“Long-term failures” to identify suitable placements for children with complex needs have left some living in “unsafe”, unregulated environments, Ofsted has found during an inspection of Northamptonshire children’s services.
The visit to the troubled county, which is due to have its children’s services transferred to a trust by 2020, uncovered a long list of shortcomings that led inspectors to conclude it was “failing to keep children safe”.
Problems at Northamptonshire, where social workers were found to be “overwhelmed and drowning” during a focused visit by Ofsted in autumn 2018, have been spotlighted recently by a critical commissioner’s report that was swiftly followed by two highly critical serious case reviews (SCRs).
The council’s initial response to the SCRs was found wanting by Ofsted, with the inspection report describing it as slow and resulting in “poor quality” plans – though it said senior managers had since addressed this with more robust action.
Leadership at the council was identified by inspectors as one area of progress, with the report noting that a stable top-level group was coalescing and trying to implement good ideas.
“Staff report that morale has improved over very recent months with an increasing confidence in the current senior management team,” Ofsted noted. “Cafcass and the judiciary acknowledge the very recent improvements in service responses, and this is a positive base to build on with partners to improve outcomes for children.”
But inspectors said that “serious weaknesses” remain, some of them exacerbated due to stringent cuts brought in due to Northamptonshire’s effective bankruptcy in 2018.
‘Poor experiences and increased risk’
Across services for children in need of help and protection, inspectors found that assessments were short on information about children and their lived experiences, meaning plans were often ineffective and hard to monitor.
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“Actions formulated in child protection conferences are not sufficiently clear about the objectives and expectations of what is to be achieved to improve children’s circumstances,” the report added.
“Conference chairs escalate issues, but this is not effective as there is rarely a sufficient response by managers to address the issues raised,” it said. “As a result, children’s situations do not always improve, resulting in poor experiences and increased risk.”
In some cases, inspectors found, children were being left at risk of significant harm in neglectful situations because of over-optimism among staff – a failing highlighted by the recent SCRs.
Though the number of unallocated cases fell from 267 in October 2018 to 86 in June, many children, including those with complex needs, still lacked an allocated social worker, Ofsted said, meaning their circumstances were not properly understood.
Others did not have their needs met because of a lack of specialist services. “Some have been decommissioned or significantly reduced because of budget pressures,” the report said. “Opportunities are missed to improve children’s and families’ experiences and prevent children’s needs from escalating.”
Children left vulnerable to exploitation
The majority of children involved with services who were in danger of sexual exploitation did not have an up-to-date risk assessment, inspectors found.
Nor had criminal exploitation, described as “increasingly prevalent” in Northamptonshire, been adequately integrated into local targeted support services that were otherwise found to be operating well.
Some “highly vulnerable” children in care were found by inspectors to be living in dangerous unregulated environments due to longstanding issues around matching individuals to appropriate placements.
A “small cohort” of care leavers, meanwhile, had been left homeless after services had failed to prevent them from ending up in “unsuitable and unsafe” places.
Northamptonshire’s approach to helping young homeless people was identified more generally as a weak spot, with support around finding suitable accommodation being too slow, meaning too many were being left in inappropriate circumstances.
‘Comprehensive and credible’ plan
Despite the litany of failings, inspectors described Northamptonshire children’s services’ senior management team as having a “comprehensive and credible” plan for service improvement.
Ofsted noted that while past attempts at making things better had mostly resulted in tinkering around the edges, the new team were taking an “end-to-end” perspective and had accurately pinpointed areas they need to focus on.
Caseloads had reduced, the inspection found. Meanwhile performance management was gradually improving, though analysis was not yet as effective as it could be.
But inspectors concluded that Northamptonshire’s “fragile” agency-dependent workforce meant that there was not yet an environment in which good social work practice could flourish, Ofsted said.
“The local authority preferred social work model has not been consistently implemented in a timely way, either within children’s services or across partner agencies,” inspectors added. “This absence of a consistent model is undermining the development of effective practice that identifies and responds to children and families in a timely and consistent way.”
‘Determined to build on the signs of progress’
Responding to the report, Northamptonshire’s director of children’s services, Sally Hodges, said the council recognised failings highlighted by inspectors have but was “determined to build on the signs of progress”.
“We welcome the report’s finding that there has been clear progress and improvements made since the focused visit last October,” she said.
“We are also pleased they recognise that we now have in place the right plans to improve our services,” Hodges added. “The leadership team is determined to do just that as recognised in the report. Children in Northamptonshire deserve nothing less.”
Meanwhile the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, Fiona Baker, said the ‘inadequate’ judgment was “regrettable” but that she agreed with Ofsted’s verdict.
“It is very welcome that the report states we have a good understanding of our own weaknesses and therefore a clear view on what is required to address these,” Baker said.