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The importance of keeping children with their families where it is safe to do so

Speaking at the opening seminar of the COMPASS Jobs Fair in Birmingham, Andy Couldrick, Chief Executive of Birmingham Children’s Trust, outlined the ethos behind their new practice model.


The importance of keeping children with their families where it is safe to do so

Birmingham Children’s Trust has recently built and rolled out its ‘Stronger Families’ model, a programme which pulls together practice ideas and research built on the fundamental premise that the role of statutory social work is first and foremost to support families to care well for their children.

“The thing that drives us is a really strong belief that the vast majority of children should be and need to be within their families. It is in families that children thrive, for some that may not be mum and dad, that may be extended family,” Couldrick said.

“And so we're trying to marshal our resources, and invest in a set of services that cherishes family from the very beginning, with a significant plan built around the idea that if we work constructively and positively with the family, we can secure children's places in their families with the right level of support, at the right time for as long as it's needed.”

“Those of us who are service leaders need to be thinking about, what's the offer that we are putting out there for our families? How do we make it work so that we can build relationships, we can minimise the number of times we fracture those relationships. How do we build a workforce that wants to stay with us and commit to us or commit to working in one place? That's what care-experienced people talk about more than anything else: the number of changes of professional work in our lives. We can't pay attention to one and not the other.”

Birmingham Children’s Trust was established in 2018, after more than a decade in which Birmingham City Council’s children’s services had been inadequate.

“I think that our status [as a trust] helps us because we're not privatised. We are as much a public service as if we were part of the Council. It's just that our governance is slightly different and the way that we're commissioned to deliver services is slightly different

“We can show what a consistent way of working with families looks like. It is values-based, built around a coherent practice model that cherishes and values relationships above all else. That starts the very first time a schoolteacher or a nursery worker is worried about the child. And that set of values runs right the way through to the point at which we're wishing somebody well, finishing their degree; at 25, moving off independently into the world, or as a child placed and settled with a new family,” Couldrick said to the audience of social workers and related professionals.

The last time that the Trust hosted the COMPASS Jobs Fair event in 2019 it had recently been inspected by Ofsted, with staff proud to announce that “nothing we do is inadequate”. Since then, the Trust has developed its new model alongside new services, delivered with its partners, to respond to new contextual safeguarding risks: exploitation, gangs, county lines. As with the entire social work profession, it contended with the challenging context of the COVID-19 pandemic, quickly adapting its work to maintain and grow its services.

“We've battled as everybody has with the pandemic. The staff had, from the very beginning, the PPE they needed. At no point did you want to stop maintaining contact with some of the most vulnerable families whose needs didn't change.

“We worked really hard with partners to make sure that children who could be going to school were going to school; if they weren't, they were being regularly contacted, if not, by social worker, by a schoolteacher, health visitor by whoever had might have a relationship with those families.”

However, despite the challenging circumstances, one positive from the seismic changes felt by the world was perhaps better partnership working with different agencies. The flexibilities explored during the pandemic have also helped many organisations to rethink their traditional approaches to working.

“We got through it. We've been working diligently to think about how we step things back up; what does our kind of new operating model look like?” Couldrick said. “Do we ever need, again, to be sitting in banks of desks five days a week? I think that's what we're exploring so that we will have greater flexibility, greater agility, and that people who work from home need to have equipment.”

“We don't want to fill up our offices again – people sitting there if they can do that work just as easily somewhere else. But critically, working from home is a very different thing for us individually. And the connection with the people with whom you work – doing that through a computer screen the whole time isn't necessarily enough. So, we've been really keen for one team meeting on a regular basis to be face to face because we think that human connection is a fundamental part of what we do.”

The Trust’s Chief Executive also shared his thoughts on the Case for Change, the early findings published by the wide-ranging Review of Children’s Social Care in England. The report, published in June, criticised a ‘runaway train’ of child protection services, saying there is a culture of ‘investigating’ rather than ‘supporting’ families.

“A model that breaks up early help family support and separates it from Child Protection and care, in my estimation, misunderstands the experience of families. The families or friends we work with move up and down that continuum, and are not fixed as a family support case, and then fixed as a child protection case,” Couldrick said.

“That kind of categorization and marketization, the breaking up, that worries me greatly about what might come from the Care Review.”

The Birmingham Children’s Trust Chief Executive said, however, that the Review made some good points, but did not focus enough on some of the wider issues affecting children and families.

“I thought Case for Change was in many ways, hard to argue [against], as long as you're prepared to park the impact of austerity and poverty on the lives of children, families across the country, and on the working experience of social work. So I think [the Review Chair] should have paid more attention to that.”

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