‘Scariest place I’ve worked’: social worker recalls stint in Bradford

Frank Thomson* has been a social worker for more than a decade, but describes a short stint in Bradford council’s child safeguarding team as “without exaggerating, the scariest place I’ve ever worked in”.

This week, the spotlight has turned to the troubled social work department after the murder of Star Hobson, a 16-month-old toddler, who was beaten to death by her mother’s partner last September. On Wednesday, Savannah Brockhill, 28, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder; Frankie Smith, 20, Star’s mother, received an eight-year sentence for causing or allowing her death.

Thomson said he was not surprised when he read that there had been at least five safeguarding referrals to Bradford’s social services in Star’s case. Social workers visited on four occasions, and closed the case three times. The first referral was in January 2020, not long before Thomson began working as a locum social worker in the department.

“I wasn’t surprised … because my experience reflected what I was reading,” he said. “Chaotic, everything was reactive and they couldn’t retain staff.”

Thomson, who has no knowledge of Star’s case, said his experience of the department was poor processes, inexperienced, overworked staff and a culture of trying to close cases or “put plasters on them”.

“It’s what social workers do when they’re really under the cosh. They can’t cope with the caseloads or if they’re on duty all the time, they try to get control of it.

“Sometimes that happens – when social workers are under a lot of pressure to make very quick decisions, sometimes you get them wrong. That’s what can happen when you work in that kind of culture. That’s why I left, because I thought, I can’t control the work I’m doing, something might happen.”

Thomson said he reported concerns to a manager before he left.

“Normally as an agency worker, you read the Ofsted report before you go in, so you know what you’re going into. When there is a lot of agency workers en masse, it is usually quite chaotic,” said Thomson.

What he read was that inspectors had deemed Bradford’s children services “inadequate” in 2018, saying that a spike in demand for services at the same time as the loss of a significant number of experienced social workers and managers had left children at risk of significant harm.

Despite this, Thomson found “Bradford was different” from other authorities he had worked in.

“It was in an absolute state of flux. You couldn’t control any of your work. You’re kind of in this spiralling kind of vortex, that’s what it felt like. And I’ve been doing locum work for quite a few years. I thought, this is not a safe place to work, so I left very quickly.”

Several other agency staff, all experienced social workers, also left within a few weeks, he said. Despite a recruitment drive to attract permanent staff last year, Bradford spent £17.4m on agency children’s social work staff in 2020-21, and £11.7m the year before.

Thomson said he was given a large caseload in a matter of weeks. “I’m quite an experienced social worker, but if you come in and face 27 cases, you think, where the hell do I start with this? And then you look at the date of the referrals, some were three or four months ago.”

Thomson described an overly convoluted IT system which slowed the number of visits he was able to go on, leading some staff to devise “their own system to cope” where they would print referrals and then handwrite notes on top. “The work wasn’t even on the system. So I had all these handwritten notes that I couldn’t make any sense of whatsoever. I’ve never had that before.”

Thomson has worked in several boroughs across the north, including Liverpool and Manchester. “I’m used to big cities, so I’m used to a very high pace of work. But Bradford made Manchester feel like it was a provincial, rural community,” he said.

Some of that is down to the challenges facing the council – Bradford District has one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country, with 30.4% of children in absolute low-income families, compared with the England average of 15.3%. It is also one of Europe’s youngest cities – almost a quarter of the district’s half a million people is under 16.

A spokesperson for Bradford council said: “We’re committed to improving outcomes for children and Ofsted has recognised improvements have been made. The Council is working closely with the government-appointed commissioner and partner agencies to accelerate improvement.

“A new children’s services management team is in place. They are listening to staff and acting on their suggestions to introduce improvements. These include dedicated practice supervisors, extensive programmes of training, and improved terms and conditions. Since 2020, £31m has been invested by the council to improve services, including enhanced IT systems, so we can better support frontline social work.”

* Not his real name.

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