Safeguarding services in Norfolk have been rated inadequate after Ofsted inspectors warned the council's child protection arrangements were “patchy and inconsistent”.
An unannounced inspection last month found social work practice was “very poor” in too many cases. This means the authority can't be sure that all children in the county needing protection have been identified, assessed or given enough support, Ofsted said.
The rating - which the council described as “very disappointing” - follows a 2011 inspection that found elements of Norfolk’s child protection arrangements were inadequate. Government officials are now reportedly considering whether the service should be outsourced, or an improvement board established.
Children left vulnerable for lengthy periods
Inspectors found the authority's arrangements for responding to, and assessing, early child protection concerns were weak. While some children were well protected, other young people were left vulnerable without social work intervention for too long.
Too many initial assessments appeared rushed, with neither the child nor their parents seen by social workers. When it was recommended that a core assessment be done to investigate need and risk, there were often delays, leaving children at risk of potential harm for lengthy periods.
Although senior leaders were praised for "considerable activity" to manage child protection at a strategic level, this has not led to sustained improvements in social work. Inspectors saw big variations in social work caseloads, which affected frontline managers’ capacity to respond effectively to children’s needs.
Recommendations for immediate action
The watchdog flagged a number of issues, which it wants to see addressed immediately. They include ensuring all child protection enquiries are carried out by a qualified social worker, and that assessments are consistent, timely and high quality, including an effective risk analysis.
There were some examples of good practice, however. Inspectors were impressed by the the county's Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), which was funded against a backdrop of budget cuts. Ofsted said it's added "considerable value to the council and its partners’ initial response to risk of harm".
Lisa Christensen, the council’s director of children’s services, said: “Inspectors have given us some very clear messages about how we must improve our safeguarding service across the board and we will rise to the challenge they have set us."
Tougher inspection criteria has 'raised the bar'
She said Ofsted has “raised the bar” with its current inspection criteria - a view shared by other directors - but recognised children and families have the right to expect the highest standards, admitting “this judgement is simply not good enough”.
Alison Thomas, Norfolk's cabinet member for children’s services, said the judgement was “very disappointing”.
“We must now move forward and I will have very clear oversight of the formal improvement plan and work very hard with the director and the Department for Education to bring about the necessary improvements as quickly as possible,” she said.
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