‘Inadequate’ county left children in ‘unsafe’ unregulated placements, Ofsted finds

Despite positive signs, Northamptonshire council is failing to keep children safe or provide environment for good social work, inspection concludes

Northampton Session House
Northampton Session House (Photo: Sakhan Photography/Fotolia)

“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.

“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.

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8 Responses to ‘Inadequate’ county left children in ‘unsafe’ unregulated placements, Ofsted finds

  1. John July 30, 2019 at 10:35 am #

    Every 6 months, every year we hear a near identically story of a Local Authority in this position. This is across the country, north south east west!

    But everytime they are reported as an isolated case. I have been social working since 2002 mainly as an agency all over the north of England. these ‘isolated’ cases ARE EVERY SINGLE Local Authority! Its embarrassing to read these stories knowing that EVERYONE social worker says “but for the grave of”… Until the next Ofsted comes around then the Local Authority does all it can to mask the status quo. They have to do this because of how failings are reported (eg Northamptonshire above)

    When are we going to stop blaming individual LAs…THIS IS A NATIONAL PROBLEM! Never have I may a social worker or manager who doesn’t worry about the children. Juggling plan A, B, C to achieve safeguarding. We only know if this plans work weeks, months, even years later (if at all)

    STOP blaming LAs and staff! Its time to accept that the model for safeguarding children is the problem… not the people who are tasked with implementing. Its the model that is failing the children and families every single day. Its the model that sets families and social workers to fail every single day

    Until the model is reviewed and then renewed LAs will continue to fail in the same systematic way they have been doing for years.

    Watch this space… In 6 months another damning news report about a LA social care service “putting children at risk”.

    Its truly embarrassing… I can see what needs to be improved, where it should place more priority etc. I am sure 1000s of other social workers do as well… But i forget…our knowledge, initiative and bright ideas are only welcomed when they save money aren’t they? ?

    JC (great parent and passionate social worker)

    • Hopeless/Selfless/Professional July 30, 2019 at 2:33 pm #

      John, you’re absolutely spot on here. ?

      Both health and social care are well overdue a radical overhaul in this country. The media lense also needs to be more compassionate about working conditions for social workers and people in caring/supporting roles (other than doctors and nurses). Will this day ever come?! ?

    • Lisa August 7, 2019 at 8:25 pm #

      Totally agree with you that it’s not down to just one borough, this is throughout England! My daughter was removed from me in February 2018, I have had no reports or information on her schooling or health! I received the meeting notes from April which I was not invited to only last week and in it my daughter has made a second allegation of having sexual intercourse! When I read the first one I requested that they informed me if an investigation had been carried out and if so what the outcome was but I received nothing! It’s more frustrating because I don’t know the address and my daughter told me that she had been asking for an advocate but they didn’t give her one! My daughter is only 9 and from what I have read, they do not seem to be ensuring my daughters safety and it’s very concerning!

  2. Anne July 30, 2019 at 6:38 pm #

    There’s 86 children unallocated. There’s no staff. Heavily dependent on turnstile of interim agency staff..Bankruptcy and new leadership planned. Who will cover when staff on annual leave or sick. This scenario is everywhere. Cuts and interference have damaged services and delivery is ineffective and untimely. Social workers continue to abandon the profession and leave inexperienced workers to struggle on without the necessary guidance and support. They don’t even have desks and office space or time for reflective meetings. Practice is worse now than in 90s in my opinion.

  3. sw July 30, 2019 at 7:52 pm #

    Majority of the problem is the product of the poor and ineffective management.

    My experience also confirms that there is great deal of politics in the ratings done by Ofsted. As I mentioned in my comments before one local authority was rated good but this came as a shocking surprise to the workers.

  4. Mark July 30, 2019 at 9:09 pm #

    I agree with John and Anne, the profession is extremely damaged, John your right in that the system is broken, I have just left frontline social work after nearly 17 years. I hope to never have to go back. There is also the issue that there are a lot of managers who move up without any real experience and then cannot lead. They break and suffocate practitioners to the point of reaffirming risk adverse strategies that are ineffective with families. I hope for a very different life outside of social work practice that enables me to assist and support social workers in their careers. I only hope that they get the management oversight and supervision that they need.

  5. Exasperated despair July 31, 2019 at 11:15 pm #

    John is spot on. Same old story. Nothing EVER changes in social work. It’s so embarrassing that one or other variation on the theme of one or other local authority’s inadequacy is repeated on this website over and over and over and over again.
    That phrase which begins “the definition of insanity…” springs to mind.
    I left social work a few months ago after twenty years and I don’t regret the move.

  6. Ann August 5, 2019 at 1:34 pm #

    I have 26 years experience as a social worker and have never felt so disheartened as I do now. Funding cuts sold to staff as innovative restructure. Senior managers more
    Intent on toeing the corporate party line and keeping their
    Public sector salary rolling in than standing up for vulnerable children and taking responsibility for their actions. It is s National disgrace xx