch-Smith is a social worker.

Twitter: @richlynchsmith


[i] To ensure confidentiality, names and identifying information have been altered throughout.

Categories
Sally Holland Special Edition

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

This article provides a view from Wales on building a children’s social care response that is centred on children’s human rights. Wales is not immune from the issues that have sparked care reviews in Scotland, and now England, but there are no published plans for a care review here.  

As we strive to find the best ways to support children and their families beyond the pandemic it will be essential that any steps we take reflect a central commitment to the human rights of children, their families and communities. It is clear to me that taking a human rights approach is not only important for protecting the dignity and entitlements of those receiving services, but also restores to practitioners the values that led many to seek a career in social work in the first place.

When finalising our work plan for 2020-21 in February 2020, my team at the Children’s Commissioner for Wales office and I had, of course, no real sense of what was about to hit us in terms of the pandemic. Apart from the slight alarm bells raised by my far-sighted IT officer who had several weeks before sent me a memo about the risks of a global pandemic, we were expecting a normal year of rolling out our strategic goals which included ensuring that public service organisations take a children’s human rights approach when designing and delivering their services.

The pandemic inevitably led to urgent additional work, including conducting huge surveys of children’s experiences and ensuring the Welsh Government acted on the findings, resisting any legal dilution of rights to services during the pandemic, while accepting the delivery of rights would have to be different, highlighting unequal experiences of lockdowns arising from poverty, ethnicity and disability, and ensuring that looked after children and children in closed settings were supported and their rights protected throughout the period.

Despite the urgency of the Covid response, we were determined to continue with our planned work alongside. One project explored barriers and successes in taking a children’s rights approach in children’s social care and the resulting guide was published this month.

When the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act was passed in 2014 it contained an amendment stating that all those carrying out the functions of the Act bear the duty to pay due regard to children’s rights, alongside other crucial human rights treaties. This means that social workers and other social services staff are ‘duty-bearers’ under the UNCRC, with a duty to uphold and defend children’s human rights. They are designated, in short, as human rights workers. My office had campaigned hard for this amendment, but since then I have been unsure whether the duty felt like a ‘nice to have’ platitude on the front of the legislation or a tool that could empower practitioners to advocate alongside children and their families for their human rights to be respected and fulfilled, including rights to be listened to and included, receive support and services, protection from harm and equality and non-discrimination. We have certainly continued to investigate cases where children and young people’s rights had not been fully upheld when requiring social services support.

Discussions over the last year with children and young people, social workers, young parents, foster carers and residential workers have demonstrated not only a strong commitment to human rights approaches in Wales, but also some real successes in protecting human rights during the pandemic using flexible and creative approaches.

Our guide highlights these under the 5 principles of a children’s rights approach:

  1. Embedding rights. This means at an executive level there is a commitment to rights, they are written into policies, staff are trained and organisations make public commitments to protect and promote children’s human rights. Children and their families receive the important message that they are not receiving services because of what they lack – a deficit approach – but because all children have the same rights to be supported to fulfil their potential.
  2. Equality and non-discrimination. This is a fundamental human rights principle. We know that children and their families are more likely to be caught up in statutory children’s services when they live in poverty. Disabled children and adults face systematic barriers, Children from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds including Gypsy, Roma and traveller children face racism and many face other economic and institutional barriers. Recognising these barriers and taking active steps to combat them is human rights work in practice.
  3. Empowerment. When children and young people know about their rights and have good experiences of them then they are more likely to be in a position to take them up. Social workers have a role in ensuring they make children aware of their rights and give everyday opportunities to experience them through advocacy, participation and shared decision-making.
  4. Participation. Organisations make better decisions when they involve the people they are there to serve. This includes participation of individuals in their own care plans as well as at an institutional level. Our guide showcases good examples of participation practice, including online during the pandemic.
  5. Accountability. Organisations who provide services need to put themselves in a position where they can be held accountable. That includes governments, local authorities and all kinds of providers. This can include publishing documents in accessible ways, being transparent about budgets and outcomes, having accessible complaints systems and boards, senior leaders and elected members opening themselves up to scrutiny sessions, including by children.

While our role means that we concentrate on the human rights of children, it is clear that the five principles above work equally well when considering the services we provide to people of all ages. Our guide includes examples of human rights practice, top tips and the views of children and practitioners. It’s electronic only and we have an open call for more examples of practice that we can share with others.

Social work is a demanding job at any time. During the Covid-19 pandemic it has been especially hard. I’ve heard from social workers who have tried to conduct complex child protection work while home-schooling small children. Many have missed the collaboration and support of the office. There has been little publicity about social workers and other social care staff who have continued conducting home visits, including before much was known about the virus, and considerable bravery has been shown. Foster carers and residential carers have had no option for distance working and have had to become educators and public health workers alongside their usual roles, often having to console and support children who have been unable to see their families face-to-face. Despite all this, many have been flexible, innovative and continued to be human rights workers by bringing to my office’s attention concerns they have, and asked for support in challenging injustices where they’ve spotted them.

I’m proud that in Wales we were the only UK nation that avoided any dilution of children’s legal rights on a temporary measure using Covid-19 legislation. Free school meal provision was quickly converted to cash transfers for families in most areas at a rate of £19.50 per child per week (the highest in the UK) and provided during the holidays without any public debate on the matter. That doesn’t mean that children and their families haven’t suffered during these times – our surveys show that children from BAME backgrounds and disabled children have had systematically worse experiences than their peers during national lockdowns. But legal entitlements are important, whether they are entitlements to human rights, to services or to income support. They allow social workers, others in public services and offices like mine to challenge when entitlements are denied and they preserve human dignity because they are rights rather than favours.  Beyond the pandemic, my team and I will continue to champion children’s human rights in Wales, and I am confident that we’ll have social workers alongside us all the way.

Prof. Sally Holland,

Children’s Commissioner for Wales

Categories
Sarah Jane Waters Special Edition

How people who use services help create, deliver and appraise social work education

It’s been hard this past year, hasn’t it? In addition to the logistics of home working, engaging at work and keeping safe, those who deliver social work education had to satisfy the requirements of the institution who award the qualification, their departments, course delivery partners and the statutory organisations who set the standards expected.

This pandemic selfishly gave little notice but set colossal tasks with immutable deadlines for outcomes which were inconceivable even in the weeks before. There was a new boss in charge who supplied information sparingly, incompletely and demanded a new way to work.

Co-production groups assisting social work education pre-pandemic had various successes and challenges. With the pandemic, new barriers were created as some old barriers fell.  In Wales, the Social Services and Wellbeing Act (2014), put into practice April 2016, firmly embedded co-production/service user/citizen involvement for services used including the education of  professionals involved with that delivery.

For the Master’s Social Work course at Cardiff University there had been strong elements of co-production before the Act; some members recall being involved now for over fifteen years. The group’s primary focus was and is to support the course in its creation, delivery and monitoring over the academic year along with the academic staff and placement partners. Course content, lecture delivery, dissertation projects, interviews with prospective students, work moderation and various boards are all tasks the group assist with.

On paper, this sounds perfectly equitable and easy to achieve. It isn’t. It requires all parties to be clear about what is expected and when, it needs a driving force at least initially and to keep momentum, it needs frequent input. It needs people. Without this, groups can fall away and become nothing more than an exercise to tick off on a checklist. The Cardiff group has been so lucky with the academics assigned who have a real desire to include the group and co-produce. We are also so fortunate to have the course administrator who, already overworked, is a model of patience, assigns tasks and tries to round up those members we can’t get hold of.

Here’s the rub. These groups require people who understand the need for a social worker, people whose lives are often teetering on the edge, young people who have been looked after, minorities who could be jaded after years of systemic racism and our most vulnerable citizens for these groups to give Social Work education a representative insight. Co-production groups need the people who might be unreliable through no fault of their own, the sick and the disabled, those with substance misuse and/or mental health issues. They include benefit claimants so students can see the tumultuous effects of poverty, unemployment, illness, bad advice and unstable housing. The groups need carers, those who have experienced domestic abuse, people who need older person’s or adult services.

Currently getting a meaningful cross-section of a community together is difficult, people are frightened of doing anything which will draw attention to government agencies, social services and cause more stress. Many people are nervous they won’t be able to help, they feel they aren’t good enough to assist a university.

In the Cardiff group, training is given and the academic staff, group members or partners will help anyone when they ask but members can still feel daunted. In order to avoid groups being mainly attended by white, educated, middle class people who are retired or who are supported financially by independent means, explicit methods to protect benefit claimants and to ring fence their income must be agreed by the DWP/Westminster government. The system in place now makes vulnerable group members even more vulnerable and fearful.

Some services in Wales change every few years and this is a source of difficulty when trying to engage with people who use those services. One organisation may deal with homeless issues and tenant support services one year then have to change their focus another year if that contract is lost to another provider.

The pandemic has made looking for new group members difficult but not impossible. There have been several events run by organisations like the Co-production Network of Wales, Disability Wales and Diverse Cymru but engaging with those who fall under the protected characteristics umbrella could be done far better.

In terms of the pandemic and keeping the co-production group meetings worthwhile we’ve had to be a bit more creative. Unfortunately, in the initial stages of the pandemic it was difficult to engage with those members who didn’t have internet access, couldn’t afford the data/credits to ring in or video call.  It was difficult for those who simply couldn’t use devices, couldn’t afford to get or replace hardware. We are most certainly not all in this together. For one meeting a carer took the group member to the university and couldn’t understand why the meeting had to happen remotely. Reflecting back the invitation had included the meeting link but that didn’t give good enough information about how to use a smart phone, tablet or laptop to access the meeting. Online meetings only needed more emphasis. Never assume, always explain. Every time a member is absent due to technical barriers, disability or life events reminds us that the group still has much to do and problems to solve.

In terms of broader Social Work Education, statutory regulators need to embed co-production more robustly into the framework for gaining the professional qualification. This could go a great way to stop tokenism seeping in and to add credibility to the lived experiences of the people social work students will ultimately be involved with. Universities can learn best practice/what not to do by having a named co-ordinator who liaises with other university co-production groups. Projects such as Powerus-Mending The Gap not only allow social workers, educators and co-production groups to share experience globally but offer modules to help communities overcome social barriers and problems.

Despite everything this past year has shown us that we can still come together albeit imperfectly. We can still add value to the social work programme and we can keep searching for ways to be more inclusive. Perhaps when we meet in person we may adopt some of the changes we made. It’s a good way to end, the thought of meeting again, in a room with coffee and cake.

Sarah-Jane Waters

Chair co-production group Cardiff MASW, BASW Cymru committee member

Categories
Special Edition Steve Rogowski

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

UK Government inquiries/reviews are going through a tricky stage at present. For example, there was the inquiry in relation to the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil, which found everything was ‘fine’. Then there was the review into racism which said there was no evidence of structural or  institutional racism. And currently we have the review into children’s social care with many querying whether it is a genuine, truly independent review.

Some readers will know that early this year I wrote a piece about Josh MacAlister’s review of children’s social care for the British Association of Social Work’s (BASW) ‘Professional Social Work’ magazine. Sadly, the editor had to ‘pull it’ at the last moment saying BASW were ‘twitchy’ about some of my comments and worried about ‘upsetting relationships’. I was, for example, concerned about the review’s independence bearing in mind MacAlister was the chief of Frontline, a fast-track training provider for children’s social workers, which is directly funded by the Department for Education (DfE), and has been vocally championed by ministers. Although a version of my piece was then published by the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) on their website, it is no surprise that I revisit some of the issues here.

The DfE says the review will tackle challenges, including the sharp increase in recent years in the number of looked after children, and the failure of the system to provide sufficient stable homes for children. Specific issues include:  the capacity and capability to support families to prevent children being taken into care unnecessarily; hearing the voices of children, young people, and adults that have received the help or support of a social worker, or who have been looked after; and how partner agencies, such as health and police, interact with children’s social care. Importantly, a key question is how social care funding, workforce and other resources can be best used to change children’s lives.

It might be well and good to embark on such a review but there are certainly caveats. First, there is the spectre of cronyism concerning MacAlister’s direct appointment rather than through a formal process. Second, there are concerns about Frontline being generously funded, in part privately, when compared to university social work education. And third, a decade of Conservative governments’ austerity has led to drastic cuts to family support services, so it is little wonder this has impacted on capacity and capability to support families and prevent children being taken into care.

There are other major concerns too. When it comes to privatisation and marketisation, both key signifiers of on-going neoliberalisation, the International Monetary Fund has pointed out that overall they lead to growing inequality.  Relatedly, little attention is given to the influence of global big business on social work and social care reform, this resulting in little critical exploration of the potential implications of this for social work practice and policy. Frontline is a key example of big money’s incursion into English social work by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and others, with BCG being one of the largest management consultancies in the world (see Cardy 2020; Hanley, 2020; Kerr, 2020). Surely such lineage indicates the likely direction of travel for social work and social work education in the UK being positioned to advance private business interests in the public sector.

An obvious question is why Frontline partnered with firms and corporations whose conduct is often counter to social work values? And other questions relate to what have such firms to offer an English social work training scheme, what do they receive in return and at what cost to the public trust in the profession?

As a result, and as alluded to, many consider the review is going through the motions with many of its final recommendations already known. This is evidenced by the review planning initial conclusions in the summer and completing its work within 15 months, despite a review in Scotland, focused only the care system and not the entire children’s social care system like this one, taking three years.

A more fundamental criticism is the focus on value for money and the most sustainable and cost-effective way of delivering services, including who is best placed to deliver them. A danger is the review seeing looked after children as a cost that needs reducing, with the way forward including increased privatisation/marketisation of services. This leads to key questions about the morality of profits being made on the backs of vulnerable children and their families. Admittedly, and echoing a previous request, MacAlister has asked the UK’s competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to look into whether profits for private providers are coming at the expense of quality of care in the children’s social care market. As a result, the CMA launched an investigation last month looking into the supply, price, commissioning and regulation of children’s home, fostering and unregulated accommodation placements, along with the environment for investing in services. This responds to longstanding concerns about the sufficiency of suitable placements for looked-after children, the increasing use of unregulated accommodation and the role of, and profits accrued by, private providers in children’s home and fostering markets, particularly those backed by private equity.

Two other concerns have also emerged. First, in relation to the members of the review’s ‘experts by experience’ group, some care experienced people and sector commentators are concerned about the way they were selected; from over 1,000 applications only 40 were invited for interview. This prompted criticisms that the selection criteria were unclear, decisions had been made far too quickly, people did not know how many would be selected before they applied, and valuable expertise would be lost to the review. The second concern is that the review cannot assume additional government funding to implement its recommendations with instead any extra funding having to be matched by savings elsewhere. Given the pressure on local authority budgets since 2010, exacerbated by Covid-19, and the belief that the review needs to herald significantly greater investment in children’s social care to succeed, one can see future difficulties only too well.

While it is unsurprising that the current chief social worker for children and families in England, Isabelle Trowler, seems to be a whole-hearted supporter of the review, it is disappointing that the professional association for social work, BASW, took its time to voice any significant concerns and then only after pressure from members on the ground.

As intimated, there is real risk that the ‘findings’ of the review are pre-determined and that the result will be further privatisation and more children’s social workers trained/funded by or in the same manner as Frontline. All of which fits in with the neoliberal mantra of ‘private sector good, public sector bad’, something which needs to be resisted at all costs.

Dr Steve Rogowski – April 2021. He is a social worker/independent scholar.

Categories
Special Edition Thomas Croft & Diana Skelton

Poverty, the right to family life, and the need for poverty-aware guidelines for child protection policy and practice

All of us want children to grow up with a sense of belonging, connection, and roots. And yet in Britain today, more children are being removed from their families and put into care than at any time since the 1980s[1] when policymakers began to argue that families should be kept together and the removal of children should be a last resort.[2] Children and families in poverty, especially those suffering from multiple disadvantages, are significantly more likely to be the subject of state intervention in the form of child protection investigations and care proceedings than those not living in poverty.[3] Children in the UK’s most deprived communities are over 10 times more likely to enter the care system than those from the most affluent areas.[4]

Poverty leads entire families to feel neglected by an austerity-based society rife with inequality and discrimination. At a recent symposium run by Royal Holloway University of London[5], a parent activist from ATD Fourth World, Lareine Kenmogne, described how the pandemic has amplified the challenges of parenting in poverty, beginning with the increased costs of groceries, heating and internet during a year with children mostly schooled from home. The financial insecurity exacerbated by these costs can lead to situations that she called “invasive, degrading and humiliating. […] You feel like you have to do something; and at the same time you feel like you shouldn’t be doing it. Because of the situation, you are forced to feel shameless”.

A year into this pandemic, virtually everyone is struggling with unending uncertainty, loss of normal social interactions, and constant fear of the future. In the face of these hardships, parents in poverty have even fewer resources than others. Lareine laments the psychological effects of lock-down on children:

The knots of anger just build up inside them. […] With nowhere to go and no choices, they feel forgotten. They lose hope. […] The whole family loses good habits of family dialogue. […] We would do anything for our children; we just need help. My social worker has said, ‘Sorry, we have no funding, my hands are tied’. Please can I know: why are you here if you can’t help me? If you can’t give any support, the situation will deteriorate. A lot of us are left abandoned, and good parents and children pay the ultimate price.

Families that ATD Fourth World supports perceive the majority of child protection interventions as hostile, unfair and extremely damaging to the well-being of the whole family; this experience is reflected in various studies.[6] There is also a clear link between the number of children entering the UK’s care system and the rising rate of forced non-consensual closed adoption.[7] Closed adoption means direct contact between the adopted child and their birth family is severed.[8] Such a link suggests that the UK’s poorest families also bear the brunt of this draconian measure, something which is backed up in our experience on the ground supporting families in severe poverty.

Despite children being taken into care at a record rate, the numbers of cases where parents are accused of physical or sexual abuse of their children are falling.[9] The surge in child protection investigations, which have more than doubled since 2008[10], consists of large increases in the number of accusations of neglect and of emotional harm. Together, these two categories of abuse account for over 80% of child protection investigations. However, indicators of neglect are often conflated with indicators of poverty. Within the child protection system, both neglect and emotional harm are too often seen through the prism of parental failings, rather than through a lens which seeks to understand how the structural, psychological and social dimensions of poverty impact harmfully on family life.[11] Moreover, tackling poverty and inequality is often not seen as the ‘core business’ for child protection workers or policy makers. Instead, in the context of individualised neo-liberal discourse, poverty can also be used as a further source of blame.[12] This invariably leads to more hostile interventions where parental failings are spotlighted and parents are under enormous pressure to evidence change, with little attention given to what it means to parent in poverty.


The impact of this regime on the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable families and children is catastrophic in terms of the lasting emotional and psychological harm that it causes. Much greater scrutiny and debate in the UK is needed on the link between poverty, marginalisation, and state intervention in family life. This debate must include the voices of children and parents in chronic and persistent poverty who are disproportionately affected by the UK’s care crisis. However, the voices, experiences, and knowledge of families living in poverty involved in the child protection system are mostly ignored by both policy makers and social work practitioners. Moreover, most of the academic research exploring the links between social inequality and child protection involvement tends to be quantitative and overlooks the knowledge and agency of parents and children involved in the system.

The Terms of reference for the independent review of children’s social care state that “the review should consider the capacity and capability of the system to support and strengthen families in order to prevent children being taken into care unnecessarily”. It is parents like Lareine, with lived experience of poverty, who can help social care professionals understand what kinds of support families need most. In addition to volunteering with ATD Fourth World, Lareine is part of the Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN). This network is led by parent activists who have experience with building peer support and offering parent-to-parent advocacy to struggling parents. Most of the allies in PFAN are social workers who choose to be led by parents in striving to develop more progressive and supportive approaches. Last fall, PFAN carried out research for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory about how parents in poverty are experiencing remote family court hearings during the pandemic. During the aforementioned RHUL symposium on Inequality and Rights, PFAN parent activist Taliah Drayak said:

These parents spent the pandemic trying to jump through hoops to meet the needs of their children, sometimes to impossible heights. Some were required to attend support groups that closed or moved inaccessibly online. Others were meant to complete courses that inexplicably ended without final assessments needed to fulfil their responsibilities, leaving these parents unable to continue taking the steps needed to achieve the best outcome for their families. Families are the building blocks of our communities, of our country; and yet, to be with your child is a privilege we deny many parents in this country. […] We need to ensure that our most vulnerable people, our children AND their families receive the support and care they need to thrive. […] And we must address the many factors the broaden the divide and continue to marginalize and keep people impoverished.

It’s a matter of justice that we owe support and protection to families in poverty, and in particular to ensure that children are able to maintain relationships with loving parents. When children are removed into care, damage is done over decades, not only to parental relationships but often also to their bonds with siblings and other relatives.

Sir James Munby, lately President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales. Speaking during a Royal Holloway University of London Symposium,[13] he said:

It is, unhappily, notorious that the State – I say the State, for local authorities are not provided with financial support sufficient to meet their needs and the needs of the children for whom they are responsible – is failing far too many of the children in its care. These serious failings are the subject of increasing concern and frustration by judges and increasing criticism in the media. I do not shrink from saying [that these] are serious failings by the State, failings which increasingly put into question our right to call ourselves civilised and compassionate.

To become civilised and compassionate, and to remove the barriers to justice currently affecting socially and economically vulnerable families engaged in the UK’s child protection system, we need to bring social work practitioners and academics together with parents like Lareine, Taliah and others with experience in the child protection system in order to co-produce and facilitate the implementation of poverty-aware guidelines for child protection policy and practice.

Thomas Croft and Diana Skelton

ATD Fourth World


[1]     Curtis, P., “The Poor Parents”, Tortoise Media, 27 April 2019.

[2]     “The troubling surge in English children being taken from their parents”, The Economist, 22 March 2018.

[3]     Morris, K., Mason, W., Bywaters, P., Featherstone, B., Daniel, B., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Hooper, J., Mirza, N., Scourfield, J. and Webb, C. (2018) ‘Social work, poverty, and child welfare interventions’, Child & Family Social Work, 23(3), pp.364-372.

[4]     McNicoll, A., “Children in poorest areas more likely to enter care”, Community Care, 28 February 2017.

[5]     ‘Inequality and Rights – Contemporary Challenges in the Child Protection and Family Justice Systems before and during the Pandemic’, held remotely on 16 March 2021.

[6]     Smithson, R., & Gibson, M. (2017). ‘Less than human: A qualitative study into the experience of parents involved in the child protection system.’ Child & Family Social Work, 22(2), 565-574.

[7]     Bilson, A., & Munro, E. H. (2019). ‘Adoption and child protection trends for children aged under five in England: Increasing investigations and hidden separation of children from their parents’. Children and Youth
Services Review, 96, 204-211.

[8]     Featherstone, B., Gupta, A. and Mills, S. (2018) ‘The role of the social worker in adoption – ethics and
human rights: An Enquiry’, BASW

[9]     Department of Education, “Characteristics of children in need: 2018 to 2019 England”, 31 October 2019.

[10]  Bilson, A. “Future emotional harm: the statistics”, The Transparency Project. 

[11]  Gupta, A. (2017). ‘Poverty and child neglect –- the elephant in the room?’ Families, Relationships and Societies, 6(1), 21-36.

[12]  Saar-Heiman, Y., & Gupta, A. (2020). ‘The Poverty-Aware Paradigm for child protection: A critical framework for policy and practice.’ The British Journal of Social Work, 50(4), 1167-1184

[13]  Munby’s speech will be made available on the Royal Holloway website.

Categories
Special Edition Tupua Urlich

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

In this piece, I provide some insight about my invovlement in the New Zealand Care Review as a Care Experienced person. I was asked if I would write about aspects of this experience in order to provide context to the involvement of care experienced people in the English Social Care Review which is taking place.

How did you get involved and were selected for involvement in the Review?

I was 2 years into my journey as advocate for the children and young people in care. I had exposure on mainstream and Maori media. I had given keynote addresses within NZ and Australia. I was approached by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) (independent crown entity) who formed and took care of the Youth Advisory Panel (YAP) during our term and offered a position on the Panel. For other members of the panel OCC approached existing organisations – both NGOs and Government – within the care community.

What did you do as part of the Youth Advisory Panel?

As a member of YAP we had regular meetings with the Minister for Social Development throughout the duration of the review of the system . We had regular meetings and consulted with the secretariat, Dragons Den type stuff – pitch their ideas and we would voice our thoughts around its effectiveness and where applicable recommended adjustments.

What were the blocks?

Personally, the first barrier was trusting that the system actually cared about what we had to say. I can’t stress enough how important it is to build a relationship with care experienced young people before engaging with them.

Another barrier was old dogs not wanting to learn new tricks, the whole attitude of “I’ve been in this space for years, I know what social work is” though it was never said, trust me, we see it.

The long meetings! Often meetings went on far too long, I put this down to the length of our term. I lose the ability to focus after a couple of hours and the ability to contribute at time were affected by this.

Were there any disagreements in the group as to your advice – how were they managed if so?

Group dynamics at times, as you could imagine as a group of eight we didn’t agree on everything however having the support of OCC throughout our journey was fundamental to the success of our term, when things got heated, or we felt uncomfortable, the door was never locked and nobody went unheard.

We had support people available to us whenever we needed them, if we felt uncomfortable with the advice given by a fellow member and/or we didn’t know how to oppose the comments in a respectful manner our support person would advocate for us if we wished.

Did the eight  of you see yourselves as representing all care experienced people in NZ?

No, we saw ourselves as representatives of our own lived experiences in state care. The care community is a collective, we as members of that collective can speak to it.

What did you think of the final Government recommendations?

The recommendations sat well with the group overall, there were areas we wished to see more recommendations specifically in the early intervention and prevention space. We did feel like recommendations would provide a much-needed upgrade to the system.

Did you feel your involvement meaningfully influenced the Government review – if so in what ways? By what means? If not, why not?

In some ways I do.

  • Shortly after our term, the government understood the importance of having the voice of experience at the table with decision makers, the government supported the establishment of national advocacy organisation for both children and young people in care and with care experience.
  • One of the areas of concern we as YAP raised was around the lack of supports available to us at the end of our time in care. Educational, occupational opportunities were being lost due to the huge gaps in legislation. At this time the state relinquished or responsibilities for young people in its care at 17 years of age. The legally required age to sign tenancy agreements and receive adult financial supports was 18. The response was to raise the age the state relinquished its responsibilities to 18 with ongoing supports provided up until 25 years. The care system formed a transition supports team, which is tasked with supporting us through this incredibly important stage of our lives.

In some ways I don’t.

  • One of the point’s raised by YAP was the importance of whanau (family) relationships and the fact that the state had being so focused on avoiding risks that it failed to undertake any meaningful intervention with parents or family in order to address any issues preventing us from receiving adequate care. We were being deprived of relationships that really matter to us. Sibling separation within the care system was a big problem too, not only do you have the state removing young people from their families, you often would have siblings separated who went into care together. Looking at the stats from then (around 3,500 children and young people) to today (nearly 6,000 children and young people in care) it is clear that we have not been heard, effective intervention and prevention is not taking place between the state and the families in need. This has caused a fear of people asking for help, it’s believed if you put your hand up and ask for help, you’ll lose your children.

Tupua Urlich

Youth Advisor, Aotearoa New Zealand