Fears over 'huge variation' in social workers' caseloads

Social workers have warned their ability to help vulnerable children and adults is being harmed by high caseloads. Photo: PA

The organisation representing social workers in the UK has said it is concerned by figures obtained by ITV News Tyne Tees, which show "a huge variation" in the number of cases social workers in our region are having to deal with.

A current social worker in the North East has also told us he feels the pressures on the system here are making it "unsafe" for social workers, and the vulnerable children and adults they are trying to protect - while a council leader has warned that cuts to local authority funding will make it "virtually impossible" to meet demand.

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We have obtained figures from all of the councils in our region, via Freedom of Information requests.

They show that average caseloads being dealt with by children's social workers range from 14.6 in Darlington to 25 in Stockton-on-Tees, which is significantly above the recommended level.

The highest number of cases being juggled by any individual children's social worker is 45, in North Tyneside.

The figures show large variations in social workers' caseloads in different parts of our region.

Average caseloads for adult social workers range between 14 in Middlesbrough, to 75 in Stockton-on-Tees, while one social worker in North Yorkshire is juggling 99 cases.

The figures show even more variation in caseloads for adult social workers in our region.

Reacting to the figures obtained by ITV News Tyne Tees, Ruth Allen - Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers - says she is "concerned" by the "huge variation" in caseloads between different local authorities.

Ruth Allen, Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers, says that varying caseloads raise concerns over how the most vulnerable families can be supported.

There's a huge variation there. There's been some improvements in some of your local authorities but also some deterioration.

One the things that we're concerned about is: why is there such a variation in caseloads, workloads - and why are some areas managing to improve, while others appear not to be able to, even in neighbouring authorities?

Recruitment is a key issue, and some areas find it easier to recruit than others - they're more attractive, and that might be an issue with some of the different authorities in the North East - is whether they can both retain and recruit social workers.

We know that there's been an increase in demand on social work and social care services. The downside of that can be that if everything is being investigated, sometimes your view is not on the most serious and the most worrying cases, and that's one of our concerns. How do we ensure that social workers are able to focus on real areas of risk, the highest areas of risk - and provide support to families?

– Ruth Allen - Chief Executive, British Association of Social Workers

We spoke to an experienced children's social worker, currently working in the North East, who wished to remain anonymous.

This North East social worker told us the pressures currently are as bad as they have ever seen them.

The importance of social work should be to protect families - having a high caseload means you cannot do that.

How an earth you can do effective work with a caseload of 40 to 50 people is beyond belief. It's simply not possible, something's got to give.

I think it's unsafe on everybody involved - I think it's unsafe on the children who are being supported. I think it's unsafe on the worker having to deal with the high caseloads. It's not a safe environment - it's not an environment where effective work can easily be done.

It feels like, to get your job done, you have to compromise and you have to battle against the system. It's impossible to fulfil my statutory duties in a 37-hour week. I'm never able to do everything I'm meant to do.

I see social workers in tears because of the stress, sacrificing their own health and mental wellbeing, because they're doing their best for families.

Every single colleague I know probably works on average 50 hours a week. Something has to give - it's either, you don't get things recorded properly, or you don't get time with the families.

We should have the time to visit families - because a quick visit - how is that bringing about change? We should be spending hours with the family every week to bring about change.

That's what social work used to be like.

– North East social worker

Charity The Junction Foundation works with young people on Teesside. Its chief executive says they are increasingly having to plug gaps left by social services, when it comes to helping vulnerable youngsters.

Lawrence McAnelly, Chief Executive of The Junction Foundation, says they are seeing more young people with very troubled backgrounds.

We are seeing unprecedented demand for services. We've worked with more young people than we ever have done before.

I think one of the other key issues is an increase in the complexity of those cases, in terms of the challenges that young people are facing.

I think we work really well in partnership with the local authority - but I think the big risk for me is that we miss these young people, or they lose out.

We worked with 850 people plus - but what about the ones that are missed? The ones who don't come and knock on the door?

– Lawrence McAnelly - Chief Executive, The Junction Foundation

We contacted a number of local authorities for clarification of their caseload figures.

The only council willing to do an interview was Newcastle City Council.

Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City council, said funding cuts are hitting councils' social service budgets hard.

In Newcastle this year, we're having to lose 30 social work staff. That's going to have an impact on everybody else in the workforce, because inevitably it means that they're workload is going to go up over the next year. Looking forward, the projections are that we'll have to lose even more social care staff to deal with the cuts that we face from central government. I'm really worried that we're going to get to a situation where we'll have so few social workers, and so many people needing support and care, that it will be virtually impossible to meet everybody's needs.

We're doing what we can to be as imaginative with the resources available to us. We're looking at things like the skill mix of the workforce. We're making sure that we protect those services within council budgets as much as is humanly possible. We're looking at partnership working with the NHS and the police to make sure that we try to make sure that people don't get into crisis situations - but there's only so much that we're going to be able to do.

– Cllr Nick Forbes - Leader, Newcastle City Council

The government has responded, saying it has provided funding and is devolving powers to local authorities in the North East, to support vulnerable people.

Supporting those most in need is an absolute priority and we have provided a £3.5billion social care package – compared to the £2.9billion councils said they needed.

It means Newcastle City Council has the freedom to set a social care precept as part of local bills, alongside the £940million funding they will receive over the next four years.

On top of this, the recent Devolution Deal with the North East gives councils in the region far-reaching new powers to integrate health and social care and provide better services for vulnerable people.

– Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman

Yesterday, we featured an exclusive interview with the mother of a teenage girl who killed Angela Wrightson in Hartlepool, who claimed social services failed to act, and could have prevented the murder.

The mother offered an apology to Angela Wrightson's family, in our exclusive interview.

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