The way social workers in Liverpool are being left to respond to child protection concerns is “unacceptable” and “not compliant” with statutory guidance, inspectors have warned.
A joint targeted area inspection of agencies, carried out by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HMI Constabulary and HMI Probation, found a joint unit set up by police and social services to work with children at risk of serious harm had failed to consider joint investigations at the point of referral, and instead left social workers to make initial assessments without police input.
The inspectors’ report said: “Social workers undertake the assessment or investigation as a single agency. It is only if there is evidence of an offence that the police will become involved, following a further strategy discussion.
“Such practice is unacceptable; it is not compliant with ‘Working Together’ and it contributes to delays in identifying (and so protecting) children and young people at risk of harm.”
The deep-dive inspection, which had a focus on child sexual exploitation, found some evidence of “strong collaboration” between agencies but warned of “serious and widespread” deficiencies across the partnership.
Inspectors found a “failure of management” in children’s services had led to a lack of clarity over child protection strategy meetings. As a result there was “duplication and delay in progressing work”, with some children waiting weeks before receiving effective interventions to reduce harm.
Inspectors also found agencies showed a lack of urgency in speaking to victims after allegations were made and warned of “repeated failures” by the police to speak to suspects about specific allegations of sexual exploitation.
Across agencies, confusion around thresholds and capacity issues had created drift and delay when assessing risk. Referrals to social care “were not of consistently good quality”, inspectors said. The majority of referrals were made as a result of a telephone call, when an agreed multi-agency referral form should have been used.
“Vital information to inform decision making is not captured. In most cases, it is not clear if consent has been obtained from families prior to the referral.”
A high volume of referrals had caused delays in the multi-agency safeguarding hub process, the inspection found, and high caseloads for frontline assessment teams had caused delays in some children being seen.
“This is a result of a six-month period when work could not be transferred from the assessment teams to court care planning teams because of staff shortages,” the inspection concluded.
The report noted that a new children in need team had been established by senior managers to reduce caseloads, and enable social workers to improve assessment quality. Resources for the services were also being protected, with £6m being used from the council’s reserves, it added.
Responding to the report, Barry Kushner, cabinet member for children’s services at Liverpool council, said: “Although inspectors have pointed to the good work happening, particularly around awareness raising of the issue of [child sexual exploitation], we clearly have more to do in developing our partnership working and we are on with tackling that.
“We have already drawn up a detailed action plan to address the findings, and we will be regularly reviewing the progress.”