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Social workers

A review of the caseloads of social workers is under way, prompted by social workers voicing concerns about what they see as an overwhelming amount of work they are being asked to take on. The review will look at how the problem can be fixed.

It's expected to be finished in December 2013, and recommendations will be made to the Government in January. This could include whether more resources are needed and how many cases a social worker should be handling, depending on their experience.

Heavy caseloads put CYF staff under pressure

Child Youth and Family (CYF) social workers deal with children suffering severe physical and sexual abuse, neglect and behavioural conditions - and some are dealing with up to 40 cases at a time.

That's a stark contrast to the recommended 12-18 cases per social worker, and it's a workload which has prompted a review.

Notifications to CYF have quadrupled in the past eight years, which one social worker said it was frustrating but a reality. Also a reality was the possibility children could be in danger while social workers are caught up in the administration of such large case loads.

One social worker, who could not be named to protect the children she works with but who had been with the agency for more than a decade, said social workers were frustrated with the workload but kept on because they had the children's best interests at heart.

"We will voice our frustrations but, at the end of the day, we are here to do a job that is vital for the community and we just have to keep plugging on despite deficits," she said.

"These are hard times and children are getting hurt more and more every day. We believe in what we do."

The woman is based in the Manurewa, South Auckland, office - one of the busiest nationwide, and which deals with some of the worst abuse.

She told of recently serving legal papers to a mother for permanent guardianship of her three children, one of whom has severe health problems.

"The medical records say this girl is going to die if this continues, because she has to be in a sterile environment, and I was quite concerned that the family didn't take it seriously because they were like 'yeah, that's what they said but we've been living with her and she's not dead yet'," the woman said.

"You can't be ambivalent to the concerns like that, so we had to step in.

Five-year-old in charge

And then there's the alcoholic mother-of-five, all aged under five, who left the children home alone.

"The children said that's what their mother always does. She's only 26 and they were looking after their siblings, who were quite young," the social worker said.

"You never leave a five-year-old to look after a dog, much less another human being."

Each CYF office has a manager to oversee the day-to-day operations and in Manurewa that's Jonelle McNeill, who has worked for the agency for about 15 years.

"How do you cope with it? It's about having a perspective of knowing that what they're doing is meaningful, what they're doing is making a difference, what they're doing is the right thing to do, and it kind of balances up all the other demands, while still acknowledging the fact that we do know there are workload and capability issues," Ms McNeill said.

Social workers apprehensive

Association of Social Workers in Aotearoa chief executive Lucy Sandford-Reed has raised concerns with CYF about the caseloads and a lack of professional support.

She welcomed the caseload review but said there was apprehension among members.

"The proof of the pudding will come in what's identified, what the recommendations are and what the plans are around implementing those recommendations. That's where the rubber hits the road," Ms Sandford-Reed said.

She was not confident the Government would fix the problem of under-resourcing, if that was identified as an issue in the review.

But chief social worker Paul Nixon admitted the caseload was, at times, overwhelming and believed the review would identify the problems.

Statistics clearly showed a significant rise in notifications to CYF, with many assessments taking place, Mr Nixon said.

"Also, our case reviews were highlighting the issues around busyness the social workers were experiencing.

"We expect social workers to be busy - that's good - but we don't want them to be overwhelmed with the volume," he said.

The case load review is expected to be finished before Christmas, with recommendations handed to the Government in January 2014.