Staff under increasing pressure

IN his role as director of social care and health for Suffolk, Anthony Douglas is charged with the responsibility of trying to protect the county's children.

IN his role as director of social care and health for Suffolk, Anthony Douglas is charged with the responsibility of trying to protect the county's children.

Today he admitted his department had failed in its obligation to the baby boy who died after his father had raised his concerns in a letter.

Mr Douglas, who will shortly be leaving Suffolk County Council to become chief executive of specialist children's agency Cafcass, said:"There are no excuses. There are explanations but none of them are good enough.

"I am not happy about it and that is why we took immediate steps to review our procedures.


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"The only real explanation is a mixture of systems deficiency and human frailty.

Mr Douglas said his department, which has offices throughout the major towns in the county, has 100,000 referrals a year and thousands in any one day.

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"In any of the offices it is high pressure. Staff are dealing with incoming phone calls, emergencies and other things.

"But a letter that says a child needs protecting should be faxed to the local team immediately and they should go out. The letter we have warranted an assessment, certainly within 48 hours.

"Our staff are incredibly busy in dealing with masses of incoming referrals. They have got to make a judgement about the strength and priority of each one and in this case it should have had a higher priority."

Mr Douglas, who been a director of social services in both London and Suffolk over the past nine years, confirmed his staff had not taken any conclusive action over the father's letter about the risks he perceived, in the week between receiving it and the baby's death.

"We were several days behind getting it to where it should have got to. The local team were not aware of it until they heard the child had died.

"I have written to the father today expressing my condolences and apologising for not following up his letter as we should have done.

"I ordered an immediate review the next working day, re-issued our guidelines on handling post and updated our procedures. We are still working on those to make sure it never happens again."

Mr Douglas said the responsibility for the failure to inform social workers did not lay with just one person .

"It was a number of people who could have sent that letter on. It was not one person. It was really the system that was at fault."

He was at pains to stress that no social workers were involved at any stage and the fault lay elsewhere in the administrative process.

"We do have very strong procedures. We do have tough procedures, but the discipline broke down on this occasion. We do have a robust system but clearly it broke down. Clearly something did not distinguish this letter from others sufficiently."

Mr Douglas said the inquiry would continue but confirmed as yet no disciplinary action has been taken against any individual. He stressed up to now he and his department have concentrated on improving a system which has proved itself to be fallible, with a letter being pushed from one place to another but not being passed on to those in the field.

One of his primary concerns now is to reassure the public and ensure anyone who is worried about a child's safety still comes forward.

He said: "We are in the public confidence business. We get people ringing in every day alerting us to the situations children are in where they might need protection. We depend on having direct contact in confidence. We deal with, and protect, thousands of children a year successfully and I would urge them not to lose faith in the system, albeit because of this incident."

Mr Douglas' words come at a time when social care departments across the country are under growing pressure.

Although stating clearly she was not talking about the specific investigation currently under way in Suffolk, Sasha Carruthers, regional officer for UNISON, the union which represents SCC staff today said: "It is no secret that Suffolk County Council does not have as many social workers as it would like. We are concerned about this because we are concerned about our members taking on more work. But the problem with the shortage of social workers is a national one."

If you have had experience, good or bad, of Suffolk social services, then write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

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