Wigan Council bosses counter whistleblower claims that children's safety is at risk due to service problems
Wigan Council bosses say they are committed to helping both staff and families after claims from whistleblowing staff that children’s services are under immense pressure.
Two members of staff, who say they are very proud to work for the local authority, have voiced grave concerns regarding the system and the early years welfare service Start Well in particular.
They say because of increasingly stretched resources, people have either gone off sick or resigned due to the amount of pressure and this could compromise services.
One member of staff, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “They are all off from work pressure which is causing stress and anxiety.
"Teams are now working with the bare minimum of staff and we are being asked to operate in an unsafe manner. Something will get missed and children’s safety will be put at risk.
"We are required to see children within five days of allocation and it is not meaningful. We haven’t got enough time to spend with these families.
"The quality of care has massively been diminished. I believe the council struggled to get staff to stay, so temporary staff were brought in who don’t know the processes.”
Their colleague, who also wishes to remain anonymous added: "There have been ongoing issues for a while. They have recently recruited new staff but it is whether they can keep them.”
While director of children’s services Colette Dutton accepts there are strained resources, she said this is common across the country.
Ms Dutton said: “It is an accurate picture nationally of what’s being seen in children’s social care.
"The additional pressures of the pandemic means we are seeing more families needing support than we ever have before.
"We’ve never been flush with resources but it’s a public purse so we need to be efficient and effective.
"Wigan is on an improvement journey and we know we need to get better to make sure everyone gets a consistently good service.
"With that, there is often fall out where we may be asking people to work differently or work with a different cohort of families that they’re not used to.
“Some people may not embrace this change but this is how we as a service evolve.
"We don’t recognise claims made that only four people returned to work from Christmas. Yes we had Covid sickness but not in terms of stress.
"The vacancies we had were due to people stepping up or moving elsewhere and we had a huge influx of applications. Our staff retainment is 89 per cent
"We’ve reduced our re-referral rate and that is testament to the staff’s hard work which I want to thank them for."
The staff also believe they are working long unsociable hours in order to meet the standards expected of them and consider themselves overworked and underpaid.
Start Well used to come under “threshold two” which covers low to vulnerable cases.
It has now been increased to deal with threshold three, where a child has high or complex needs.
However, due to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) operating at capacity, the whistleblowers say cases of children with severe mental health issues are being passed down to other parts of the department which shouldn’t be dealing with such cases.
One said: "These cases are not appropriate to be stepped down; it’s dangerous for them to be transferred to us.
"Anybody who works in this industry, does it because they love the job not for the money. However, if you give people more responsibility, you need to pay staff more for the danger of what we do.
"Most days I log on at 7.30am just to try to get on top of all the paperwork and by 9.10 I’m close to a breakdown.”
The other added: "They’re piling the cases onto people. I feel that our safety is being compromised.
"We used to be able to do meaningful pieces of work with families, but now I feel we don’t have the time to do that.
The two staff said they don’t feel supported by managers and fear that if things don’t change, Start Well will be gone for good.
One said: “We used to have such a good team and now most of them have either found other jobs or are off sick, the morale is so low.
"I didn’t think I was going to make it to Christmas, I was that close to having a breakdown. I believe a few people have also had to have stress management plans put in place.
"These are people that wouldn’t dream of letting their team down.
"Staff are afraid of making mistakes.”
The other added: “I’ve thought of leaving. I’m seeing people in our staff meeting, who have worked here for over 20 years crying their eyes out because they can’t cope.
"I think something is going to go badly wrong within the local authority. I really think we are struggling to operate at this high level under this amount of pressure.
“I believe Start Well might not be here much longer if it carries on.”
Ms Dutton added: “The offer around training is really strong. Work dealt with by this service doesn’t require a social worker, if that changes after a risk assessment, which is common, it will get referred to a different part of the service.
“If anyone come to us saying a case is too complex then we would review it.
"We’ll have invested £24m into the service over the next four years. Since March 2020 we’ve recruited 66 social workers which helps assist with pressures.
"There’s lots of opportunities to speak to managers and I have an open door policy, as well as forums.
"I’ve been in meetings were people have spoke out and I would encourage people to come to us internally.”