Social work shake-up focuses on child abuse

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A shake-up is planned in standards among social workers in an attempt to reduce the risk of child-abuse tragedies. The Government announced yesterday that a White Paper describing its proposals will be published within weeks.

The Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, said he wanted social workers to refocus their efforts, concentrating on potential trouble spots in high-risk families.

Mr Dorrell has been prompted to act by recent well-publicised cases highlighting failures by social workers. He believes that warning signs of potential trouble in families should be vigorously followed up and better understood.

"In good children's services, there isn't a problem, but we need to ensure that services respond quickly and effectively," Mr Dorrell said yesterday.

"We need to make certain they are run according to a proper order of priorities and a clear sense of what is important."

He added: "These social workers have some of the most difficult jobs to do and we must acknowledge that and also ensure that they are part of this big social service that is a much more substantial commitment than it was a quarter of a century ago.

"It's a question of recognising the signs and responding effectively and quickly, but not becoming a prisoner of political correctness."

The White Paper, to be published in February, follows several child-abuse scandals, including and those uncovered by The Independent at children's homes in north Wales and the recent case of Rikki Neave who was ill-treated by his mother and found killed near his home. A separate report into the way social workers looked after him is due to be published next week.

In June, the Government announced a judicial inquiry into the scandal of the homes in Clwyd, where more than 100 children were abused. At least 12 former residents have died in circumstances related to their experiences.

Children as young as six were abandoned to the care of paedophiles, and were too afraid to talk of their experiences for years, while those who turned to the authorities were often ignored.

Public confidence in social services has diminished because of repeated failures to prevent similar tragedies.

Social workers have also been accused of unnecessary interventions into family life while failing to prevent real abuses.

The service nationally costs pounds 9bn a year to run - 10 times more in real terms than 25 years ago and more than all National Health Service family care.

Mr Dorrell said that it was necessary to focus on departments that were not delivering standards that the public was entitled to expect.

"The purpose of the White Paper will be to turn the spotlight on the value for money we get for that huge commitment to social care," he added.

Last month, Mr Dorrell confirmed that ministers were also considering ways in which social workers could be employed by charities and companies instead of local authorities as at present.

Proposals that would map out a future for local authorities as enablers and commissioners of services are also thought to be included in the White Paper.

t A Green Paper also due out in the next few weeks will explore ways of providing better care for the mentally ill, through improved links between health and social services departments.