Durham council has said it’s acting on concerns raised by Ofsted that children within its care have been living in unregistered placements for “too long”.
The regulator, which visited the North East county in July, praised the “strong” practice quality Durham was offering children in care, numbers of whom had risen since the start of the pandemic.
But it found that a small number of children with complex needs were placed in unregistered children’s homes, “some for a considerable length of time”. Such provision – which offers care with accommodation – is illegal, as providers are required to register them with Ofsted as children’s homes.
“While leaders have oversight of these arrangements and have plans to register these homes with Ofsted, children are living in these circumstances for too long,” the regulator said in a letter following its focused visit.
“The lack of registration means that the care afforded to children in these arrangements does not necessarily meet the children’s home regulations and quality standards, and the ability of the carers to meet children’s needs and identify risks is unassessed.
Children in ‘uncertain situations’
“This also means that children are living in uncertain situations for too long without an agreed permanent care plan.”
It also said some children were being placed with family or friends without a viability assessment to determine their suitability.
“These children are placed under a variety of legal arrangements, including voluntary agreement, Interim Care Orders and Care Orders, with carers who are unapproved, meaning that these placements are outside the safeguards provided by regulation,” inspectors warned.
The regulator noted that the children were all being seen regularly by social workers but some lacked up-to-date assessments or a clear plan to progress their legal arrangements and circumstances.
It added that the council, which it rated as ‘requires improvement’ in its last full inspection, plans to open additional children’s homes and recruit more foster carers, but called on it to take “swift and decisive action”.
Ofsted said Durham needed to improve the quality of plans and arrangements for children in its care living with connected persons and to increase the sufficiency of suitable placements to avoid children being placed in unregistered accommodation.
The council said it now only has one unregistered arrangement, which it is trying to register with Ofsted.
“We have a clear ambition to continue to increase the number of suitable placements for our children through our foster carer recruitment activity; the opening of two new registered children’s homes this year and more in subsequent years,” said John Pearce, the council’s corporate director for children and young people’s services.
Hounslow moves to address extra-familial harm
This week Ofsted also published the results of a series of other focused visits carried out during July.
The regulator found most children considered to be at greatest risk of extra-familial harm in Hounslow were being identified and received an appropriate response. This followed a learning review carried out in the wake of the murder of a young person in the borough in 2019. But it urged more capacity to be created in these so children receive a “more timely” response, in the context of rising referrals, the impact of which was evident in “variable” practice.
It called on the council to routinely engage children in return home interviews and complete and review assessments regarding extra-familial harm.
And the regulator urged social workers at the council, rated “good” at last inspection, to ensure partner agencies understood the threshold for referral and child protection strategy discussions and provided sufficient information at the point of referral and in the multi-agency safeguarding hub.
Ofsted commended Wandsworth council, rated as “requires improvement” at its last full inspection, for showing “a determined focus on the improvements necessary”.
It said the authority still needed to improve consistency and quality of supervision, tracking and monitoring of children subject to the pre-proceedings phase of the Public Law Outline and its recording of actions to progress child in need and child protection plans.
Children’s trust’s ‘well-coordinated’ pandemic response
The regulator urged social workers at Greenwich council, which was rated “good” in its last full Ofsted inspection, to use children’s interests better to build positive relationships with them.
It also said contingency planning for children in need of protection should improve and children’s family history should be fully considered when they have been subject to repeat plans.
Ofsted also visited Worcestershire, whose children’s services were rated “requires improvement” in their last full inspection in 2019, shortly before they were turned over to a trust, Worcestershire Children First. Inspectors commended the organisation on a “well-coordinated and effective response to the pandemic”.
But the regulator called on the trust to improve partnership-wide understanding of its early help strategy, its management of referrals from, and joint strategy meetings with, the police. It also said record-keeping around strategy meetings and interim safety planning needed to improve.