‘What the Public Think About Social Services’, a report from Scotland

Trish McCulloch and Stephen Webb, British Journal of Social Work, 50(4), 2020, pp. 1146 – 1166.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

In relation to social services, there is often expressed the view among social workers that, by and large, the public dislike them – or at least, they dislike the services they represent. But how accurate is this view?

How did they study it?

In this article, the authors report findings from a survey of 2,505 adults in Scotland, selected to represent the wider Scottish population. The survey was undertaken in 2016 / 17, and comprised of 43 questions, organised in relation to six themes – i) impressions and perceptions of social services, ii) understanding of social services, iii) issues associated with social services, iv) experience of social services, v) trust, value and confidence in social workers and vi) influences on perceptions. 

What did they find?

Half of the respondents had a positive view of social services, and one-third had a negative view. Readers of The Guardian newspaper had the most positive views, while readers of The Daily Express had the most negative views (make of that what you will). The most positive overall findings were that ‘social services play an important role in supporting the most vulnerable people’ and that ‘social services provide a valuable service to the people of Scotland’. The majority of respondents also said they had a good knowledge and understanding of social services, and generally felt that social workers support older people and work to keep children safe. Most of the respondents agreed that social work professionals could be trusted to do their jobs well. It is reasonable to ask how many of these respondents would have had personal experience of social services, particularly in relation to children’s services – yet the authors report that although first-hand contact did influence perceptions of social services, in general there was “nothing compelling in the results to suggest that access in itself is a consistent predictor of perceptions” (p. 1159). 

What are the implications?

These findings should help challenge the belief that the public primarily or even uniformly hold negative views of social work. As this survey shows, at least in Scotland, this is not the case. Perceptions can more reasonably be described as mixed, tending towards the positive.  

What a similar survey would find in Wales remains an open question.


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins

Volunteers needed for studies on social worker decision-making

Researchers at CASCADE are currently conducting two research studies related to social worker decision-making and are seeking social workers to take part. 

Registered social workers in England are eligible to take part in Study 1 and registered social workers in Wales or anywhere else in the UK are eligible to take part in Study 2.

Study 1: for registered social workers in England

This study aims to explore ways of mitigating cognitive bias in social work by testing an intervention and measuring the difference it makes to confirmation bias and forecasting abilities. 

The study is held online via Qualtrics and will take approximately one hour to complete. Participation will involve: 

  1. Reading referrals and predicting what happened next 
  2. Random allocation into a control or intervention group 
  3. For those in the intervention group, reading through a case study and using a checklist with the aim of prompting reflection about the decision-making process
  4. Reading more referrals and predicting what happened next 
  5. Completing a short online task  

If you would like to take part, please follow this link.  

Study 2: for registered social workers in Wales and elsewhere in the UK

This study is being undertaken across the UK and internationally, being jointly run between Cardiff University and the University of Otago (in New Zealand). The study is exploring whether students and qualified social workers from different parts of the UK and in New Zealand have different or similar responses to the case study. 

Participation will involve completing an online survey, during which you will be asked to read an unfolding case vignette about one family, and answer questions about the level and nature of risk to the children, the family’s needs, and what you think should happen. The aim of the study is to help explore variability in decision-making, based on the idea that variability is an inevitable part of the social work system, yet also raises important questions about social justice and equal treatment.

If you would like to take part, please access the survey

For more information or questions regarding the studies, please contact Melissa: MeindlM@cardiff.ac.uk.

Developing child-focused local family alliances in Wales

The Child Arrangements Programme (CAP) was designed to divert low risk disputes between separated parents away from courts and promote the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Despite an initial decline in the number of applicants in 2014, there has been an increase in the number of private law applications and unrepresented litigants (Private Law Working Group, 2019). This has led to unprecedented volumes of work for family court judges, with His Honour Judge Wildblood QC calling for applications to be taken to court only if it is ‘genuinely necessary’ (Re B (a child) (unnecessary Private Law Applications, 2020). Determining whether court is genuinely necessary can be complicated where there are allegations or concerns about domestic abuse or safeguarding children. The Ministry of Justice Report (2020) warns against reducing dependence on courts in these cases. The picture is further complicated in Wales as courts fall under the remit of the Ministry of Justice. Conversely, the responsibility for children and family services is devolved to Welsh Government. Such a division can complicate matters as courts may not be aware of additional child and family social care provision. For example, a child from a separated family in Wales may be eligible for more support under a Child Assessment Support Plan (Social Services Well-being (Wales) Act 2014), than a similar child in England. Development of child focused local families alliances for supporting parents in Wales must bring the family justice system and child and family social care together so that parent disagreements can be resolved through non-court based options, where it is appropriate to do so. Family courts are an inappropriate vehicle for conflict resolution between separating parents. The process can serve to escalate parental conflict with children caught in the middle. This leads to heightened risk of negative child outcomes such as poor mental health, wellbeing and lower educational attainment. 

Researchers at Cardiff University have recently published a report that identifies service provision for separating families in Wales and outlines three scenarios for the development of child-focused supporting separating families alliances (SSFA). Commissioned by Welsh Government, the report contributes to what is known about the services available for conflicting parents, the referral pathways and offers proposed solutions of how to provide support to families before, during and after separation away from family courts, where it is appropriate to do so. The report draws on findings from three elements of data collection. First, a mapping exercise of service provision drawing on findings from eight online survey responses and informal discussions with six stakeholders. Second, semi-structured interviews with 22 stakeholders, including representatives from voluntary funded, social enterprises, limited companies and statutory services and a focus group with two young people from the Family Justice Young Peoples Board. Third, the report includes reference to a consultation exercise with 13 stakeholders who considered the three proposed scenarios.

The greatest source of parental conflict involved disagreements around child residence and contact arrangements. The default reaction to such disagreements is recourse to court as parents have unrealistic expectations of what the court can and should do. This reflects His Honour Judge Wildblood QC’s observation that some judges are being called upon to determine minor changes to contact arrangements such as which junction of the M4 parent’s should exchange the child (Re B (a child) (unnecessary Private Law Applications), 2020). Such disagreements can arise due to perceptions around equitable contact or financial burden serving to prolong relationship difficulties or they can be seen as a vehicle to obtain housing or financial recompense. The report considers the emotionality of relationship breakdown and the resultant difficulties in putting these emotions to one side in order to amicably resolve issues concerning the child. Consequently, issues surrounding relationship breakdown and child arrangements can be identified indirectly through existing provision such as family support or parenting programmes or directly where the parent or court may seek further support. Where parents were receiving help through existing provision, some services such as the Team Around the Family were already delivering dispute resolution with some having adopted elements of the Working Together for Children programme. This was not true of all services and so the report describes a postcode lottery in terms of what provision is available to parents. 

The report reiterates findings relating to problems around Mediation, Information and Assessment Meetings (Private Law Working Group, 2020) and the relatively low take up of mediation (Cusworth et al., 2020). Findings revealed a dearth of mediators in Wales accredited to undertake MIAMs, with fewer qualified to work with children. This is a particular issue as young people identified mediation as an ideal vehicle for getting their voices heard during parental separation. Despite these difficulties, stakeholders suggested that mediation could be effective in diverting parents away from courts. The report also emphasised the role of contact centres as safe places for parents to see or exchange children as well as a neutral venue to access support such as mediation. However, stakeholders also raised concerns about the extent to which families were aware and able to afford these services. 

The report found overwhelming support for the creation of SSFAs. In terms of their remit, the report found that the term ‘separating families’ is somewhat of a misnomer. In practice, parents may never have been in a relationship or may never have ever lived together. This reflects the diverse nature of children’s home environments with some families including extended family members such as aunts, uncles and grandparents and/or reconstituted families involving stepparents and additional siblings. Findings from representatives from the Family Justice Young People’s Board emphasised the need for services aimed at young people to be included as well as inclusion of young people in existing services such as mediation. This means that SSFAs must be accessible and equipped to cater for the needs of parents, carers and other members of the child’s family network as well as children and young people. In doing so, consultation stakeholders recommended that the focus of SSFAs should be upon enhancing relationships before, during and after separation. Stakeholders also recommended that seeking relationship support must become normalised, whether this is support to remain together or to part amicably. Although the report found that some parents may require support in order to identify and access help from services. Hence, there is a need for both remote and in-person delivery and where some parents or family members may require support.

The report outlined three scenarios for the development of child focussed SSFAs ranging from no additional cost, limited additional resource to significant and ongoing resource. At the no additional cost level, the report illustrates how the SSFA could be included within existing provision, the Single Advice Fund, currently being delivered in Wales by Citizen’s Advice. This provision serves as a one stop shop connecting people to the most appropriate service in a timely manner. Further this option provides both remote and in person delivery. Although the current offer would need to be extended to include mediation, contact centres, other non-court based resources as well as family support and parenting programmes. The scenario for limited additional resource involved situating the SSFA within a sister arm of Cafcass Cymru. This option is aligned with the CAP which emphasises that the court and those working in family justice services are obliged to consider Alternative Dispute Resolution at every stage of the process. Cafcass Cymru is described as an established child-friendly organisation already equipped with relevant knowledge of what mediation and family services are available for separating parents. The report outlines the creation of a separate branch, or sister arm, of Cafcass Cymru to ensure differentiation between those families who are being investigated and those who are being signposted to services. Finally, for the scenario requiring significant and ongoing resource, the report draws reference to Relationships Scotland which brings together provision of counselling, mediation, and the delivery of contact centres under one umbrella organisation. The report outlines the potential for something similar in Wales, provisionally titled ‘Relationships Wales’; an online platform with telephone helpline aligned with existing policy and provision under the Families First programme and commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Such a platform would include a bank of resources including family support, parenting programmes, mediation, contact centres and other non-court based approaches. In doing so, the report states that families would have access to a range of advice and support with parents and carers empowered to access appropriate support either through the dedicated helpline or via an online assessment tool. 

This report is very timely in light of the increase in parental separation and disagreements around contact in light of Covid-19. The report concludes that the effectiveness of all three scenarios is based upon the need to embed and normalise relationship support that is both accessible and affordable. Further, it highlights that it is only when parents and carers accept and engage with relationship support that it will be perceived as a viable alternative to court. 

Developing a Supporting Separating Families Alliance: a scoping study – August 2020 Report

Children’s social services and care rates in Wales survey

Do you work in children’s social care in Wales? If so you are invited to complete a short survey on children’s social care, with the opportunity to win £250 per local authority for a charity of your choice.

Access the survey

This survey closes on 14th December 2020.

About the Survey

In collaboration with local authorities, Welsh Government, and Social Care Wales, the Wales Centre for Public Policy and the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) have developed this survey on children’s social care in Wales. The survey aims to understand differences in care rates between local authorities by identifying what social workers and senior management think are the factors influencing care rates across Wales; whether there is variation in the values, decision making, views, and organisational and leadership practice in local authorities with different rates; the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on assessments of risk and practice; and how decision making and values in Wales compares to those in other countries

Why take part?

By taking part in this survey, you will help to improve understanding of the key factors shaping social work practice in Wales. You will help us to identify differences in how local authorities approach casework decision-making, and relate this to care rates, deprivation, and models of practice in different authorities.

How long will it take?

The survey will take approximately 15 minutes to complete and can be done either on your phone or on a computer/laptop

What will happen to my responses?

Your responses will be anonymised and no person or local authority will be identified. Each local authority will receive an unpublished copy of their data, but no respondents will be identifiable. We will publish the anonymised results of the study in reports for the Welsh Government, local authorities, and academic journals.

Research project spotlight #5: The SWIS trial: An evaluation of school-based social work

The SWIS Trial: An evaluation of school-based social work

Following on from three pilot studies which showed evidence of promise, the Social Workers in Schools (SWIS) trial will evaluate the programme on a larger scale to establish the impact it has on some important social care and educational outcomes. We will also learn more about how the intervention works and how it varies.

Education and Children’s Social Care (CSC) have an important inter-agency relationship, and both play a vital role in keeping children safe and promoting their wellbeing. Policymakers have been increasingly interested in finding ways to improve how education and CSC work together to respond to safeguarding concerns and protect children, and in the context of Covid-19 these efforts are likely to intensify.

SWIS is a promising approach to doing this. The central idea is that having a social worker linked to and based within a secondary school can have a range of benefits. In particular, to improve the service delivered to children and families, enhance interagency working, reduce risks to children and lead to better outcomes.

Research project spotlight #4: Supporting children looked after in the youth justice system

Identifying opportunities for supporting children looked after in the youth justice system at crunch points in their supervision

There are a number of key life events and transitions which are considered to be particularly stressful. For those with contact with both the care system and youth justice system we already know that there are a higher instance of ACEs [Adverse Childhood Experiences] which contribute to this group being some of the most vulnerable in our society. Within youth justice, trauma informed practice is becoming the norm in Wales whilst the emphasis on children’s rights means that we strive to see the child first and the offender second.

This research focuses on the different domains of risk (as measured by assessment tools used by the youth offending service) and how these change in response to key events and transitions. These “crunch points” include both events associated with the administration of justice (eg returning to court, breaching and spending time in the secure estate) as well as life events such as moving home / placement or school. Some may have a positive impact on the perceived likelihood of further offending whilst other may increase the risk. Knowing this will help to identify where there are opportunities to provide timely multi-agency support.
In keeping with the children’s rights ethos of the research, in order to support and develop a series of recommendations for change, the mixed methods project will combine:

  • the use of novel statistical approaches to model data from the youth offending service matched with routine data from social services, health and education
  • participatory arts-based activities with care experienced young people with varying degrees of contact with the law

The child’s voice is central to the research. Not only will young people be working with the project team to contextualise the statistical modelling, but they will also be encouraged to challenge our [adult] assumptions on the nature of the support that they believe that others with similar experiences would benefit from and the extent to which it should be tailored to meet individual needs.

Lead researcher: Dr Helen Hodges

Research project spotlight #3: Welsh community response to child criminal exploitation

County lines: a co-ordinated Welsh community response to child criminal exploitation

Child criminal exploitation (CCE) has been described as a national priority.

Much of what is known about CCE relates to county lines, a model of drug supply that has become widespread across the United Kingdom. County lines operate using a dedicated mobile phone number to sell drugs from larger cities to end users living in coastal, rural and market towns. While not all county lines use children, where children are targeted it can affect all ages and ethnicities.

In partnership with Barnardo’s, this 18-month exploratory research project aims at creating a toolkit for an effective service response to improve the outcomes for children at risk, as well as contribute to the knowledge base regarding the nature and scale of the problem, what approaches and interventions are most effective and how contextual safeguarding approaches can be used in practice within the Welsh context.

Lead researcher: Dr Nina Maxwell

Research project spotlight #2: How do looked after children engage online

Selfies, Snapchat and Keeping Safe: How do looked after children engage online?

Young people spend an increasing amount of time online, especially in the current climate, as the global pandemic has moved much of our social lives into the virtual realm. Going online allows for socialisation and entertainment. However, for young people, especially vulnerable young people such as looked after children, it comes with risk; cyberbullying, trolling and harassment. While there is an abundance of international research devoted to online engagement and social media access, little attention has been paid to its impact on those who are looked after or care experienced.

This area of research is increasingly important. While we are aware that there is increased risk for looked after children, we know little about what their online lives are like or how they engage with their peers and family in online spaces.

This research, focusing on the online lives of looked after children, will be the first of its kind in Wales. This mixed-methods research study seeks to understand what the online lives of looked after children are like and whether they experience cyberbullying at a different rate than their peers. In addition, what risk factors they face and what advantages going online has for this population will also be explored.

Lead researcher: Dr Cindy Corliss

Research project spotlight #1: Who is at risk of entering care?

Children in households with substance misuse, domestic violence or mental health problems: Who is at risk of entering care?

The number of children in local authority care in Wales has been increasing since the mid-1990s and there are large variations in the numbers of children in care across different Welsh local authorities. However, the reasons why are not clear. It could be associated with changing problems in society. Alternatively, it may be due to the way local authority social service departments respond to family problems.

One of CASCADE’s new research projects funded by HCRW, using linked admin data to look at entry of children into care in relation to potential household risk factors such as:

  • Substance misuse
  • Domestic Violence
  • Mental Health

This project aims to unpick some of the reasons why the care rates vary across local authorities and why they have increased over time.

Lead researcher: Dr Nell Warner

Use of secure accommodation for welfare purposes in Wales

Secure accommodations are residential homes with approval to restrict the liberty of young people who are believed to be a serious risk to themselves or to others. Many young people are placed in secure accommodation for welfare reasons and there is little sign of this practice diminishing. This troubling situation is further complicated by a scarcity of secure placements in Wales which sees many young people being placed outside of Wales or having no bed in secure care due to a lack of availability.

At present there is little research evidence of what has led to this or what can be done to improve matters. To give better insight, a recent project commissioned by Social Care Wales and conducted by CASCADE at Cardiff University explored the experiences of young people from Wales prior to, during and following a referral to secure accommodation.

A recent webinar, presented by Dr Annie Williams (research lead) gave practitioners and managers an opportunity to hear about the study. The resources from the webinar are as follows: