Lack of social workers 'puts children at risk'

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The Independent Online

Vulnerable children are in "very real danger" of being overlooked by child protection teams because more than 2,000 social work posts are unfilled, leaders of the profession warned yesterday.

The warning from directors of social services was issued ahead of an inquiry, which opens tomorrow, into the death of abused child – the 35th such hearing in less than 30 years.

They said that a chronic shortage of new recruits had left frontline staff with impossible workloads. In some areas, needy families had to be turned away by social work departments because vacancy rates of between 15 to 30 per cent meant they could only help the most troubled families.

Tomorrow, public hearings start into the Climbie case, in which an eight-year-old, named Victoria by her parents but known as Anna by her guardians, was horrifically abused and killed in spite of the involvement of social services, police and health services in north London. The inquiry, to be headed by Lord Laming, is the 35th since the case of Maria Colwell, whose death in 1973 became the first big child abuse scandal in Britain. Other notorious cases include the deaths of Jasmine Beckford, Rikki Neave and Kimberley Carlile.

When Victoria Climbie died in February last year, 128 injuries were found on her body. She had been repeatedly beaten and forced to sleep, bound hand and foot, in a bin liner in an unheated bathroom. Concerns were raised about Victoria's treatment, but social services closed her case just weeks before her death.

Marie Therese Kouao, her aunt, and Carl Manning, Kouao's boyfriend, were jailed for life in January for murdering the girl, who had been sent abroad by her parents in the Ivory Coast for a better life.

Lord Laming, a former chief inspector of social services, will investigate the circumstances surrounding her death and make recommendations to try to prevent further tragedies. More than 230 witnesses are expected to give evidence.

Local authorities are braced for severe criticism when the inquiry reports next year. But yesterday Moira Gibb, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, warned that more children could slip through the net unless the recruitment and retention crisis was tackled.

She said: "We do not have the full quota of skilled and experienced social workers that we so desperately need in order to give every vulnerable child the full protection he or she needs. The net we use in order to catch and support children and families in distress is being stretched far too tightly. There is a very real danger of some of them falling through."

More than 30,000 children in England are on child protection registers because they are considered to be at direct risk of abuse and a further 50,000 have domestic lives which give cause for concern.

But Mrs Gibb said that funding for the child protection system, which was "the envy of many countries" around the world, had not kept pace with the rise in demand.

While health spending had increased by 6.8 per cent in the past couple of years, social services had only received an extra 2.5 per cent from the Government, which meant that many departments had seriously overspent, she said. At the same time, the battered image of social work, where typical salaries are between £18,000 and £24,000, had contributed to a 50 per cent decline in the number of students applying to train for the profession.