SOCIAL workers fear there could be a “child tragedy” amongst the most vulnerable families in the area thanks to changes in the service last year.

A group of 60 staff of West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC) have submitted a collective grievance following the closure of the Vale of Leven offices, in Alexandria’s Church Street, for children and families last year.

Two former teams were merged into one and they now operate out of Clydebank’s Aurora House.

But that has left a backlog of more than 200 unallocated cases, the Post has been told.

Concerned social workers did approach Community Party councillor Jim Bollan to highlight the problem, saying they even felt forced to breach professional codes of practice because of the current situation.

They said the “crisis” was disregarding lives in favour of saving money.

In a statement to the councillor, the workers said: “The move to bring the two teams together was rushed and unplanned and there was very poor leadership or direction in a time of significant organisational change.

“The teams are working and living in a state of high anxiety, and there is a genuine concern that a child tragedy could occur.

Read more: Social work office axed as staff move to Clydebank

“Due to the demands we are trying to meet, across the authority area, staff spend most of their time out in the community and as a result are often denied the support that is crucial in child protection work.”

They continued: “Social workers are registered with the SSSC [Scottish Social Services Council] and at the moment feel that they are being forced to breach their codes of practice on a daily basis.

“All of this is occurring in a community where poverty is significant and our children are going hungry.”

Cllr Bollan told the Post the social workers previously could have responded quickly, but that the distance to Aurora House in Clydebank and the added workload could have severe consequences.

He said: “I think they were frightened if the council knew they were speaking to me. But they are dedicated to their work.

“They buy in to the fact they are working with extremely vulnerable families on the edge, and it got to breaking point, that they could not continue to work like this.

“At a time when Universal Credit is coming in and putting additional pressure on families, the workers are saying it is immoral and dangerous to be cutting the service. They are frightened there will be a tragedy.

“It’s unheard of for 60 workers to put in a collective grievance.

“They need to get back to two dedicated teams where local knowledge and facilities are a huge plus to dealing with vulnerable families. You need to get back to a safe service.”

Social workers said they were concerned about the increase in the number of looked after children - there were 451 in the most recent statistics from 2018. They said child protection referrals have trebled over the last three years and are increasingly complex.

They said: “We have always prided ourselves on intervening early and offering support to families to keep children at home. The resources available to us have been so stripped in recent years that we are not intervening often at crisis points.

“Our service is in crisis and the lives and futures of the children in West Dunbartonshire are being disregarded in attempts to save money.”

The area’s health and social care partnership (HSCP) published statistics last month showing child and adolescent mental health services were missing targets because of “ongoing staff vacancies”. Child protection investigations have also dropped significantly below a target of 21 days.

The HSCP said their budget was in a better position thanks to a number of empty posts - but that was putting on extra pressure for services.

Social workers agreed and told Cllr Bollan they were struggling to cover the whole authority from Clydebank and the “crisis” was having an impact.

“We are unable to meet the demands of contact for children and their families, with contacts being cancelled every week, including those which are statutory via the Children’s Hearing system,” the staff said.

“The demands on staff are extreme and dedicated social workers are struggling to manage the demands in trying to protect our most vulnerable residents.

“Staff are having to cover the work of the unfilled posts and this has also led to sickness due to stress which places a further burden on overstretched workers.”

Labour first put the Church Street offices into a “rationalisation” programme in 2014. The plan to close it was put on hold by the SNP when they came to power, but in October 2017, they voted to close the facility.

The move was immediately met with dismay by members of the public and concerns from residents that the relocation plan would hit vulnerable families.

But the head of children’s health, care and criminal justice services, Jackie Irvine, told the 2017 meeting, “My preference is I bring all my staff together. If you kept [Church Street] open, I would be significantly concerned about staff.”

Council leader Jonathan McColl argued: “What we have here is a really good solution.”

At the time of the change, there were two under-12 teams, one on each side of West Dunbartonshire, while youth services and a children with disability team are based in Aurora House. A duty social worker staffed both offices on rotation.

Social workers told Cllr Bollan that a majority having to work from their cars, “leaving them extremely isolated and vulnerable while carrying out challenging and often risky work in the community”.

They said: “Social workers are often in highly charged, emotional and at times risky situations.

“They are currently trying to do this work knowing that their support system is a significant distance away and could not respond quickly to offer assistance.

“The team cannot respond quickly to crisis and have to travel the length of the authority area to do so, which can take up to 30 minutes and at times longer.

“Should a member of the public need our support in an unplanned way, as is often the case, we have to visit them at home.

“There are bookable rooms at Church Street [in Dumbarton] but these are often busy.”

Staff said there was no space available to facilitate contact between looked after and children and their families, with the Vale health centre being “unsafe” for workers.

They said: “Support staff facilitating contacts are now spending 95 per cent of their time out of the office trying to cover all the contact required, which leaves them vulnerable and with no access to face-to-face support.”

Beth Culshaw, chief officer for West Dunbartonshire Health and Social Care Partnership said: “We remain committed to providing every assistance our social work staff need to fully support our children and young people.

“We are actively engaging with staff and their trade union representatives to resolve any concerns they may have, and further enhance the vital service they provide.

“Over the last two years, we have increased spending on children and families by £1.5 million and have given an assurance that this will continue to be reviewed to ensure it is allocated where it is needed most.

“The three social worker vacancies in the service are out to advert with interviews set to take place, and agency social workers will remain in place to support the team until the new staff are in post.”