Social workers ‘at limit’ as child care cases hit new record

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SOCIAL workers at cash-strapped councils face “increasing and intolerable pressure” to protect at-risk children, it was warned last night after the annual number of new cases soared beyond the 10,000 mark for the first time.

Local authorities in England began 886 legal proceedings to remove vulnerable young people from their families last month, taking the total since March 2011 to 10,199.

The number of new applications has soared by more than 57 per cent in two years, as councils have responded to a flood of calls since details of the Baby P tragedy and other high-profile cases were made public.

Cafcass, the organisation charged with looking after children’s interests in the family courts, said the figures showed that agencies were working more quickly to remove young people from “deeply damaging households”.

But social workers in Yorkshire say the increased workloads have stretched them to the limit, with cuts in public spending only making the problem worse.

The Yorkshire Post revealed last December that the number of children on the at-risk register in the region had reached “unprecedented levels”, with councils in Leeds and North Yorkshire seeing rises of 157 per cent and 94 per cent respectively since 2009.

Stella Smethurst, of Unison’s North Yorkshire local government branch, said the impact on social workers had been “huge”.

“Social workers are stretched to the absolute limit,” she added, “and the Baby P case has impacted on the potential need for vulnerable young children to be taken into care sooner rather than later.

“But there have also been cuts to public sector spending because of the Government’s policies and that has reduced the numbers of social workers and support staff that are available to support these children within their families.

“These things combined are putting significant extra pressure on members.”

Ms Smethurst said cuts in support for troubled families meant children who previously would have been able to remain with their parents were now having to be removed to ensure their safety.

“At key times during the day, having somebody with them takes pressure off the parents,” she added. “They feel less stressed, and consequently one would hope that the families are calmer and able to create a better environment for these children.

“When that support goes, and the children are removed, the knock-on situation is what happens to them when they are in care and where do they go?”

Sue Kent, of the British Association of Social Workers, said child protection work was “facing a major crisis”.

“Removing a child from their family should always be a last resort, and it is heart-breaking to consider that while families may need support, there is simply not the funding and resources there to give them chance to change,” she added.

“We urge the Government to wake up and help a situation that is of their making. If things don’t improve, they will see a major exodus of social workers leaving the profession, as they are facing increasing and intolerable pressure.”

Reports of child neglect have risen since November 2008, when details emerged of how 17-month-old Baby P, Peter Connelly, died at the hands of his mother Tracey, her violent partner Steven Barker and his brother Jason Owen in Haringey, north London.

High-profile cases in Yorkshire have concerned the Dewsbury schoolgirl Shannon Matthews, who was abducted in a plot arranged by her mother Karen, and two brothers who attacked two younger boys in Edlington, near Doncaster.

Labour MP Caroline Flint, whose Don Valley constituency includes Edlington, said: “I welcome that more children are being rescued earlier from chaos, violence or neglect.

“I hope we now see a corresponding increase in the speed with which these children are found loving, caring, permanent homes. If the lives of these children don’t make a strong case for giving a second chance of a better life, nothing can.

“It’s time the system produced some more happy endings to these children’s sad stories.”