Special investigation: How ‘unmanageable’ caseloads hampered Norfolk’s children’s services social workers

Norfolk County Council's County Hall in Martineau Lane, Norwich. Norfolk County Council's County Hall in Martineau Lane, Norwich.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013
6:00 AM

Workloads in Norfolk’s troubled children’s services have been “unmanageable” for some time, according to union leaders who say council cuts have contributed to the problems which have plagued the department.

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Focus on Norfolk County Council

Over the course of this week, the EDP is looking at four key county council issues – the incinerator, children’s services, the former RAF Coltishall and the Norwich Northern Distributor Road.

We will look at the past, the present and the future.

We have showed how an 11th hour change of mind altered the course of the King’s Lynn incinerator saga and how social workers have been struggling to cope with “unmanageable” caseloads in children’s services.

Still to come is whether the council was right to buy RAF Coltishall and how almost £14m has been spent on the Norwich Northern Distributor Road, before planning permission has been secured.

More than any other department at Norfolk County Council, it is in children’s services where actions – or lack of them – can be the difference between life and death.

Yet inspectors from Ofsted, earlier this year, unearthed a string of concerns about the department, including the way it looks after vulnerable children, child protection and the support it gives to schools.

It also recently emerged that 998 of children in need had not been fully assessed and allocated social workers, although the authority has since got on top of that issue.

Union leaders have blamed the problems partly on the excessive, “unmanageable” workloads social workers have had to juggle, caused by council cuts over the past three years.

And they have warned the next wave of £189m of cuts could be paving the way for similar problems in the council’s adult social services department.

Given the number of departures from children’s services, it is a department in transition. Sheila Lock has come in as interim director following the departure of her predecessor Lisa Christensen. Her exit came after sustained pressure from the county’s MPs following the Ofsted inspections.

The council’s answer to the problems in the department has been, put bluntly, to throw money at it, with £16.5m invested to “ensure we have the resources needed to support frontline social work and strengthen the work to challenge and support schools to improve”.

In August, the council’s cabinet committed to £2.7m of immediate one-off investment to employ agency social workers to begin work to reduce caseloads.

Some £2.3m of revenue funding was also agreed to recruit permanent social workers – to pick up the work of the agency staff.

Eighteen permanent social workers joined the department between April and November this year, while a dozen left over the same period.

Twenty more have been appointed and will soon start work, while 21.6 vacancies are currently being covered by agency staff. A further 9.5 agency workers are covering maternity leave and long-term sickness.

In October, the council launched a campaign to recruit at least 50 more social workers.

The goal is for social workers to work earlier with families to stop children ending up in care.

But how did the department get in this state? A look back at the Big Conversation, which the county council carried out three years ago in order to make £140m of cuts, goes some way to explaining it, according to Unison.

The scale and capacity of family support services was reduced to save £4.2m, the youth service was axed completely and the number of social workers dropped from 249 full-time equivalents from March 2010 to 216.73 full-time equivalents as of November this year.

Jonathan Dunning, branch secretary for Unison at Norfolk County Council, said: “Our view is that the proposals the previous administration implemented hit services which did a lot of preventative work.

“They said they were not cutting anything which impacted on safeguarding, but by reducing the preventative services, that led to a lot of people sliding down the slope, which led to the circumstances of them needing care.

“The concern now is that the present administration is going down a similar route in adult social services and has not learned the lessons of the past.”

The current average workload is 25.1 cases for each social worker and the council’s target is to bring that down to 18. The council says it has not kept data showing workloads in 2010, before the Big Conversation cuts happened.

But Mr Dunning said: “For quite some time the workloads of frontline staff have been excessive. I have spoken to a steward in children’s services who says they have been unmanageable for a long time.

“There has also been a reduction in the administrative support, so you have social workers having to enter details into the Carefirst database system.

“The Unison view is that staff have been under increasing pressure and, inevitably, in dealing with that, paperwork has taken a back seat. The director’s view is that it has created significant problems and we wouldn’t disagree with that, but the point is that you need that administrative support.”

But Mr Dunning said his stewards were of the view that things were moving in the right direction, following the appointment of Ms Lock.

However, he refused to blame Ms Lock’s predecessor, Ms Christensen, for the problems and attacked the MPs who agitated for her removal.

He said: “My view is that it is wrong to point the finger at any individual. The way she went, however, was disgraceful, with MPs uniting to speak out against her without knowing the details. They should have been standing up to get the council more money.”

With 1,144 looked-after children in the county as of mid-November, costing an average of £46,300 a year per child, the department has already gone over budget for this year by almost £900k, due partly to a higher number of looked-after children than had been budgeted for.

Council leader George Nobbs said his administration had taken action to change the direction of the department, describing the appointment of Ms Lock as “an essential key element”, along with the appointment of two cabinet members to specifically deal with schools and safeguarding. He said: “I was determined to make a break with the disastrous past in terms of children’s services and send a signal that this would be our number one priority as an administration. Changes were made in the direction of the department as soon as was humanly possible.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he had been “impressed” by Ms Lock and her willingness to face up to the issues. “That has been quite refreshing,” he said.

WHAT’S BEEN DONE SO FAR TO IMPROVE CHILD PROTECTION SERVICES?

In rating Norfolk County Council as inadequate for child protection services, Ofsted inspectors called for a string of improvements.

The EDP asked the council to explain what it has done to address issues raised in the Ofsted report:

The help that children receive when their families begin to experience problems is too patchy. A common frustration parents had was the lack of recognition of problems by agencies when they first came up, particularly schools. The council needs to sort this out within six months.

Council response: We are developing a pilot scheme with schools to place social workers directly within clusters of schools to support families earlier and to help give school staff the knowledge and skills they need to help identify families’ needs.

It is important, as part of the focus on early help, that this support for families is available at the earliest opportunity. We are in the process of re-evaluating our Early Years offer and strengthening our family support service so we can strengthen the response to families.

Part of this involves working with our partner agencies to ensure there is support from health, housing and other services that can help to prevent them reaching crisis point.

Once concerns about children have been identified, too often there are significant delays in them getting the support, help and protection that they need because social workers often have too much to do. The council needs to sort this out within three months.

Council response: We are improving the operation of the multi-agency safeguarding hub to ensure a quicker response. The appointment of additional social workers has also meant that needs can be met earlier. Alongside the additional interim leadership capacity, we are looking at making the journey of the child much more simple, removing some of the bureaucracy so that children can get help much more quickly and we can reduce the numbers of children coming into care. This work is really important because it links to our early help offer and our aspiration is to try to keep as many children as we can with their own families, as opposed to them coming into the child protection and safeguarding systems.

Assessments by social workers of risks to children are influenced by managers who want them done quickly, but this often means that they don’t properly consider their needs. During these assessments children are not always seen and their views and the views of their parents are not always taken into account. Assessments are therefore completed without all of the information needed. The council needs to sort this out immediately.

Council response: This goes back to our focus on getting the basics right. It is imperative that children and parents are seen and spoken to and their views are considered in planning for their care. Cases are being routinely and robustly audited to make sure that this is happening.

We have developed a new training and development plan focused on mentoring, support and supervision to help decision makers to manage their staff more effectively.

We have also streamlined our electronic social care record system to make sure that the right information is recorded and used when making decisions.

■ Risks to children are not always well recognised then written down properly by social workers’ managers and as a result some children do not get the help and protection they need. The council needs to sort this out immediately.

Council response: As above

Too many cases were seen by inspectors where children in need of social work support did not have a social worker who could help them, or where children had too many changes of social worker and could not get to know them well. The council needs to sort this out within three months.

Council response: We are confident we are well on the way to tackling this. We have brought in social workers on a temporary basis whilst we work to recruit permanent staff. Their first job has been to look at any unallocated cases to ensure that any cases that need action are identified and social workers are allocated.

The additional capacity will help to address this and we are also ensuring that our social workers have the technology to allow more mobile working so that they can spend more time with children and their families.

INSPIRATION?

If Norfolk needs inspiration that children’s services can be turned around, it need look no further than Lambeth Council.

In 2005 Ofsted placed the South London borough council’s children’s social services on special measures after a series of damning inspections.

Yet despite that troubled record and its status as an inner-city borough with some deep-seated social problems, Lambeth last year became the only council in England to be graded “outstanding” by watchdogs for safeguarding, looked after children, adoption and fostering services.

Ian Lewis, interim divisional director for children’s social care, said the reason for the turnaround was not because of anything ground-breaking: “We concentrated on doing the right things as well as we could and on knowing our services well.”

Caseloads for social workers were reduced, through a focus on early intervention – a lesson Norfolk County Council seems to have taken on board, given the drive to recruit more social workers.

Mr Lewis said other key approaches included genuine engagement with service users; councillors taking on board their role as champions of young people and children; talking to and listening to staff; a strong, visible management team prepared to be challenged by staff and each other; good partnerships with other agencies and good preparation to give social workers confidence.

Tomorrow: The council’s decision to spend £4m on former RAF Coltishall – bargain buy or peculiar purchase?

14 comments

  • Whilst this report article does highlight significant shortcomings by Norfolk Childrens Services there is another aspect to the statistics. Given that every child has 2 parents there are over 2200 people in the County who, for one reason or another, are incapable of giving adequate and safe care to their offspring. Add to this the growing number of children on the 'at risk' register and the number is considerably higher.

    Report this comment

    bumble7

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • So how do we address Ms Sheila Lock now? Is she to be Ms Sheila Limited or would she like us to hyphenate the name and be known as Ms Sheila Lock-Limited? Do these people not stop to think that if everyone formed themselves into a company (which is regrettably tax avoidance not evasion, that rule needs to change) then public services would have no funds at all to serve the public because the government would receive no tax income. The people who have formed themselves into companies to perform their tasks in the public services would have no job at all. I rather like that aspect but it would also mean we would have no safety net or education for children at all.

    Report this comment

    alecto

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • Senior management costs I understand are around the 340k mark since the change of regime. It it unclear if this takes account of the "moving on" of figures in the previous regime, although I suspect it does not. I am led to believe that other interim assistant director's are also paid as companies. As for the use of locums, children's services have relied on temps to prop up teams for at least the past five years. In East Norfolk, the number of locum Social Workers outnumbers permanent staff. I understand that a new social work agency has been set up in the county (run by a former team manager) to take advantage of the situation. Locums are only a short term solution, which can cause problems. They cause friction with permanent staff, who resent the high salaries that locums and their agencies demand. They also led to children having too many changes of Social Worker as locums, in the majority of cases are in post between six months and a year. The use of locums is very expensive when compared to permanent staff. As for caseloads themselves a figure of 25 cases is not sustainable for even the most skilled and experienced of Social Workers. Mistakes will be made, risks will be taken. Managers will of course be preasure on staff to perform the impossible. The result, burn out, sickness absence, disciplinary action and capability hearings are very common under NCC's children's services regime. Look forward to more stories on the progress of one of the worst children's services department's in England.

    Report this comment

    Little fish

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • In 2011 NCC made major cuts to children's services including the youth service and full time Social Workers in looked after children. These cuts would have no impact on safeguarding according to the ex director.Of course she was wrong. Cuts, poor management and under capacity caught up with NCC two years later. So where are we in respect of progress..Large numbers of locums are being employed, the figure is actually nearer 50. Some of these locums have been with NCC since 2008. I know of one individual in the North East of the County who has cost 70k per year for the period doing a Social Workers job. Then there is Sheila Locke herself and her team of managers. I understand that Sheila and others are paid as companies not individuals thus avoiding paying income tax at the higher rate. If true this is very damaging for the department and Councilor James Joyce. As for caseloads, they remain high. There are Social Workers with caseloads of fifty and a significant number with over 40. The capacity issues of such caseloads place children at risk. NCC want to reduce costs by reducing LAC numbers by sending teenagers home to family members. This is both very risky and leads NCC open to problems when things go wrong. Longer term budget cuts risk a return to exactly the the same capacity issues that led to this years mauling by inspectors. Children's Services has a very long way to go.

    Report this comment

    Little fish

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • Whilst this report article does highlight significant shortcomings by Norfolk Childrens Services there is another aspect to the statistics. Given that every child has 2 parents there are over 2200 people in the County who, for one reason or another, are incapable of giving adequate and safe care to their offspring. Add to this the growing number of children on the 'at risk' register and the number is considerably higher.

    Report this comment

    bumble7

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • As in the case of our schools the question the EDP should have been asking is how much per head is the average spend in other counties and whether the underfunding of Norfolk as a rural county is partly responsible for the shortcomings in social services.It must take longer , one assumes for a social worker to travel to visit children in a rural area than in an inner city. Of course we as council tax payers should be asking whether our council tax is being spent on the right things, whether other councils engage in capital spends like Coltishall airfield for instance

    Report this comment

    Daisy Roots

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • In 2011 NCC made major cuts to children's services including the youth service and full time Social Workers in looked after children. These cuts would have no impact on safeguarding according to the ex director.Of course she was wrong. Cuts, poor management and under capacity caught up with NCC two years later. So where are we in respect of progress..Large numbers of locums are being employed, the figure is actually nearer 50. Some of these locums have been with NCC since 2008. I know of one individual in the North East of the County who has cost 70k per year for the period doing a Social Workers job. Then there is Sheila Locke herself and her team of managers. I understand that Sheila and others are paid as companies not individuals thus avoiding paying income tax at the higher rate. If true this is very damaging for the department and Councilor James Joyce. As for caseloads, they remain high. There are Social Workers with caseloads of fifty and a significant number with over 40. The capacity issues of such caseloads place children at risk. NCC want to reduce costs by reducing LAC numbers by sending teenagers home to family members. This is both very risky and leads NCC open to problems when things go wrong. Longer term budget cuts risk a return to exactly the the same capacity issues that led to this years mauling by inspectors. Children's Services has a very long way to go.

    Report this comment

    Little fish

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • Agree with Nemesis. How come we have not heard from either Thomas or Garrod and how come they are both still involved with aspects of children's services.

    Report this comment

    theanchovy

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • ....."With 1,144 looked-after children in the county as of mid-November, costing an average of £46,300 a year per child, the department has already gone over budget for this year by almost £900k"......it's the £46,300 I don't understand, do they eat caviar?

    Report this comment

    Rhombus

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • I have had a recent insight into the reality of social work "at the coal face" in Norfolk and the case loads these people are being asked to manage is ridiculous. There are people working late into the evenings and on Saturdays in their own time, unpaid just to complete paperwork because they dont get overtime and the word I hear most is 'burn-out'. The reduction in social workers means more and more pressure and casework is being cascaded down onto unqualified staff, who are not case accountable. NCC has basically dug a deep hole in its ability to cope with the provision of care and safeguarding of our regions most vulnerable people simply to save money. 3 years down the line its all gone 'pear shaped' and those savings are now being blown on very expensive agency staff to patch up that hole whilst they re-recruit all the people they made redundant 3 years ago. You just couldn't make it up .... its lunacy of the highest order that shows the senior managers at the council have no over-arching strategy. They are too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to satisfy the latest set of targets set by the administration of the day. High level decisions are being made by accountants and business managers who have absolutely no idea of the very real consequences, so long as the balance sheet looks ok, their part is done. As Malcolm Tucker would say ... Norfolk Social Services is an Omnishambles

    Report this comment

    Lucioperca

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • Lucioperca has got it exactly right with her assessment of the situation at NCC. I worked in adult care as a social worker for over 7 years until recently and had several social work friends who wereare working in Children's Services. I was going to write a longer comment but Lucioperca has said it all already - I love my job as a social worker but the workloads are unmanagable and therefore unsafe, teams are grossly understaffed, decissions about social work are made by accountants and management consultants who know nothing of NCCs legal duties and responsabilities and are only interested in impossible targets set by the latest bunch of clowns working in the DoH. Oh yes, must not forget to mention the ongoing pay-freeze, re-applying for your own jobs every two years and job cuts, attacks on pensions, huge reductions in administrative staff. It's also true that Adult Care manages who were recently re-interviewed for their own jobs and deemed incompetent and therefroe realesed - are now re-employed in Children's Services! It is a miracle that there haven't been more deaths of vulnarable people in both Adult and Children's Services.

    Report this comment

    Palmo

    Monday, December 23, 2013

  • I have had a recent insight into the reality of social work "at the coal face" in Norfolk and the case loads these people are being asked to manage is ridiculous. There are people working late into the evenings and on Saturdays in their own time, unpaid just to complete paperwork because they dont get overtime and the word I hear most is 'burn-out'. The reduction in social workers means more and more pressure and casework is being cascaded down onto unqualified staff, who are not case accountable. NCC has basically dug a deep hole in its ability to cope with the provision of care and safeguarding of our regions most vulnerable people simply to save money. 3 years down the line its all gone 'pear shaped' and those savings are now being blown on very expensive agency staff to patch up that hole whilst they re-recruit all the people they made redundant 3 years ago. You just couldn't make it up .... its lunacy of the highest order that shows the senior managers at the council have no over-arching strategy. They are too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to satisfy the latest set of targets set by the administration of the day. High level decisions are being made by accountants and business managers who have absolutely no idea of the very real consequences, so long as the balance sheet looks ok, their part is done. As Malcolm Tucker would say ... Norfolk Social Services is an Omnishambles

    Report this comment

    Lucioperca

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • What a pity that Dan Grimmer did not ask Cllrs Alison Thomas and Tom Garrod how they feel now about the disaster over which they presided for so long.

    Report this comment

    Nemesis

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

  • No, not really. Norfolk isn't an inner city. Norwich isn't really either. It does have pockets of deprivation in places like Thetford and so on but even those aren't anything like the big areas of deprivation in cities. The spend per head isn't really relevant because there aren't the same problems. Norfolk should be a good place to work as a Social Worker, but the management was and has been useless moving to dangerously incompetent. If you were a SW, would you rather work here or in Moss Side ? Many of the SWs are pretty good IME. But the paperwork and management is awful ; I once 'helped' a SW fill in her forms, it took the two of us hours, endless repetition and dozy questions to protect management in case of another Climbie (we had our own of course). She would have done an excellent job if the system allowed her to. I'm not surprised they are overworked. It's impossible, I think, to do the claptrap that the management requires *and* do the work with those who need it as well, without digging yourself an early grave. This is why in the past Norfolk SSD have been advertising in Holland and Canada to get bodies in. It's a problem in many SSDs, of course, but in Norfolk it's wildly excessive. I'd like to know if Christensen, who should have been sacked ages ago IMO, was fired or paid off with our money, as her predecessors have been. The rumour mill (not always accurate) tells me one former senior head went mad, in the literal sense of mad, and was quietly paid off and it was hushed up.

    Report this comment

    Paul

    Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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