Providing social workers with discretionary budgets resulted in creative solutions to help children, young people and families, new study finds

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Date of publication:  02 Apr 2020 Author:  Westlake, D. Corliss, C. El-Banna, A. Thompson, S. Meindl, M. Talwar, R. Publisher:  What Works for Children’s Social Care Publication type:  Report / Study / Data

'What Works for Children’s Social Care' collaborated with Cardiff University to explore how ‘devolved budgets’ might be used by social workers to provide resources to families and reduce the need for care. Frontline social workers were given various degrees of decision-making powers to spend an allocated budget in three pilot locations. The project reflects the idea that social workers are best placed to know what families need, and what could help to create sustainable change and keep children safe at home.

Key findings:

  1. All the pilots were successful in devolving decision-making powers to social workers, and social workers experienced less bureaucracy and quicker procedures to offer help.
  2. Budgets were used creatively, for a wide variety of purposes:
    - Practical, material and financial (e.g. bedding and clothing, home improvements and help with rent arrears)
    - Therapeutic (e.g. psychological assessments, or counselling for children or parents)
    - Relationship building (e.g. activities and opportunities for children and young people to build a connection with their social worker, or for families to spend quality time together)
  3. More unusual expenditures included: a replacement vehicle for a parent, a caravan as accommodation for grandparents (who were of Gypsy Roma traveller heritage) to act as Special Guardians, renovating parts of houses to improve the home environment, settling rent arrears, and arranging for a child to travel overseas and stay with relatives away from contextual harms.
  4. These purchases brought clear benefits for children and families.
  5. Most workers did not tell families how much resource was available and some families felt that decision-making should be further devolved to give them more choice in budget expenditure.
  6. The rate and amount of spending was lower than expected in all three pilots.
  7. After some initial reticence, social workers thrived when given the autonomy to administer budgets.
  8. While many of the children and families involved do not seem to have been at risk of entering care imminently, for some families, money was used to help children remain with their birth families.

Although the report acknowledges the need for further research into the subject, researchers recommend that local authorities seek to enable social workers to exercise freedom to make spending decisions, whether or not they implement devolved budgets.

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United Kingdom

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