A major overhaul of Doncaster Council children’s services was ordered by the government on 12 March 2009 after inspectors identified “serious weaknesses” in performance.
Children’s secretary Ed Balls ordered the appointment of a new senior management team, overseen by an external improvement board reporting directly to ministers.
Referring to an on-site assessment of services by officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, Balls said: “Despite significant investment over the past year and some progress, the review has concluded that urgent improvement is still required.”
The DCSF had carried out a “diagnostic review” of safeguarding in Doncaster, after damning annual performance assessment, published in December, in which Ofsted graded Doncaster as inadequate for safeguarding and overall in children’s services.
Safeguarding under fire
Ofsted had found that although the number of children subject to a child protection plan was significantly higher than in similar authorities, one in four of those cases was not allocated to a social worker.
On safeguarding, Doncaster’s 2008 annual performance assessment found:
- The local safeguarding children board had not ensured effective implementation of procedures and practice to support the management of child protection allegations.
- The number of children subject to a child protection plan was significantly higher than in similar authorities.
- One in four child protection cases was not allocated to a social worker.
- The number of looked-after children with an allocated social worker had declined significantly.
- The proportion of initial and core assessments completed within target timescales was low and significantly worse than in similar authorities.
The DCSF diagnostic review, which was published in April 2009, echoed a number of these criticisms. It found it was still unclear whether child protection cases were allocated and the local safeguarding children board was not working effectively.
The improvement board, whose role is to scrutinise the performance and delivery of children’s services in Doncaster, is chaired by Tony Elson, a former director of social services and later chief executive with Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire.
Following Ball’s announcement, the elected mayor of Doncaster, Martin Winter, announced he would stand down at the next election in June and pledged his full cooperation with the government’s intervention strategy in his remaining 12 weeks in office.
Later in March, in response to Ball’s call for a new senior management team, Leicestershire Council director of children’s services Gareth Williams was appointed to the same role in Doncaster, on an interim basis, succeeding Dr Paul Gray.
In June 2009, Winter was succeeded by Peter Davies, who represents the English Democrats Party and vowed to make improving child protection a priority.
In the same month, Doncaster published a plan to make its safeguarding services ‘oustanding’ by 2012.
- Reducing the number of unallocated child protection cases to zero.
- Reducing children’s services vacancies to 7%. A Community Care survey of councils had found social worker vacancy rates in children’s services were 19%, as of 31 January 2009.
However, in an interview with Community Care in June 2009, Roger Thompson, the independent chair of Doncaster Safeguarding Children Board, warned that negative publicity surrounding Doncaster was deterring social workers from applying to work there.
He was responding to the latest two of five damning serious case reviews published on the deaths of children in the borough since July 2007.
Serious case reviews
In June 2009, agencies were criticised for failing to protect Amy Howson and Alfie Goddard, both of whom were murdered by their fathers.
Agencies missed three key opportunities to protect a 16-month old Amy Howson who died in December 2007 from multiple injuries including bruising to her forehead, face, neck and “thin, poorly nourished” body.
The review into 11-week-old Alfie’s death in March 2008, found there were “numerous indicators” to show Alfie and his sibling were vulnerable and the family was in need, but ten agencies, including Doncaster PCT and children’s social care, had failed to take these account.
In December 2008, a serious case review into the death of a 10-month-old boy found children’s services at Doncaster were “grossly inadequate.” The review into the case known as child A revealed the department had failed to respond to ten referrals about the family. It found staff had “unmanageable workloads” and described the situation in the team dealing with the case as “chaotic and dangerous.”
In January 2008, a serious case review into the death of a baby in October 2004 was published. The three-month old died as a result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in after sharing a bed with his alcoholic mother.
In the meantime, another child also died from Sids in similar circumstances in the area in May 2006. The baby, aged seven months, had been sharing a bed with her mother, who had alcohol problems. The serious case review was published in July 2007.
Two further SCRs are due to be published, with a third likely to be produced in relation to the case of Ashley James Shaw, who died in June 2009, aged just 10 weeks. The council confirmed he was known to children’s social care.
Critics have claimed that Doncaster has a legacy of management turmoil in children’s services.
In 2004, Winter appointed Mark Hodson as director of children’s services, despite the fact that he had no public sector background. Hodson, formerly in the frozen food business, left in 2007, following which there was a period without a director. An interim director, Jim Crook, was then appointed, before Gray was brought in on government recommendation in April 2008.
‘Culture of secrecy’
Opposition councillors have also raised concerns about “a culture of secrecy” in children’s services. They said they did not know about the various SCRs being produced – relating to cases dating back to 2004 – until they were reported in the local paper in 2008.