Leaders ‘unaware of care leavers living in tents’, finds Ofsted as it brands authority ‘inadequate’

Inspectors warn of 'dereliction of corporate parenting duties' and children being left in situations of chronic neglect after visit to Devon

Image of County Hall, Exeter, seat of Devon council (credit: Lewis Clarke / geograph)
County Hall, Exeter, seat of Devon council (credit: Lewis Clarke / geograph)

Ofsted has branded Devon council ‘inadequate’ after an inspection revealed that some care leavers had been forced to live in tents on the streets, with senior leaders at the authority unaware of their plight.

While this only applied to a small minority of young people, the inspection report pointedly added that the discovery formed part of a wider pattern.

“In general, care leavers with the greatest needs, including struggles with their mental health, are left in unsuitable accommodation for too long because their corporate parents do not step in and act,” it said.

Services for care leavers were also found to be ‘inadequate’ at Devon’s last full inspection, which drew a ‘requires improvement’ grade overall, and despite some progress having been made by the time of a focused visit in 2018, standards had again slipped.

A misguided focus on building trusting relationships at the expense of supporting young people leaving care amounted to a “dereliction of corporate parenting responsibilities”, Ofsted found.

“Senior leaders have lost their line of sight to some of the most vulnerable children,” inspectors said. “The quality assurance of the care leavers service through case auditing has been negligible over the last 18 months, despite it being an area that has inherent weaknesses.”

Incoherent approach’

While inspectors’ most extreme findings related to care leavers, they identified weaknesses throughout services for children in care in Devon.

Decisions over where children entering care live were often being made too late because of “an incoherent approach to legal planning, poor oversight of children’s plans by team managers and over-optimism about families’ capacity to change”, they said.

Notably, inspectors identified a lack of trust from local judges and Cafcass in the council’s ability to gather “compelling, comprehensive evidence” for the family court.

Permanence was “not consistently embedded” in social workers’ thinking, with independent reviewing officers failing to challenge practitioners, Ofsted found, though the report added that senior managers had recently tried to address these deficiencies.

Life story work was identified as another problematic area, with social workers and personal advisors “not equipped or driven” to help children.

“Rather than being an integral part of direct work with children, life-story work is seen as a discrete and time-consuming piece of work by social workers,” Ofsted’s report said. “Children’s memories are not routinely gathered in a way that helps them to make sense of their identity and history.”

‘Extreme variability’

Devon’s services for children in need of help and protection were the only category not rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, which said they ‘required improvement’.

Inspectors praised the county’s early help offer, which they said had been “significantly strengthened” via effective partnership working, showing that senior leaders had been able to get a grip in some practice areas.

“Increasingly, children and families are getting the right help at the right time from people who they know and trust,” Ofsted’s report said.

The multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) was also deemed to be “well-resourced and effective”, with the use of thresholds also having been strengthened and a “shared ownership of the analysis of risk”.

Elsewhere though, children endured “extreme variability” in service quality, Ofsted warned, with some who had suffered chronic neglect and emotional abuse being left too long with their families.

“There are too many examples of children being the subject of child protection or children in need plans for extended lengths of time without families being able to evidence progress or change,” inspectors said.

Performance management across the county was also found to be highly inconsistent, a situation reflected in the poor quality of many child protection plans.

‘Bitterly disappointing’

Responding to the report, Devon council’s cabinet member for children’s services, James McInnes, said the authority accepted the “bitterly disappointing” findings and would be working with ‘outstanding’ neighbour Cornwall to set them right.

“Any parent will recognise that trying to help a young person to become a thriving young adult able to stand on their own two feet can be a tough job,” McInnes said. “This is especially true of the most troubled and vulnerable of our care leavers who are living chaotic lives, and struggling with things like drug and alcohol or mental health issues.

McInnes added: “The cases highlighted by Ofsted are clearly extreme, but we fully recognise we have a duty of care to every single care leaver and as a corporate parent we must do more to reach out and wrap support around them better.”

He said he was confident in Devon’s ability to turn things round.

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