Page last updated at 01:23 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 02:23 UK

Social workers on Baby P fallout

By Catherine Miller
BBC Radio 4 The World Tonight

A child at home
Referrals to Luton's child protection team have doubled in the past year

The public identification of Baby Peter's abusers has renewed focus on the role played by social workers, and a wider interest in the job.

Although confidentiality prevents many from talking about their work, the child protection team at one borough council has opened its doors to the BBC. Some details have been changed to protect identities.

The phone does not stop ringing for long at Luton Children's Services.

Every day, between 100 and 200 phone calls, emails, letters and faxes pour in, raising concerns about the safety of children in the borough, just north of London.

Duty social worker Carole Ayles is still trying to catch up on the cases which came in overnight, when the phone goes again.

"It's a lady who's rung in because she's a victim of domestic violence," she explains.

"The police have attended repeatedly and said if they had to come back and intervene again, they would consider removing the child under police protection powers."

If I went out and visited a family and spent one hour with them, it would take a day and a half to write that up
Carole Ayles, social worker

Carole and her colleagues check the woman's story against police reports, and make sure she has somewhere safe to stay, all the time counselling her against returning to her abusive partner.

But even though the police have been called several times, social services cannot always take action.

"We have so many of that kind of case in Luton and only limited resources. It's a constant balancing act between what the child is going through, and the evidence of harm to the child against the resources available," she says.

That balancing act has become even harder recently.

Referrals have doubled in the past year, partly as a consequence of the publicity surrounding the Baby Peter case.

'Public vilification'

The increase is welcomed as a sign that members of the public and other professionals are now more alert to child protection issues.

But so far the team has only gained one extra administrative assistant to help deal with the new workload.

The abuse of Baby Peter has also led to greater scrutiny of social workers. That means a mountain of paperwork accompanies each case.

"If I went out and visited a family and spent one hour with them, it would take a day and a half to write that up," says Carole as she demonstrates the cumbersome computer system which all local authorities have to use.

Baby Peter
Child protection recruitment is acute after the Baby Peter case

"We get documents [to fill in] designed by people so far removed from hands-on work," she adds.

"I'm not saying we don't need to justify what we do and have safeguards, but if we're placing a child in an emergency we have five documents of 30 pages, it's impossible".

Social workers now spend around 80% of their time in front of computers.

But Sancha Thomas, who handles a caseload of 10 families, tries to make sure she visits the children at most risk on a regular basis.

When she checks on a family where she is concerned the children are being neglected, she finds the mother has made little progress since the previous week.

There is rubbish stacked up outside the house, and inside, flies congregate in the living room and kitchen.

Sancha tries to encourage the mother to take action by warning it could jeopardise her hopes of being re-housed if she continues to avoid the problem.

"I find saying 'You must, you must' sometimes can have a negative effect. Then they can have their back up to you and not take on any advice and it may make the situation worse," she explains.

When you say you're from social services, people do have a bit of a look on their faces
Sancha Thomas
Social worker

Change is painfully slow. It took three months to build a relationship where the mother would trust her.

But there have been some small but noticeable successes. The children's school attendance has improved and the mother is less aggressive.

Sancha says since the Baby Peter case it has become even harder to overcome people's negative perceptions.

"When you say you're from social services, people do have a bit of a look on their faces," she says

"They are only seeing social workers when something goes wrong, they don't see the happy endings. Yes, we face challenges, but we're not all bad."

Despite what many in the department describe as their public vilification, people in Luton are proud of their work and morale is high.

'Serious strain'

Compared to some other areas, the rate of vacancies is relatively low - only around one in 10 of the jobs is not filled.

But there are concerns some of the reforms which have been recommended as a result of the Baby Peter case could put serious strain on the department.

"One recommendation is that all referrals should have an initial assessment where the child is seen. That has enormous implications," says Richard Fountain, the manager responsible for child protection.

In practice, it meant each of the daily phone calls would require a social worker to hold a face-to-face meeting - and a day-and-a-half to do the associated paperwork.

The department would need to double its frontline staff to cope. It is not a realistic prospect, both financially and due to a national shortage of social workers.

Following the death of Baby Peter, recruitment to child protection has become even more acute as social workers fear the risks involved and the public's venom.

But despite the pressures of the job, many of the social workers in Luton remain committed to what, for most, is a vocation.

"There are days when you think, 'What am I doing?', when your views are over-ridden by process and procedure," says Sancha Thomas.

"But it's what I've always wanted to do and when you see a picture of one of your children thriving in foster care, it's worth it."

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