These days, high profile reports of child care tragedies, rising numbers of children being taken into care and social workers struggling with high caseloads are commonplace. Stories of positive developments in children and family services are rare. However, a chance meeting whilst on holiday led to a remarkable discovery: the caseloads of child welfare social workers in the Canadian province of New Brunswick now stand at an incredible seven.
As caseloads of seven are unheard of in the UK, how did this miracle come about?
The story began with mounting concerns on the part of the New Brunswick authorities regarding a steady increase in the numbers of children being taken into care. Following expert advice, the Family Group Conference (FGC) was introduced soon after 2006, with the twin objectives of reducing numbers in care and improving child welfare services. By way of brief background, the FGC was developed from Maori culture and since the 1980s, has developed an international profile and modest research base. It helps families facing problems and provides a decision-making forum for whole families, communities and statutory services to collaborate to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. The process typically involves a preparatory meeting. A follow-on meeting includes information giving by professionals to families and vice versa, and then a private family time when a family plan is devised. Families and professionals come together at the end to agree the plan, provided it supports the child’s welfare.
So, how did the FGC fare in New Brunswick and did it meet its intended objectives?
In respect of children in care, within the first year of introduction, numbers had decreased by almost 20 per cent. This promising start has been followed by further reductions in ensuing years. Regarding hope for better child welfare services, the model has empowered families to participate in finding solutions to their problems, tailored to their individual cultural needs. It has helped improve family relationships and enabled families to disclose and face otherwise unmentionable secrets. As children are arguably safer, the process has reportedly reduced the need for court intervention and thus also the impact of trauma, shame and stigma for many families. Since 2008, the right to the FGC has been enshrined in law. This means child welfare departments are now obliged to offer the service.
Thus, in terms of primary objectives, the FGC has been a stunning success, but what has been the impact on the workloads of child welfare social workers?
Reductions in care statistics made ‘great dollar savings’. Significantly, the Department of Social Development, the main employer of child welfare social workers in the province, is not combined with health or education as in the UK and is in charge of its own budget. Savings made were ploughed back into the FGC service and used to employ more social workers who were consequently able to work more intensively with fewer families. Increased input has led to further reductions of children in care, yet more dollars spared, yet more social workers and even smaller caseloads that now stand at an amazing seven! A major corollary of the FGC has been raised social work morale and job satisfaction. Also supported by specialist professional and in-service training on conflict resolution and therapeutic interventions, social workers are now better equipped to work intensively with families to safeguard child and family welfare.
The FGC is well known in the UK and many local authorities offer the service. So how does the situation in the UK compare with that of New Brunswick?
Stories in the national and local press and professional journals suggest a very different UK picture. Numbers of children in care are mounting, in some areas exponentially with escalating demands on public expenditure. Social workers may be struggling with increasing caseloads over three times the size of their New Brunswick counterparts and under constant pressure to close needy cases: morale is often low. Available information, some anecdotal, suggests that few authorities are currently operating a comprehensive FGC service. Eligibility criteria are said to vary according to funding priorities and in some cases, professional preferences. Furthermore, it has been alleged that families are not being properly supported through the FGC process. The austerity programme and the aftermath of ‘Baby P’ are usually blamed for this vicious circle.
Yet the FGC has apparently had great financial and service benefits in New Brunswick. Its example supports the Family Rights Group’s contention that the initiative could save the UK ‘millions’ and improve family welfare. Could New Brunswick’s success be replicated in the UK and if so, how could this be achieved?
There is no doubt that New Brunswick has the advantage of being small and not overwhelmed by the problems of huge city conurbations. The province is also shielded from major national and global imperatives and has more control over its home affairs. However, this said, it is not wealthy by Canadian standards and has its share of social challenges. So what lessons could the UK consider? Are some to be found in the depth and breadth of stakeholder consultations, or perhaps the nurturing of political will and public awareness, or departmental autonomy or even the detailed content of social work training? Or are there other elements to ponder?
Given reports about the general state of children’s services in the UK, it would be wise not to ignore New Brunswick’s outstanding achievement. For further information about the province, its FGC programme and wider social services infrastructure plus contact details at the Department of Social Development, New Brunswick, please see our article in Bulletin of the Social Work History Network 2(1) 8-14.
Geraldine Poirier Baiani is former Assistant Deputy Minister in New Brunswick, Canada. Joan Rapaport is Visiting Research Fellow, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London.