Child protection proposals spark fears

Industrial action looms as Edinburgh social workers say council plans to shed staff will add to caseload burden

Child protection cases could be left unallocated and the service go into meltdown if proposed cuts in management staffing are implemented, warn front-line social workers in Edinburgh.

Members of Unison have said industrial action is inevitable if staff and their clients are not protected from an increased workload which could put vulnerable families at risk.

Edinburgh City Council's child protection service was heavily criticised by the O'Brien Inquiry following the case of 11-week-old Caleb Ness, who was shaken to death by his brain-damaged father in 2001 after social workers sent him home with his recovering drug-addict mother. That led to a major shake-up of the social work department. The progress made since in reducing caseloads is now in jeopardy, warned Tom Connolly, service conditions officer with Unison.

The council is consulting on plans to restructure support for the children and young people division of the Children and Families department. This would lead to a cut of up to 50 per cent in the number of front-line team leaders responsible for child protection and looked-after children, claims Unison. It would also lead to a reduction in the number of supervisors who have been managing cases not allocated to social workers and are therefore de facto front-line personnel themselves, it adds.

Gillian Tee, director of Children and Families, said: "There are no plans to reduce numbers of social workers, though it is proposed to review management posts in order to increase capacity at the front line.

"Since 2004-05 we have seen an increase of 50 FTE (full-time equivalent) social work staff within the department. Any changes will improve front- line services for vulnerable children. It is important that we get our management structures right to enable this to happen."

Mr Connolly claimed early intervention teams, which work closely with schools through pupil-support groups, are at risk of being either disbanded or attached to school clusters instead of individual schools, thus reducing their effectiveness.

Some members of these teams, such as himself, come from a community education, teaching or nursing background, but could be moved into more front-line emergency roles, he said. This could have a serious impact on the referral route for schools where teachers have concerns about the welfare of a child.

In 2004, when the authority reorganised the social work department into a joint children and families department with education, it set a guideline of no more than 19 children allocated to each social worker. Following the Victoria Climbie inquiry, it promised to reduce that to a maximum of 14.

The current caseload was now well over 20 cases per worker, with the likelihood of that increasing under the council's proposals, said Agnes Petkevicius, Edinburgh branch secretary for Unison.

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