A children’s services department will be removed from council control after a review found “deep-seated” poor social work practice and serious concerns about safety.
The review into Worcestershire council’s children’s services by a government-appointed commissioner, Trevor Doughty, also said senior leaders were “over-optimistic” about making improvements.
Following the report, Essex council has been formally appointed as Worcestershire’s ‘improvement partner’. Doughty has also been reappointed as commissioner to help develop an alternative delivery model for children’s services.
In his report, Doughty said Worcestershire’s ‘Family Front Door’, its gateway to services, “is not a safe system”.
“In my view, the consideration of contacts and referrals is not fully compliant with Working Together (2015),” he said. “Decisions are not made within 24 hours and there is a lack of management oversight of key safeguarding decisions. Thresholds are not properly understood and applied consistently.”
Worcestershire’s children’s services were rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in a report published in January, and Doughty identified continuing problems in key areas, including “work backlogs and excessive caseloads” due to the organisation of assessment teams.
This meant that vulnerable children who may be at risk of harm “do not always receive adequate and timely assessment of their needs or receive the appropriate help and protection”.
There was also a “lack of coherence and consistency in decision making” in early help due to the variety of channels used to access it.
The early help hub was “subsumed” into the Family Front Door in 2016, the report said, but there was “a lack of clarity in the Family Front Door as to what constitutes the early help offer”.
‘Early help not valued’
It added: “Early help is not properly recognised nor valued as a service that can make a significant contribution to safeguarding children, prior to, or at the same time, or following social care intervention. Early help provision is not routinely accessed as part of plans for children open to social care. This represents a systemic failure to safeguard children.”
Doughty also said the council’s leadership and management arrangements were “not in themselves sufficient to bring about the necessary improvement”.
He said there were “some committed and skilled practitioners, some of whom are achieving good practice standards and outcomes for children”. However, the system in which they were working “remains seriously flawed”.
Supervision and management oversight was “variable”, with the effectiveness and impact of the current approach, including the introduction of performance dashboards, “not evident in terms of improving the quality of practice and outcomes for children”.
Supervision was also “generally process based, managerial instruction rather than reflective consideration of safe practice focusing on outcomes for children”.
In addition, he identified “no system for ascertaining the wishes and feelings of children routinely”, stating: “Case audits and conversations with 7 practitioners reinforced the impression that the focus is on parents and carers rather than individual children.”
Despite “notable individual examples of high quality work”, the report said many practitioners “showed a lack of urgency and understanding as to the seriousness of shortfalls in safe practice”.
‘No green shoots’
Doughty said that while it would be “optimistic to expect significant cultural change and operational improvement” in the period since the council was made aware of Ofsted’s findings, there was “no compelling evidence of ‘green shoots’”.
He said: “I cannot find compelling evidence at this stage why the council should retain these services. This is not because of a lack of commitment at a senior political or senior officer level, it is because I have not been convinced that the analysis to date has been of the fundamental nature required and, therefore, the many initiatives are unlikely to be effective or show significant signs of being effective. The Council have not fully accepted my view during the review period.
“For these reasons, I cannot support Children’s Services remaining in Worcestershire County Council in their current format and an organisational form that is more likely to deliver whole system improvement is more likely to achieve the intended outcomes.”
He recommended a “two track approach”, firstly bringing in “additional senior expertise to deliver safer services”, then working with the council to develop an alternative delivery model.
The Department for Education has reappointed Doughty as commissioner and he is to report on the council’s recommended delivery model by 31 December.
It also issued a revised direction to Worcestershire. It must present a full business case for the proposed alternative delivery model by March 2018, and provide regular reports on its progress, the first by 30 November 2017.
In response to Doughty’s report, Worcestershire said that September’s council cabinet meeting would discuss “a recommendation to voluntarily place Children’s Services into a different form”.
Councillor Andy Roberts, Worcestershire’s cabinet member for children and families, said: “Our priority is to make sure that long term improvements are made to children and young people’s lives in Worcestershire. We remain absolutely committed to that and we have already allocated an extra £5.1 million into improving Children’s Social Care in Worcestershire this year.
“I am pleased that Essex County Council has now been formally appointed as our Improvement Partner. Essex will support us to deliver the improvements that we need to deliver.”