Peer support is empowering social workers in East Renfrewshire
Topic: Local authority, Permanence
Author: Lesley-Ann Stewart, East Renfrewshire Council
As a social worker for East Renfrewshire’s intensive family support services team, I work with and support the most vulnerable children, and along with multi-agency colleagues, I’m involved in making difficult decisions about permanence for children.
These decisions can be really tough to make, so I’m very focused on the importance of evidence-based practice when making them.
Drift and delay is a huge issue
Over recent years, before getting involved in PACE, we were aware drift and delay was a huge issue for children, and we know it can have a very serious detrimental impact on them.
Sometimes as a social worker, you feel you are compounding that difficulty when you are trying to get children through various parts of the wider system towards a permanent destination, so drift and delay is something which is always at the forefront of a social worker’s mind: sometimes you feel quite disempowered in effecting the right change.
Our role is about eliminating oppression and disadvantage for children, so it has been great that the CELCIS team has come on board to work with us and help us think about the big decisions we’re making. From working with social workers right through to going to court, children should have the same life opportunities as our own children: they should know their permanent destinations and who’s going to love and care for them.
We need to explicitly put children at the heart of things
I think all too often we've been living in a culture where we haven’t been explicitly putting children at the heart of things, but now it really feels like a time for change.
CELCIS has come into East Renfrewshire Council to enable and support social workers front-line and on the ground level, to ask about our experience and to talk about the strengths and barriers to permanence.
They helped us to start a compulsory supervision order sub-group, where we are looking at permanence decisions for children that in some instances, due to various sources of drift and delay, have gone on living in uncertain conditions for more than five years.
We were encouraged to speak to all of our colleagues and ask them what’s in the way, what are the barriers, and how can we change things.
We support each other
One thing that came up is that social workers aren’t feeling very confident, or particularly competent at times to manage the extremely complex set of tasks and decisions in the permanence process and to get it right, especially for those most vulnerable children.
We decided peer supervision and supporting each other, could be a way forward. Formal supervision by managers is crucial but we have found sitting with colleagues, the informal side of supervision, is invaluable to reflect on decision making, so we have started a peer-mentoring support group. It’s to support each other with making timely decisions, having robust assessments and defensible decisions that we can take to children’s hearings, feeling competent and confident about them. You can sit with your legal framework and know that you are putting forward a case in the best interest of the child, using evidence-based practice.
So in a peer supervision session, we identify a hearing that’s due, or a big report, especially for the most difficult and complex cases, and we sit with a colleague to get their view.
We have check lists that let us focus on issues such as why we have a compulsory supervision order, what the legal remit is, is there anything else we have to do, what decisions are we making, and do we have to make other ones, and also to consider why has this child been in this situation for a while. And, it’s back to that old “but why?” question – we are all trying to encourage each other to sit with that wee parrot on the shoulder that keeps asking “but why?”
Learning from each other
It’s been really inspirational: we are all learning from each other. We critically reflect, we critically analyse, we write reports that are defensible and robust so that critical actions and decisions can be made in the best interest of children, and this is giving us an opportunity to do that.
It’s early days but we're seeing a few real results from this – social workers have been into children’s hearings and felt empowered, they have achieved permanence decisions quicker and they’ve felt it’s gone really well.
Workers are saying it’s great to strip things back to the bare bones to get them to think about why they are doing things and what it will mean for a child’s life.
Working with the Children's Hearing System
One specific part of the system a lot of social workers were worried about is the Children’s Hearing System: it seems to be an area where we are not always feeling so confident in getting decisions which match our recommendations.
Because of that, CELCIS facilitated a working group where social workers and members of the Children’s Hearing panel get together to go through some of the issues we face, and some of the dilemmas which are presented at Children’s Hearings. We talk about issues and barriers and about reducing their impact to make a real difference in children’s lives, and this helps provide a good environment and culture for everyone who is working in the best interests of children. It can be such an adversarial process that we have to remember that children have to be right at the centre of any decisions made.
With increasing confidence, we're on the right track
We've had quite a few good decisions and some feedback from workers that they are feeling more confident. It doesn’t always work, but it’s about growing and learning and chipping away, and trying to make a difference to the children and young people we work with.
It’s been a really enabling process where workers feel empowered to do the job and fulfil that definition of social work: to have the capacity to eradicate disadvantage, enlighten families, and make a difference to children’s lives through the GIRFEC agenda.
It’s early days but we’re very hopeful that, through all the work that CELCIS is supporting us with, the PACE agenda has grown in momentum. I’m not sure what the future holds but it feels like we’re on the right track.
Lesley-Ann Stewart is a social worker at East Renfrewshire Council
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