Care of at-risk children 'faces staff crisis'

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The Independent Online
A SHORTAGE of frontline social workers is threatening the care of child-abuse victims, according to the public services union, Unison.

It claims a recent survey saying that vacancies have fallen among field social workers - the current 25,500 frontline workers dealing with children and adults - ignores its finding that staff numbers in England and Wales went down by nearly 1,200 last year. The union estimates that 5,000 jobs have disappeared since 1991, or are now vacant.

'There's a lot of problems in urban areas,' John Findlay, Unison's national officer for social services, said. 'There are children who are on the at-risk register and do not have an allocated social worker. This is a scandalous state of affairs.'

But the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Local Government Management Board dispute this. Their annual workforce survey says that vacancies for field social workers fell from 9.1 per cent to 8.1 per cent last year. Recruitment of newly qualified social workers has risen slightly from 3.4 to 4 per cent, reversing a downward trend since 1987-88.

However, vacancies among field social workers are still double those of other professional jobs in local government such as lawyers (3.8 per cent), careers officers (3.6 per cent) and planning officers (3 per cent).

Other areas of social work face similar problems. Catherine Briscoe, director of social services for Wirral Metropolitan Council, said that jobs in child protection and residential homes were difficult to fill. Wirral has 148 full-time equivalent field staff, with six posts filled by temporary staff and five which will not be filled until after the budget is agreed in March.

'A few years ago we offered bursaries to those in college to pay their fees for them to come and work for us afterwards,' she said, but added that they had not needed to do so in the last two years. 'New child protection workers are offered two years' training and given a limited case load to begin with.

Residential care is more difficult - it's a problem to release staff for training. We have a lot of difficulty obtaining staff and keeping them.'

A Social Services Inspectorate study in 1993 said 3.2 per cent of all children on registers were known not to have an allocated social worker - without whom a child protection plan is impossible. Of 21 authorities questioned outside London, five had more than 10 per cent of child protection cases unallocated. The two highest, Hereford and Worcester and Sheffield, had nearly one in five cases unallocated.

But Laurie Gregory, director of social services for Hereford and Worcester, said they were victims of their own success: 'We have done very successful investigative work into unearthing a great deal of child abuse. We've overwhelmed ourselves with so many cases.'

Ian White, director of social services for Oxfordshire County Council, said the reason for the fall in vacancies was mainly economic - lack of mobility caused by the recession and financial pressure on local authorities. 'But, also, social workers have a lot more opportunity for diversity in caring - child protection, care management, working with the elderly. There's a feeling that people are staying in jobs longer and developing professional expertise,' he added.

He admitted low turnover was partly due to posts being frozen by local authority financial problems. 'But I wouldn't agree with Unison that it is all bleak. Posts are being created on the back of community care such as care managers. It's a mixed picture.'

Robin SeQueira, director of social services for Dorset, said that vacancies would not continue to fall: 'In the long term the situation remains critical -the job itself is extremely onerous, stressful and very demanding. Dorset has increased the salaries of those in child care to attract people and as an incentive to keep them in their jobs.'