Pandemic pressures amplifying ‘upheaval and distress’ for children in care, Ofsted finds

Briefing paper from inspectorate highlights examples of good social work practice but warns harm 'not consistently identified' as financial fears rise

Image of teenager looking sadly towards window (credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)
(credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)

Pressures on the care system amplified by the impact of coronavirus restrictions have been worsening “upheaval and distress” for some children, Ofsted has found.

A briefing note on the state of children’s social care, – one of a collection issued by the inspectorate whose activities were largely suspended during lockdown – identified plenty of positive practices among professionals work with children.

But it said that measures related to Covid-19 had increased pressure on an already struggling system, limiting placement options and in some cases leading to poor decisions being made under duress. Backlogs in the family court were significantly holding up care proceedings, it added.

Among local authorities “there was a recognition that the pandemic could [continue to] exacerbate issues of not having enough places for children to live, and not being able to secure permanent homes for them”, the report said.

It also found that despite the progress made by many social work departments in implementing digital solutions to contact, some children had become increasingly isolated, and in some cases disillusioned where professionals were less responsive to messages.

Children ‘feeling abandoned’

“In one area, some children spoke about feeling ‘abandoned’,” the briefing said. “Although some of these concerns were evident before the pandemic, they were magnified during it.”

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Responding to the findings, Katharine Sacks-Jones, CEO of the Become charity for children in care and care leavers, said they were “very concerning, and show why the government needs to put children at the heart of its plans to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic”.

She added: “In particular, the impact of the crisis on the care system – and children on the edge of and in care and young care leavers – demonstrates the urgency with which the government must bring forward the care review.

“The pandemic has shone a light on longstanding issues such as placement insufficiency and the ‘care cliff’ too many young people face between 16 and 18,” Sacks-Jones said, adding that the upcoming care review “needs to listen to and act upon the experiences of children in care, and care-experienced teens and adults”.

Referrals disparity

Ofsted’s analysis was based on 11 focused visits to local authorities, and visits to 264 children’s homes and nine residential special schools during September and October. Visits are being carried out on a less formal basis than usual as inspectors undergo a phased return to duties.

The report found a mixed overall picture in terms of how well children appeared to be being protected by safeguarding partnerships. Disparities between areas in how referral rates to social work departments had changed since lockdown suggested that harm to children had not been consistently identified across the country, it said.

“When local authorities are not informed of possible risks to children, for example through referrals, they are limited in what they can do to help protect children,” it warned.

Inspectors nonetheless praised measures undertaken by some local authority services in response to the pandemic, for example, by setting up separate teams or bespoke processes for dealing with risks to children associated with coronavirus.

‘No Covid distractions’

They found children’s services departments being affected to varying degrees by staff being ill or having to self-isolate, with some areas actually reporting greater workforce stability than usual.

“This was attributed to staff receiving frequent helpful communication from senior leaders and being given the necessary tools and permission to work from home as required,” Ofsted found. “Staff were able to work compressed hours to juggle the demands of work and looking after their own children.”

Among the 11 local authorities visited, most had made “little use” of controversial regulatory changes relaxing children in care duties,  which were introduced at short notice during the first national lockdown and most of which which ended on 25 September.

One council “wanted to avoid ‘being distracted by Covid-19’, so it had consciously decided not to make use of the flexibilities”, Ofsted found. “Its response was viewed by inspectors as positive, proactive and well managed.”

Cuts warning

Echoing the findings of other recent research, the report noted improvements in multi-agency working, especially when it came to schools and other partners such as GPs engaging with child protection planning because meetings had become virtual.

“In [one] area, education managers met with team managers in children’s social care and reviewed every child on a child protection plan or designated as a child in need,” the briefing note said.

But it added that, in some areas, schools had felt they had been left exposed to increased safeguarding responsibilities without the assistance they needed from social workers.

Looking forward, Ofsted’s briefing sounded a concerning note around children’s services’ financial circumstances, which are coming under renewed scrutiny as councils make budget plans for next year having incurred huge pandemic-related costs.

“Even [councils currently in a sustainable position] fear their budgets are not sustainable in the medium to long term,” the report said. “Others have reported overspend and deficits caused by loss of usual income and additional expenditure.

Some councils were concerned that financial shortfalls would significantly increase, it added. “They predicted the need to make cutbacks in the next financial year and beyond.”

 

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