Rotherham: Truth and Politics

The only time I read my local paper is at the Indian takeaway. Whilst waiting for my korahi chicken yesterday evening, I disinterestedly flicked through the familiar mix of parking problems, noisy neighbours and oversubscribed schools. I nearly skipped the article buried on page 11 about a man who died after an error from his GP, because I was pondering whether to order a popadom. Then I stopped and read it: it was my GP.

Our doctor is kind, caring and hard-working. He treats people as individuals and always makes time for them. On this occasion, the surgery computer system did not indicate that the prescriptions for the drugs his elderly patient required for a heart condition had stopped after the man was released from hospital. Several months on, he relapsed and sadly died. The coroner praised the doctor for his honesty. I can’t recall the actual verdict but the death could have been prevented.

Today’s Daily Telegraph didn’t lead with an avoidable death or for that matter any death. The case of foster carers who allegedly had children in their care removed from them because they were UKIP members has run on all media. It’s been top of 5Live news all day, for example. You would expect Nigel Farage to have an opinion but Michael Gove has swiftly weighed in too. As I write, Milliband is being quoted. Cue outrage at social work.

If UKIP membership is the only reason why these children were moved, I don’t agree with it. They should have stayed where they were. The council said on the news this morning that the children were going to move on anyway. This may be the case. However, the original Telegraph report says the boy was moved the following day and his two sisters soon after. If this is accurate, it does not sound like a planned move to me.

I qualify my remarks with ‘if accurate’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the report does not appear to have any corroboration from other sources. They may exist but it’s based heavily on the carers’ account. I thought journalists cross-checked, especially on a headline story, but this is different.

Secondly, it doesn’t chime with my experiences over the years. Judgments about the capabilities of  carers are never made on the basis of a single piece of information, unless of course it relates to a child protection matter or allegation, in which case prompt action must be taken to safeguard the child.

In this case, you would like to think that other evidence would have been considered, such as the history of the carers over their fostering career, the progress of the children in placement, any evidence that the actual behaviour of the carers had negatively impacted on the children (as  distinct from their membership of a political party) and the wishes and feelings of the children. Bear in mind that the Fostering Standards prohibit changes in children’s careplans without consultation unless there is a real and immediate need. If the local authority has other information, they could not possibly break confidentiality and share it publicly, which offers no protection to the storm of media outrage.

Some of the criticism is misinformed. Farage was calling for the immediate reinstatement of the carers but they are still approved carers, it’s just this placement that has ended. Also, he might think about considering the children’s needs first, which is the law after all.

However, what is most significant is why this is a story at all. My doctor will carry on practising, as he should. The competence of the medical profession has not been called into question because a man died. Yet in the case of the Rotherham foster carers, the ability of the entire social work profession has immediately become the issue. This is all the corroboration the Telegraph needed. We know social workers do this sort of thing, don’t we. Leaving aside the fact that as I have already suggested, any judgement is based on incomplete evidence, this is not about the actions of individual social workers or even the authority itself, it’s about how lousy our profession supposedly is in making these judgement.

The implication clearly is that social workers make snap judgments based on dogma and preconceived ideas. More than this, we are driven by political ideology. In much of the coverage, this deeply flawed and prejudiced perspective has not been significantly questioned. This must be the case – what other reason could there be? It shows how little the public still understand about what we do.

This may have been a carefully considered decision or something that was rushed. It could have been a wrong decision. If so, hold up our hands, but it does not prove one single thing about how social work as a whole assesses the needs of children.

You would think the minister, our minister, might at the very least inject a sense of perspective. Not so. “The wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons,” he said. I humbly suggest he cannot know that for certain. But there are bigger issues at play here and it suits him to use the profession for which he is responsible for other reasons.

Rotherham is holding a by-election. It’s Labour-held, therefore this decision is the responsibility of the Labour authority even though it would have been made by social workers, i.e. officials not politicians. The assumption that this is a political issue has not been called into question. No coincidence.

Also, the consultation period for government proposals to diminish the significance of culture and origin in decisions about adoption placements is coming to an end. This has been well-trailed over the past year – see some of my previous articles – as a way of removing what the government characterise as impediments to swifter adoption. It’s an important proposal that has considerable opposition as well as its proponents. Whichever position you take, it’s disturbing that a matter about the health and well-being of three little children and public confidence in social work becomes a chance for political points-scoring.  We might look back at this episode in future and ask if anyone truly cares.

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… And they’re off! But it’s a disappointing start for the Mental Capacity Act

In the line-up for the 2007 legislation Grand National we see the return of some old favourites.  Waiting for the starters’ orders are the Mental Health Act alongside the NHS & Community Care Act. We also see the return of the Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act and … surely not … Yes it is, the National Assistance Act is back for another plod around the course, surely he should have retired by now.  We also welcome along one of the favourites this year, in his first year of entry, the Mental Capacity Act is confidently waiting for what must surely be a resounding victory for all those he represents.   They’re under starters’ orders, and they’re off …

… but it’s a rather lack-lustre performance from the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA).  I’m probably not the only one slightly disappointed by the sluggish start; 5 years into the MCA I have to admit that things probably haven’t gone as some of us may have imagined.  I was prompted to write this blog having recalled a recent occasion concerning a gentleman with a learning disability. He asked his carers for support to obtain an application form for a driver’s license and then to complete the form. Instantly, the carers decided that it would be far too dangerous for the gentleman to be driving around and, quoting the MCA, in his ‘best interest’ decided that it would be better if they didn’t support the gentleman to obtain and complete a driver’s license application form. I think the only correct consideration of the MCA were the two words, ‘best interest’ and even they were out of context! On every level, they failed to apply the MCA correctly or even remotely well. If  they had, they would have approached the decision from the assumption that the gentleman had capacity (which, interestingly he did) and provided the support he was requesting in the first place.

This of course isn’t an isolated incident and only recently was also reported about on the Community Care website.  Poor application of the MCA is widespread, it crosses all levels of care professions and it has to be addressed for the sake of those it should be protecting. If I were the MCA, I would be suffering from a complex right about now. Being misrepresented, misquoted, ignored, it’s enough to make even the strongest legislation question themselves!

Some organisations see the importance of MCA training, but where I often see a glaring hole is in people’s ability to apply the principles and use the MCA as the framework it was intended to be. People can usually quote phrases, provide general themes or even list the 5 principles of the MCA but that is often where knowledge and application stop. Carers and professionals alike should be discussing it daily, in team meetings, formally in supervision and informally. They should be applying it to all decisions being made and actions being undertaken on behalf of someone who may lack capacity. They should be questioning everything and inquisitively discussing whether any action or decision being made is the least restrictive or whether a seemingly unimportant decision made by carers or professionals has just had a significant impact upon individual.

The MCA doesn’t have to be a complex piece of legislation unattainable to anyone who doesn’t have a law degree.  It even comes with a very user-friendly Code of Practice to which of course, anyone working with an individual who may lack capacity must have regard for.  But it does have to be a piece of legislation that is used well and frequently by all concerned to ensure that we really do act in peoples’ best interest.

A look at ‘Caring for our future : reforming care and support’

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A rapid chase through the Care White Paper

The government published it’s long overdue Care White Paper yesterday. There’s been time for a significant amount of coverage to push through to the media and I don’t want to repeat information that’s out there but rather provide a response/analysis from where I am and where I see it. There is a good summary on Community Care though.

It’s a hotch potch of a document. The words are pretty but there’s an underlying tone of ‘saving taxpayers money’ which shines through from every good intentioned statement. Saving money isn’t a bad thing but I wonder how much the intention is to change the way the market in care is delivered in line with the NHS Bill and how much is to actually change the philosophy behind the process of care. I doubt the government’s good intentions.

The White Paper divides into eight chapters. So I’ll follow that pattern in my review of them.

Chap 1: The Case for Change

Here, the paper itself sets out the current difficulties in the system as it is at present which is reactive to crisis rather than focused on prevention. I can’t help feeling a little cynical in noting even the current system wasn’t intended to be this way, but has developed as such due to the pressures on funding.  The government line is to prove the point about crisis response but that’s not really been the agenda all the time.

Believe it or not, there was a time we met ‘low’ needs and while accepting there is a financial limit, the demonisation of the system is hardly a true reflection of what was envisaged and more should be learnt about the ways that systems imposed develop into a ‘race to the bottom’.

So the paper suggests that the answers will be found by providing more services sooner in the process of ageing or a disabling condition.  We will have more support for carers and will be promoting communities to provide support within themselves.

People need more information, without doubt, and that will be provided. That’s hardly revolutionary but too much has been down to local differences – the old ‘postcode lottery’ arguments. This will be clarified so people can move around the country and know what they will be able to expect.

Interesting that the ‘opportunities from reform’ all seem to revolve around financial benefits. It’s a valid benefit and opportunity but an interesting angle so

‘Promoting people’s wellbeing and independence’ will ‘limit future demand for care and support and help to ensure taxpayers’ money is used for effectively’.

Support for carers will enable them to ‘remain in the workplace’ which will ‘support economic growth’. So THAT’S why they are so keen to support carers – don’t want anyone to think that ‘caring’ without pay for a family member isn’t a valid and essential economic contributor.

and ‘Supporting businesses to grow’ – which is maybe what choice is all about.

I’m not against these agendas but I think the framing in economic terms is very very interesting.

Chap 2: Our vision for care and support

Understandably and quite rightly there is a high proportion of ‘control’ wanting to be distributed from top down to users in this section of the White Paper which is all well and good. It’s been (rightly) the movement of travel and needs to go further. As someone who works with people who have not been able to benefit fully from the ‘choice and control’ agenda, I was particularly looking for things that would help and support the people that I work with here.

There’s a lot of focus on promoting communities in being active and enabling to those living in them. There’s a need to promote better information streams – quite rightly – the system is enormously complex and I spot a little line on page 19 about ‘supporting the transformation of the social work profession’.

So the role and place of the local authority to provide care and support will be changing as it says

‘instead of purchasing and providing care and support, authorities will increasingly be expected to take a leadership role in a local area’. That should be interesting.

Chap 3 ‘I am supported to maintain my independence for as long as possible”

So in looking at prevention of isolation and needs the White Paper turns to communities to look for support, quite rightly. There’s a lot of potential here and social isolation is specifically targeted with some wonderful local models explained in terms of the way they work with isolated people to bring them into communities.

Not everyone wants to be a part of a community and there are some people communities tend to be less eager to support but it’s a great initiative for some people and there will be a lovely new Outcome Framework which will identify measures of loneliness for us to work on while local authorities managers and accountants look at ways they can meet targets at low or no cost.

Commissioners will be ‘encouraged’ (whatever that means) to draw on community support networks rather than moving people into ‘formal’ services. I read that along the lines of finding services that are provided at low or no cost but perhaps I’m a cynic.

There’s a line here too about social work pilot schemes which will  ‘liberate’ (I’m VERY suspicious of the word ‘liberate’) social workers from case management. It looks like a push towards more community based social work but I have some concerns. Firstly, case management is only bad if it is implemented badly as a process rather than as a collaboration. Poor case management can have an enormously detrimental effect on someone.

I’m not convinced by social work pilots but will wait for the outcomes of these pilots to see before I make a final judgement. I like the idea of more community work but am worried at what cost it may come in terms of privatising delivery of service and moving responsibilities for provision away from a democratic mandate.

I do like the idea of connecting care homes with their local areas. That is enormously positive and where I’ve seen it happen locally, it has made a big difference. It does seem like a lot of ‘use volunteers’ as the answer to problems but honestly, that’s not a bad thing where there are volunteers. I just wonder if all communities will be as engaged and where there is such a great reliance on community to provide support, what will be done in those areas that aren’t as supportive.

As regards housing, there will be significant investments in housing for older and disabled people. I hope this will encompass people in mental health services and is not limited to those with physical  health needs. There is a muddle over extra-care sheltered accommodation which is described as a way to meet low level needs but also as an alternative to residential care. Oh, I mean a ‘cost effective’ alternative to residential care. Missed the key point there.

Chap 4 ‘I understand how care and support works and what my entitlements and responsibilities are’

Information, information, information. It’s crucial in order to make choices and the government sets out ways, particularly websites, that will provide more information about services and facilities to all rather than just those eligible for them.

Interestingly the NHS 111 number will roll out support for social care. I wonder how this will work as a national helpline when provisioning is so different locally and there will be an extension of services like NHS Direct and NHS Choices into the social care sphere. Look forward to seeing that. I genuinely hope it works.

Local authorities will also be obliged to provide more information online but also in other formats, to those looking at services and providers but it looks like there is intended to be a default move online for many access points – including self assessments online as ‘they provide a better customer experience’. I wonder how this marries with the issues around the digital divide. There will be paper and telephone options available at least.

There will be a national eligibility framework and it seems (although this will only be confirmed later) that it may well be set at ‘substantial’ under current FACS guidelines although there will be a move to a new framework of assessment and eligibility.

People will also  have more options about who assesses them.

‘Our ambition is for many more providers to offer assessment services’. Good business opportunities there and a role for the social work pilot schemes.

Carers will have an entitlement to assessment (which exists) and to the provision of services (which doesn’t at present). I’m glad to see that.

Chapter 5 ‘I am happy with the quality of my care and support’

There’s an interesting diagram on this chapter on page 38 with circles of ‘roles and responsibilities in care and support’ around the ‘service users and carers’ at the centre, with Government, Commissioners, Providers and CQC around them. Interesting that there is no place for social workers. I expect we come into ‘commissioners’ but sad that the profession doesn’t seem to have a place around this diagram and is not even mentioned.

There is talk of better regulation by the CQC with inspections annually (scandalous that they were ever anything but in my view).

Looks like they’ll be a return to some kind of rating system too. Strange that just disappeared.

Statutory Safeguarding Adults Boards will be convened by local authorities with police and NHS organisations inputting to them. There will be further consultation on powers to access someone who might be at risk of abuse or neglect.  Personally, I’d like to have seen more on safeguarding.

Commissioning on quality is emphasised (good) and there seems to be a desire to look at some kind of outcome model to judge this. There’s also an acknolwedgement of the failing of some private care homes such as Southern Cross and

‘Local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation to anyone – publicly or self-funded – who has an urgent need for care which is not otherwise available’ and noone will be left homeless if a provider were to fail.

I don’t doubt that would be the case anyway but more public protection for private companies failing can only lead to additional costs.

Chapter 6 ‘I know that the person giving me care and support will treat me with dignity and respect’.

Here there’s an emphasis on building skills in the social care sector. I don’t believe people go into this field of work to be oppressive or uncaring but the system dictates it and a bullying workplace leads to poor and dangerous service delivery to people who have higher needs.

The government claims to be committed to the plans of the Social Work Reform Board and that the College of Social Work will play a heavy role in improving standards of education and training in social work in universities.

The White Paper supports the position of Principal Social Workers in Adult Services and part of that role will be coordinating feedback from frontline practitioners. I look forward to having one locally as I have a lot to feedback.

Chapter 7 ‘I am in control of my care and support’

Ah, personalisation, that bittersweet word which means everything and nothing. Everyone entitled to care and support will have a personal budget – I genuinely thought that was already on track and didn’t think it was anything new. And look

‘We will push further with our ambition to support as many people as possible to enjoy the benefits of a direct payment’.

I hope that support is extensive and looks beyond the current models which have served some exceptionally well but many others very very poorly.

I won’t mention the ignorant way that advocacy is included in the White Paper which evidences a lack of knowledge by those who wrote the paper but will merely reference Martin Coyle’s (from Action for Advocacy) blogpost which says it all.

There’s some more in this section about integration between health and social care which is becoming more distant in practice rather than more evident.  Use of the term ‘care coordination’ is confusing as it is a generally used term in mental health services and has different technical meaning to the way it is used in the White Paper in terms of physical health. That has already caused us many confusing conversations locally as to someone having two care coordinators – one for physical health and one for mental health – which kind of proves the point about duplicating work and having unfathomable systems. The terms should really be clarified and separated if necessary.

Chapter 8 ‘Making it Happen’

A draft bill was published alongside the White Paper. I haven’t read it yet. I wonder that some organisations seem to have thrown their lot in wholeheartedly with the government which makes me a little nervous. I want to support positive change but I don’t want to be blinded by good intentions and words that lead to little that changes the lives of those who have the most need for support.

Interestingly the ‘financial context’ is stuck at the back of the White Paper like a growing tumour. There are mealy mouthed words about the government putting money into social care but while taking away in the other hand, from local government, they have contributed directly to the ‘crisis management’ only model that they criticise.

Conclusion

I see little if anything revolutionary in this paper. I see nothing that explains a change in the direction of travel and means of delivering social care. I see some positive signs and some acknowledgement of difficulties but we were moving down the path of personalisation at a rate that it could only continue. While there was mention of personal budgets for residential care, I saw nothing about ISFs and developing ways of promoting choice for those who are excluded from communities and who may lack capacity. I saw nothing about changing legislative frameworks. I saw a lot of gaps, not least, the massive funding gap.

Nice words though, fluffy and helpful and a lot of the language of ‘choice’ (where possible), ‘community’ (where free) and ‘market’.

These things are always filled with the right words. I think a lot of opportunity to restructure and rethink adult social care has been lost although there are some springs of hope – there aren’t by any means enough.

Pic by wintersoul1 at Flickr

Carers Week – More than Words

Building Blocks of Art
‘Carers Week’ begins today. While the ‘official theme’ of the week is ‘In Sickness and In Health’ with a focus on the health of carers, I would provide my own theme from my position of having worked in social care for a fair few years as ‘more than words’.

Carers’ need more than accolades in order to feel supported and be supported properly. We need to be able to provide resources and that needs money.

Over the last 15 or so years, there have been definite changes in the status of ‘carers’ in social care organisations.  We have rolled out ‘Carers Assessments’  and have been able to provide services for carers directly as a result of new legislation. While we  assess the needs of carers – what we don’t have and where the disconnect exists – is a duty to provide services and nor national criteria about where a service should be and must be delivered.

The problem I face all too often is revolves around carrying out Carers’ Assessments (of course there is a target for these) but not being able to actually provide anything as a result of them. To which the obvious question I am asked is ‘Why do them if they only provide information to the Local Authority?’.  My local authority, fortunately and for now, at least, is fairly generous with carer support and direct services but this is by no means universal.

Mother watches over

I have been fortunate to see and provide some excellent services through direct payments made to carers and in a lot of ways, the services I have been responsible for providing as direct payments to carers have been a lot  more successful than some of my experiences with direct payments more broadly. I am able to encourage assessments with the possibility of a direct service provision as a result but I know this is by no means universal.

Assessments in themselves can be useful if they are conducted well and sensitively. Sometimes allowing a carer to have the space to discuss their own needs and explain fully the care they are and do provide and the effects that this has on their own wellbeing/goals and lives can be valuable – however there comes a point when this has to be acknowledged in a more ‘real’ (and yes, that can mean costs) way than smiling and nodding. More than words.

I’ve also seen an increase in the ‘posting a carers assessment out’ style of assessing which can lose some of the subtleties gained in a conversation and a visit. Of course, not everyone wants an assessment because the language and the questions can be formalised and particularly we get the ‘I’m not a carer, I’m a spouse/child/parent’ response but I’d counter that’s something that can be addressed by a change in the way of ‘paper assessment’ and the language and discourse models that exist around social care. Why can’t we be more flexible regarding what an assessment actually is? Do we have to ask the questions on the form?

We give, others receive but that’s a tired model – particularly in relation to carers who give us, as a service and organisation – much much more than we can ever give them.

So why is it reduced to a paper assessment logged onto a computer database? Because that allows performance indicators to be met.

My ideal service would be more flexible about the ways that assessments are compiled and would allow much more for free text and less on box ticking. Box ticking can help some clarify but it by no means captures what role caring plays in all lives. ‘Caring’ is not uniform. There are a myriad of needs and a myriad of ways to both communicate this need and for support to be delivered – or there should be. If people want boxes to tick, by all means provide them but if they want open space to discuss or write or record what and how they feel about their role and what might help, then allow that too.

We also (in social care) need to work on our assumptions a lot. Families exist in different ways and have different histories. There may be many reasons that don’t need to be disclosed about caring may be more difficult in particular situations and assumptions can be very damaging.

The new Adult Social Care White Paper is imminent, apparently. There needs to be a commitment not just to assessments of carers but of delivery of services and support to carers. More than words.

While the government talks about ‘respite’ and the need for breaks, I’d argue that is essential but while the provision of services is being cut and there are fewer, more distant places to offer respite the realities will remain as far from the government planning as they are at present. Capital investment and investment in decent staffing in homes that offer respite consistently would help. Clear explanations about entitlements and potential costs would help. Services that speak to each other would help. Pooled budgets would help but the easy words come thick and fast. The solutions can’t be found by words alone.

The current system as it exists relies on carers significantly to ease the burden of cost of the social care system. This needs to be more transparent in terms of publishing details of how indicative personal budgets are arrived at and the amount that is ‘saved’ by a carer. If some of these ‘savings’ (not even a minute proportion – but some ) is ploughed back into effective and personalised support with professionals who are able to access and feedback good, local information and provide support and training to carers where they want it the savings over the long term would be much higher.

The cost of poor support for carers is much much higher than the cost of good support – but in these times of ‘belt-tightening’ it can be forgotten while we reach the goals of short term savings.

It’s a lesson that both the NHS and social care systems would be mindful to heed.

In order to support carers ‘In Sickness and In Health’ the government, the organisations such as the NHS and local authorities, employers and communities needs to provide ‘more than words’.

Images by W4nd3rl0st at Flickr and Sapphiren at Flickr