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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
'Phantom' social workers inquiry
Mother and child
Unison says children's needs are not being met
The Department of Health has ordered a full report on a claim that vulnerable children have been assigned to non-existent social workers.

Devon County Council has admitted using false names in documentation when it has not had enough social workers to cover cases.

Unison, the public sector union, is threatening industrial action over "dangerous working practices" in the county.

Staff sickness levels are high and children are not being given adequate protection, the union warns.

The county council has a legal duty to allocate a social worker for children who are considered to be at risk.


We feel that the situation is unsafe, that children and families are being exposed to unacceptable risks

Child protection workers
But earlier this month it admitted having 31 on the child protection register - the highest risk level - who had no named social worker.

In a statement, the council said pseudonyms were not being used in cases involving children who were on the register or registered as "looked after" - the next level down.

But Bernie Crean, of Unison, said: "We are aware of various practices in the county of giving cases fictitious names in order to give the impression that they have been allocated."

The union says cases have been allocated to "Mr Taw" - named after a north Devon river - and "Mr T Child". Neither man exists.

'System abused'

The union says the names were used initially for administrative purposes.

The county's computer system could not process information without a social worker's name being entered in each case.

Unison claims the practice is now being abused, disguising the scale of a staffing crisis.


We do know the number of unallocated child protection cases and there is no intent to disguise or hide this

Devon County Council
It issued a report on staffing pressures last week.

A district manager was quoted saying: "The child care management crisis ... continues to pose significant dangers."

A memo from practice supervisors in May this year said: "We feel that the situation is unsafe, that children and families are being exposed to unacceptable risks."

An Audit Commission report of 1999 on staff pressures said the situation in Devon was unusually severe.

"There is a danger the structure will give way and potential risks that are currently being contained will escalate," it said.

Pressures in system

Devon County Council has admitted using pseudonyms in computer files, in cases overseen by a team manager rather than a named social worker.

A council spokeswoman said: "We do know the number of unallocated child protection cases and there is no intent to disguise or hide this.


All children on the child protection register and all 'looked after' children should be allocated to a social worker

Department of Health
"If a child-protection or looked-after-child case cannot be allocated to a social worker, they they are linked to a named practice supervisor.

"An IT pseudonym is not used in these cases.

"We are aware of where the pressures are in the system and we are addressing these issues through a variety of strategies."

The county's performance is scrutinised by the Social Services Inspectorate, part of the Department of Health.

Mr Crean said that if the county council gave the inspectorate figures showing significant numbers of unallocated children, "they would be down on them like a ton of bricks".

Now the Department of Health says its social services staff in the South West will be "seeking a full report on the position".

'Vulnerable children'

A spokesman told BBC News Online: "All children on the child protection register and all 'looked after' children should be allocated to a social worker, if the local authority is to carry out its statutory duties to very vulnerable children.

"The Social Services Inspectorate has no evidence that false information has been provided to us in the past by Devon.

"Nor do we have evidence of poor child care practice in the authority."

See also:

25 Jun 01 | Business
Stress causes 6.5m sick days
20 Jun 01 | Wales
Social worker 'exodus' reviewed
09 Jan 01 | Scotland
Recruitment crisis hits social work
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