Good Practice: North Ayrshire children services

North Ayrshire children's services have been hailed as a progressive model for the whole of Scotland. Julie Griffiths finds out why

North Ayrshire children’s services have been hailed as a progressive model for the whole of Scotland. Julie Griffiths finds out why

(pictured: Iona Colvin, corporate director of social services at North Ayrshire Council)

Project details

● Project: A multi-agency approach to domestic violence referrals

● Reason: If children did not require compulsory measures of care, the former system of notifying the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) of children in a household where there had been domestic abuse was heavy-handed. It made an already difficult situation worse for the young people involved.

● Aim: to provide an immediate and proportionate response, led by those who know the child/family best, usually a teacher or health visitor.

● How it works: A multi-agency system for sharing information and assessing risk was developed by all partners; health, police, children’s reporter, social services, housing and education. The lead professional takes the decision on whether social services need to be involved. Young people do not unnecessarily progress through the children’s hearing system, avoiding the upset that entails, and ensures a more effective use of the service.

● Cost: Nil – the only cost is staff time.

● Service users: Between 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010, there were 854 incidents involving 1,507 children. There was a drop in the number of requests for initial assessment reports and social background reports from 290 to 200. There has also been a drop from 24 to six children made subject of Section 70 orders.

North Ayrshire child protection services were last month hailed as a model for the rest of Scotland. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) highlighted several examples of good practice that should be shared across the nation (see boxes).

The report is the result of an inspection in April and May of this year, during which HMIE looked at the work of North Ayrshire child protection committee within the community. The committee is a multi-agency strategic partnership between North Ayrshire council, NHS Ayrshire and Arran, Strathclyde Police, the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) and the voluntary sector.

The inspection report says that parents and carers are helped by “a wide range of very effective, flexible support which is put in place at an early stage to help them care for their children”. It praised services for providing practical help as well as emotional support, both given at times when families need it most. “They often receive intensive support in the evenings and at weekends,” says the report.

The inspection team noted a number of particular strengths, such as staff responding quickly to children who need help.

An example of this is the way in which domestic abuse referrals are handled. Previously, standard procedure was for police officers to notify SCRA if they attended a domestic violence incident and found children in the household. This was felt to be a heavy-handed approach for young people who did not approach the threshold for requiring care.

Now improved multi-agency working ensures a more proportionate response. Young people who do not need to go through the children’s hearing system can avoid it, preventing additional upset for them, and ensuring a more effective use of the service.

Iona Colvin, corporate director of social services at North Ayrshire Council, says multi-agency working is a crucial component in children’s services. This approach has been a particular focus for development over the past two years. And it has been successful with the inspection team picking out leadership and teamwork as being particularly strong in children’s services.

“Where partnership working goes wrong is when we forget to focus on the outcomes, which is of course the key reason for it in the first place,” says Colvin. “Here, there is a real focus on the needs of children and delivering better services.”

A Better Childhood, the integrated children’s services plan, has clear aims about what services want to achieve. And children’s needs are on the agenda of all partners.

“A lot of multi-agency training goes on so that services – in particular the NHS and the police – feel that when they’re meeting families they will recognise when something is not quite right,” says Colvin. “They’ll know how to escalate it or who to ask.”

Another aspect of ensuring children’s needs are met is supporting social workers. To prevent frontline staff from feeling overwhelmed, their caseloads are kept to a reasonable level. The average caseload in the children and families department is 15.

“It’s so they can work with families in a way that’s positive, doing a lot of work face-to-face,” says Colvin.

The council has also made significant resources available to children’s services. Since 2006-7 the council has invested more than £7m in improving services to looked-after and accommodated children. This includes £3.6m for a strategic review of residential services, ensuring more young people can be looked after and accommodated close to their own communities, and improving the level of support and service in the council’s residential units. A further £2.5m has been invested in foster care to move young people from institutional to family care settings.

By the end of 2010-11, social services will have completed a programme of £6.4m capital investment in children’s units. This includes construction of four new purpose-built units, two of which are already open, with a further two scheduled to open in 2011, together with upgrades to existing facilities.

But it is not only children with complex and urgent needs who benefit. The report also finds strength in services’ ability to offer help and support to those who need it at an early stage.

This is evident in a programme of early interventions at nurseries. When staff identify parents who may be struggling to cope, health visitors are on hand to help. They advise on parenting skills in general but also specific problems such as children who do not sleep and those with control or boundary issues.

This type of early intervention work could be threatened by the financial constraints facing the public sector, but Colvin believes it is important that it continues.

“A bit of courage is needed in taking things forward when everyone’s budgets are under pressure,” she says.

Domestic violence scheme

The Home Security Project was set up in January 2005. The council identified a lack of support for vulnerable people whose violent partners no longer lived in the same home, but continued to harass and threaten the family.

The project provides extra security measures such as additional locks on doors and windows, security lights, spy holes, safe rooms and panic alarms linked to the police.

Emotional support is also offered via groups such as Women’s Aid, Break the Silence and Victim Support.

Stephen Brown, reception services manager, says: “In the past, people have had to go into hiding. The improvement in security means they don’t have to leave.”

Referrals to the project are made from social services, Strathclyde Police, housing services and third sector organisations. Self-referral is also possible.

The service helps about 500 people per year.

Brown says that the greatest benefit reported by families is a sense of safety. But the project also helps maintain routine and normality.

“Children don’t have to move school and it helps to keep the child’s network of friends which is very important.”

An immediate and proportionate response

North Ayrshire Council has also been praised for its identification of vulnerable children during homeless presentation. In the past a number of young people were presenting to the council as homeless, seeking a flat or house of their own.

Sometimes the reason given for leaving the family home was abuse, even though the young person was unknown to social services. To overcome this issue the homeless officer is now proactive in establishing the reasons a young person does not wish to remain in the family home and helps to identify if there are also younger children at the address. A child protection referral is submitted to social services for assessment.

In 2009, 527 young people aged 16-25 approached the council saying they were homeless, resulting in five child protection referrals to social services involving six children.

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