There are many who seek to criticize the performance of given social workers when a case goes horribly wrong - for example when a child dies. We have seen this in the Baby P case when social worker Shoesmith became vilified in the media. Critics might do better to focus on casework management.
A recent review in the UK has noted very high caseloads. It is not rocket science to see that social workers can only successfully manage so many cases. It is a human limitation. The metaphor of how many balls can you successfully juggle until one falls is appropriate.
If a social worker has 40 cases to manage at any given time, failure is inevitable. When we have not done a good job of staffing case loads get high, details get missed, signs of growing danger slip by unattended and the dangerous brew ferments.
Some will argue that the solution is to not open so many cases. Critics of child protection have long argued that too many cases are ones where there are no significant risks and child protection is meddling in families that are getting by at acceptable levels. They go on to argue that too many cases get opened in the wake of scandals such as Baby P in order to try and avoid another such case. The outcome is high caseloads and, perversely, more risk of another tragedy. Such critics have a point.
Equally, however, are the budget arguments that see politicians state that costs must be contained and staffing gets tightened. This also increases caseloads but it limits what cases are getting opened. This can increase the risk of a tragedy as well. As budgets get tighter and tighter, the criteria for opening a case also gets tighter. This means that the level of risk being tolerated increases within the community. It takes higher levels of damage or crisis to get child protection involved.
Researchers and policy think tanks need to work on where the balance exists. Too often this debate is informed only by the voices of those who are pro or con to child protection.
If you want to read about the UK story on high caseloads go to http://www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/2010/09/08/115261/one-in-six-social-workers-have-more-than-40-cases.htm