How disappointing it is to hear how Haringey Children’s Services is solving its recruitment problems (“Baby P borough takes on social workers from North America”, The Guardian 2 October 2009). There is nothing new about recruiting child protection social workers from abroad, but in the wake of the Baby Peter tragedy and the subsequent inspectors’ report (which criticised Haringey for over-reliance on temporary staff) it is particularly sad that dependence on workers with little or no experience of working in the British context continues to play an important role. Inevitably most Americans and Canadians will regard their sojourn to the UK as a temporary assignment.
Formal social work training is, of course, important. But it is equally important that people who have responsibility for intervening in family life have a sound grounding in the relevant law and understand the respective responsibilities of agencies. Hopefully social workers from abroad receive some briefing on the Children Act 1989, but to educate them in how our courts work and the roles of police, CPS, GALs, expert witnesses etc etc. is a tall order; not to mention the Public Law Outline!
Recruiting temporary workers, especially from overseas, is no solution to the types of problems which resulted in the deaths of Baby Peter and Victoria Climbie. Safe child protection services require a stable, long-term workforce of people who are committed to learn and grow in their jobs. The tabloid press, with whom I mostly disagree, are entirely right when they say that we need people with experience to intervene in families; in my view not "street-wise grannies" but professional social workers who have amassed years of experience.
The Social Work Task Force has come up with some ideas of variable quality about recruitment and retention. But the real issue is how to create jobs in which people will stay. Retention is just as important as recruitment, and it is not just a matter of pay and job titles and image. Crucially people must have the conditions in which they can work enthusiastically and creatively. And they must feel safe.
It's time to abandon the "quick fix" mentality. A good test of any new policy initiatives in this area would be if those of us who left the profession began to think we might want to return. With that in mind I will watch the work of The Social Work Task Force with interest, but sadly with not much hope.