by Tom Perkins
Disabled children are the most vulnerable children in our society, but historically they have been marginalised by both it, and by a number of local authority disabled children’s services. The proposed joint CQC and Ofsted inspections to start in May 2016 are a step in the right direction to local authority disabled children’s services being the subject of a full inspection in their own right – which includes safeguarding.
The inspections from May 2016 are aimed at the implementation of the SEND Code of Practice and, more specifically, Education, Health and Care plans. These were introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014. To leave out safeguarding is a missed opportunity as the Code of Practice has specific reference to safeguarding.
Local authorities in England have responded differently to the changes introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014, which raised the age limit for local authority support in the form of an Education, Health and Care plan to 25.
These are some examples taken from the practice of local authorities I am aware of:
- Local Authority A – has moved their service to adult services
- Local Authority B – has disbanded their service and moved disabled children into general children’s teams
- Local Authority C – has their service located within their SEND service
- Local Authority D – has retained a separate service within children’s services
Moving a disabled children’s service raises a number of questions about management oversight and the safeguarding of these children because of differing line management arrangements. In practice, disabled children’s services are children’s teams and they must follow the same safeguarding procedures as other children’s teams.
Disabled children’s services have not always been seen to have a central role regarding safeguarding in a local authority – especially by other sections of children’s services. In some local authorities, disabled children’s services are marginalised and seen as second class, while the ‘real work’ is undertaken in children’s services.
In 2012, Ofsted published ‘Protecting Disabled Children – thematic inspection’, reinforcing the need to ensure disabled children are safe – before looking at their other needs. The same should be the case for the single/joint service inspections.
In its inspections of local authority children’s services, Ofsted does inspect disabled children’s services. However, inspectors are more inclined to look at children who have either a child protection or looked-after child plan. This is because these plans are overseen by an independent reviewing officer.
However, the mix of a typical disabled children’s service workload is very different from a children’s team where virtually all the children will have either a child protection or looked-after plan. Very few will be long-term children in need.
A typical disabled children’s service team workload will be as follows:
Total workload of 275-300 cases/disabled children
– Child Protection = 1-5
– Looked-after child = 10-15
– Child In Need = 255-280
This raises the question as to what is happening with the 255-plus disabled children with a child in need plan. How local authorities manage child in need plans is key to the safety of disabled children. The child in need plan does not have any independent scrutiny by an independent reviewing officer or a court. Instead, the child in need plan can at worst ‘drift’ and few – if any – safeguards are in place to prevent this. Ofsted has traditionally not looked extensively at this group of children. It would be very concerned if it did.
‘Direction of travel’
Ofsted expects local authorities to fully understand the concept of ‘direction of travel’ – whereby children are escalated/deescalated to an appropriate plan. However, few are able to do this in practice. Local authorities tend to use the ‘high’ child in need or ‘low’ child in need as a way of managing the team workload and using the following practices:
- Full deallocation – where there is no allocated social worker, although services are being provided
- Visiting a child a minimum of every 6-12 months.
- Not having up to date assessments
- Not having strong child-centred child in need plans or a review process that is independent of the team.
The management of a workload which is predominantly child in need cases is fundamentally different from a children’s team – because of the very high child in need numbers. As part of my role in transforming disabled children’s services teams, I have undertaken a detailed themed audit of 825 disabled children across three different local authorities over the past two years which revealed far greater problems for those disabled children who have a child in need plan:
- The majority will not have an up to date assessment.
- Many will not have any assessment at all.
- Many will not have seen a social worker for up to one year, and in some cases five years.
- Very few have any formal recorded management oversight.
- A similar picture emerges for discussion in supervision.
Following these audits, two out of the three local authorities responded very positively, acknowledging there were serious safeguarding issues and were proactive in ensuring children were safe. In both cases they ensured every child had an allocated worker and the focus shifted from an unsafe model based on organisational needs to one very focused on safeguarding the child. A separate Ofsted inspection of safeguarding arrangements for disabled children’s services would highlight for local authorities their responsibilities to disabled children.
Disabled children are seriously underrepresented in child protection statistics. Despite the Ofsted thematic report – the trend has continued. In 2014, the Scottish Parliament issued guidance and research evidence detailing the increased vulnerability of disabled children to all forms of harm. The NSPCC has issued similar advice.
As local authorities respond to the demands of the SEND Code of Practice and the emphasis on EHC Plans, there are new responsibilities under the Care Act 2014 in respect of the transitional arrangements for disabled children as they move into adult services. The danger is that the child becomes invisible amid large structural changes – especially if a disabled children’s service is moved out of children’s services or is closed altogether. To ensure the child remains at the centre of any plans there is a greater need than ever for an inspection of disabled children’s services in their own right, and separated from general children’s services.
Tom Perkins is a disabled children’s team manager