New social work model brings hope

Antoine and Kenniece Ogunkoya Antoine Ogunkoya was beaten to death and his sister Kenniece was suffocated

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Three years ago, the inner London borough of Hackney undertook a radical reform of child protection.

Like its neighbour Haringey, Hackney had been strongly criticised over failures to prevent child deaths and abuse.

After Vivian Gamor, a mentally ill woman, had murdered her two young children, Antoine and Kenniece, in 2007, the Evening Standard newspaper wrote of a "failure of simple common sense" and doubted the ability of social workers to prevent such apppalling cases in future.

But even as the article was being published, children's services were being rebuilt.

Instead of the usual hierarchy, with front-line social workers at the bottom, Hackney created a system of small units, each headed by a consultant social worker.

These consultants are key. They are highly experienced, able, well-trained and paid more than £40,000 a year.

The units include therapists, clinical practitioners, and co-ordinators.

All work closely together on cases, with the consultant taking responsibility, usually handling between 30 and 40 cases in all.

CASE STUDY

Dean Lawrence, 34, consultant social worker in Hackney

Dean surprised a lot of people when he returned to the front line six months ago, leaving behind a cosy managerial position. But, he says, it was a risk worth taking.

He still has a managerial pay grade, at +£40,000, but is now getting out meeting families and doing the work he trained to do.

He manages five people who share caseloads, meaning there is more depth and reflection when faced with dilemmas.

In practice when dealing with a family of six children, one person works with the younger ones and another with the older ones. If one is on leave, there's always another team member to take a phone call. His team also has a family therapist.

The downsides remain the sheer amount of paperwork, but Dean insists it is diminishing.

Having worked in the Hackney model, Dean says he would never again want to work in a traditional social work model.

Many social workers have complained in recent years that too much time is taken up with filling in forms, so they have less time to visit families.

In Hackney, unit co-ordinators look after administration.

"Social workers don't do data entry," says Isabelle Trowler, assistant director of children's social care and one of the architects of the change.

The reform meant changing staff. About 100 people have left and more than 100 new staff have joined.

At first, it was hard to find the key consultant social workers, so many were recruited abroad.

But the new system has proved stable. Three years ago between 40% and 50% of posts were filled by temporary agency staff; now Hackney says that has dropped to 8%.

And the new system does appear to be achieving its aim of keeping more children safe in their families.

The number of "cared for" children in the borough has dropped by a third, at a time when across London the number of applications to take children into care has risen.

An interim evaluation of the project last year by the London School of Economics was broadly positive.

It found the units had a more positive culture, a better balance between meeting performance targets and direct work with families and a high level of critical reflection.

This is important given the reviews into the deaths of both Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly (Baby P) which found their social workers had made poor judgements about their families, and had not been encouraged to challenge them.

The final evaluation is due later this year and has been supervised by Professor Eileen Munro, now heading the government's review of Child Protection in England.

At the outset, there was some criticism in the letters pages of industry journal Community Care, with correspondents doubting the new model could work without significant extra funding.

But, according to Hackney, the money saved by keeping children in their families has paid for the restructuring.

Many other local authorities have visited the borough to have a look at their model, but so far none has adopted it.

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