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Social workers accused council of ‘failings’ and ‘bullying’ - but boss hits back

PUBLISHED: 09:07 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 13:00 11 September 2018

Part of the staff grievance centred on how the council took homeless teenagers into care. Picture: bodnarchuk

Part of the staff grievance centred on how the council took homeless teenagers into care. Picture: bodnarchuk

bodnarchuk

Social workers accused the council they work for of “failing” vulnerable children last year, it can be revealed today.

Staff at Carrow House put in a mass grievance against their employer, Norfolk County Council.  Picture: ANTONY KELLYStaff at Carrow House put in a mass grievance against their employer, Norfolk County Council. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

More than 60 staff, out of around 200 working at Carrow House in Norwich, complained in a collective grievance about issues from bullying to the council’s interpretation of the law.

Their union representative called the grievance in September 2017 “unprecedented”.

In April this year the Norfolk County Council staff met about the grievance again and stated it had not been resolved.

But the department’s leadership said today all the concerns had now been addressed.

Director of children's services at Norfolk County Council Sara Tough. Photo: Norfolk County CouncilDirector of children's services at Norfolk County Council Sara Tough. Photo: Norfolk County Council

Director of the children’s services department Sara Tough took over in October, after the grievance had been raised.

She said the concerns were investigated and they came up with 11 recommendations in January which “we agreed we would work on together,” she said.

“We have been doing that methodically throughout the year and in my view they have all been addressed.

“I have no reason to believe that any of the concerns expressed a year ago in the grievance are concerns that staff are expressing now.”

Social workers criticised the way the council was taking young people into care. Photo: Getty ImagesSocial workers criticised the way the council was taking young people into care. Photo: Getty Images

Part of the dispute centred on how Norfolk County Council was using the law to house youngsters.

Children taken into care by councils are housed and looked after under Section 20 of the Children Act.

It means they become a “looked after child” and can get support up to the age of 25.

But staff raised fears that a different part of the Children Act called Section 17 was being used instead.

It would mean teenagers would get little support when they turned 18 and are not officially taken into care.

Last month this newspaper reported on a case where a homeless teenager, who had been raped and kicked out her family home, was offered help under Section 17 - rather than the full support she should have been given under Section 20 by the council.

But Ms Tough said: “There has never been any management direction in relation to not use Section 20.”

There was an increase of 700 children being looked after under Section 17 from August to December last year by the council - a rise of 44pc in four months; that number then fell back again by April this year.

Ms Tough said the rise in Section 17 last year was down to an increase in demand, rather than social workers being told to use it instead of Section 20.

She said the numbers frequently fluctuated and had been falling this year because the council had improved its services when families first contacted them.

The department’s Unison representative, Dave Lambert, said the staff grievance was “unprecedented”.

“A number of our members, including managers, raised concerns with the previous directorate at the end of last summer that they had about being instructed not to comply with their own understanding of the law,” he said.

“Our members at that time believed there were a number of cases where this approach had been adopted but senior management did not agree.

“We were informed that the members were wrong and that senior management had taken legal advice to confirm this, but that legal advice has still not been shared with the members concerned.”

In the grievance, staff also accused the council of making decisions about children’s futures based on “financial considerations” and on “management of statistics for the benefit of Ofsted” rather than for the best interest of the child.

The panels where these decisions are made, they added, were “rife” with “bullying”.

They slammed the council for “not fulfilling” its statutory duty to young people.

Workers also accused the then senior leadership of not considering or respecting the “voice of the child”. Workloads are “excessive and unmanageable” and the department had been restructured without consultation.

The grievance also called for an investigation into the staff concerns about “failings” to young people.

A council officer who investigated said an “urgent review” of the legal interpretation of Section 17 and Section 20 should be carried out.

The department’s director at the time, Matt Dunkley, has since left to join Kent County Council.

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