Northamptonshire social workers left council because they felt working conditions were unsafe

Social workers have been leaving Northamptonshire County Council children's department in their droves because they felt their working conditions were unsafe.

This is the frank admission of the new acting director of the service Sharon Muldoon who has taken over the failing department, which was this week slammed by Ofsted as poorly run and leaving children at risk of harm.

At the time of the inspection last month, 267 vulnerable children were without an allocated social worker, a situation which had led the commissioners running the county council to ask central government to send in a children’s commissioner to turn the department around.

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Some social workers also have very high caseloads and told Ofsted inspectors when they visited last month that they felt that they were ‘drowning’ in work.Ms Muldoon, who has been at part of the senior management team at the authority for eight years, told the county’s health and wellbeing board yesterday (Nov 15) that part of the reason for such a high turnover of social work professionals is because they felt the safety of the service they could offer was being compromised. She said staff surveys a few months ago had rated the levels of safety at 3s and 4s out of 10. An updated survey last week had increased this to 7s and 8s.

She said: “A lot of staff have left because they felt unsafe and that their workload was unmanageable. They did not feel listened to.

“We absolutely know what we need to do to make sure the service is safe and we are doing that now.

“The inspection while it talked about children in risk, it did not find any cases of children in significant harm. It said there was a medium risk, that we can’t manage the system.”

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The service first went into special measures in 2013. In 2016 it moved up to the requires improvement category but the recent Ofsted has set it back again.

Ms Muldoon said she is confident the failing department can be turned around.

The acting director said: “We did that in 2016 – we came out of inadequate – I know we can do it. Putting back all those things that happened then. Things that worked were undone for reasons I am not going to go into.”

Lesley Hagger, who had been running the service since May 2016, left this May to join another authority. Her replacement Walter McCulloch has gone off on long-term sick in recent weeks.

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A total of 82 of the 172 social workers who joined the county council last year have already left.

Dr David Jones, who is chairman of scrutiny organisation Healthwatch and worked for many years as a social worker, said: “This is the most serious problem for children’s services in my 40 years. There are specific issues in Northamptonshire – we can’t duck those but this is a national problem.

“Why is it this way? Because the number of referrals are going up and resources are going down. The problem is the issues around early help which is being reduced everywhere.

“The problem has to go somewhere – it goes into child protection.”

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Ms Muldoon said the way forward was partly to put resource into early prevention, which was backed by Dawn Cummings of Voluntary Impact who said there had been a lack of investment in children’s centres and Homestart.

The new children’s commissioner is expected to be announced next week. Malcolm Newsam, who was part of the team sent into Rotherham after the child sex abuse scandal, met senior leaders at NCC yesterday.