The government will review the local authority designated officer (LADO) role after an inquiry into the abuse of disabled children identified “major failings” in relation to the function.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan announced the review in a statement to Parliament after the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel published the report of phase 1 of its inquiry into serious abuse and neglect of disabled children in three residential special schools in Doncaster.
Keegan said that the Department for Education (DfE) would work with other departments and local authorities on the review, and would “consult on developing a LADO handbook that includes improving handling whistleblowing concerns and complaints in circumstances such as these”.
The panel has also asked directors of children’s services to review LADO referrals regarding residential special schools also registered as children’s homes over the past three years to identify any concerns.
What is the LADO role?
Under Working Together to Safeguard Children, councils should appoint an officer or team to manage and oversee allegations against people who work with children. Arrangements should be put in place to ensure all such cases are referred to the service without delay, and that any necessary actions to address children’s welfare are taken by the LADO or team immediately. Such staff should be sufficiently qualified and experienced to carry out the LADO role and, since 2015, all new appointees should have been qualified social workers.
The panel reported last month on its review into the experiences of 108 children, most of whom are autistic and have learning disabilities, who were placed at the Hesley Group’s Fullerton House, Wilsic Hall and Wheatley House settings between January 2018 and March 2021.
‘Culture of abuse and harm’
The review, launched in January, was initiated after a whistleblower made multiple abuse allegations concerning Fullerton House in 2021. This triggered Ofsted inspections that uncovered serious and widespread leadership and safeguarding failings at the settings that had left children exposed to serious harm and ongoing risk.
The services were suspended and have since been closed by the Hesley Group. Alongside the panel’s review, Doncaster Safeguarding Partnership is carrying out a complex abuse investigation and South Yorkshire Police a criminal investigation into the abuse.
The panel’s review, led by Council for Disabled Children director Christine Lenehan, found a culture of abuse and harm at the settings, including evidence of physical abuse and violence, neglect, emotional abuse and sexual harm. It also found evidence that medication was misused and maladministered, an overuse of restraint, and unsafe and inappropriate use of temporary confinement.
However, it also found there had been warnings signs about the schools over the previous three years. For example:
- Ofsted carried out monitoring visits in response to concerns about staff shortages at Wilsic Hall in 2019 and received an increase in serious incident notifications regarding child protection issues at Fullerton House in 2020.
- Forty three of the 55 councils who placed children at the settings reported previous concerns to the review about what had happened to children or about the schools in general.
- The LADO in Doncaster had received increasing numbers of allegations about the conduct of staff at the settings.
“In spite of these known concerns, the overall system of external oversight did not prevent the emergence of a harmful culture to children at the settings, nor did it respond to concerns of alleged abuse in a focused or appropriate way,” the review found.
LADO role criticisms
The review found that the LADO function in Doncaster did not effectively collate information from different sources to analyse patterns of concerns about staff at the settings, meaning children were not adequately safeguarded.
It said there was a lack of communication about staff conduct between the Doncaster LADO function and those of the placing authorities for the children in the schools.
Before the national review was initiated, Doncaster council commissioned an independent review of the town’s LADO service – then run by the now defunct Doncaster Children’s Services Trust – which recommended a number of improvements.
These included multi-agency training to raise the service’s profile, more consistent applications of thresholds for referral to it and strengthened governance by the Doncaster Children’s Safeguarding Partnership. The council told the review these actions had all been completed, and that the review also provided assurance about the current effectiveness of the service.
However, Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel chair Annie Hudson said the report’s findings showed that the “system of checks and balances which should have detected that things were going wrong simply did not work”.
She added: “While there are many skilled professionals who work with children with disabilities, we are concerned that these are not isolated incidents.”
As a result, the panel wrote to directors of children’s services in August, urging them to carry out a series of actions to provide assurance around the care of disabled children placed in residential special schools registered as children’s homes. These were for:
- LADOs to urgently review all referrals, complaints or concerns regarding these settings over the past three years to ensure they have been appropriately dealt with. As part of this, they must inform placing local authorities of any outstanding enquiries regarding staff still working in these establishments.
- Directors of placing authorities to ensure that reviews are carried out of children in these settings to ensure they are in safe placements, with any concerns being shared with the local LADO if the threshold for referral is met.
Directors of children’s services are expected to confirm that they have taken these steps in a report to their DfE regional improvement support lead by the end of this month, as well as reporting findings to local safeguarding partners.
The review is now working on its second phase, which will examine systemic issues in children’s social care, health and education that must be addressed to prevent such abuse from reoccurring. It is due to report in spring 2023.
‘Need for greater guidance on LADO role’
Following Keegan’s pledge to review the LADO role, the National LADO Network, which represents designated officers, said it welcomed the prospect of handbook to provide more guidance on the role.
A spokesperson said: “Whilst the full details of the LADO work in Doncaster haven’t been published, the issues raised confirm the view of the National LADO Network (NLN) that there needs to be greater statutory guidance in relation to the role of the LADO nationally.
“Clearer and more detailed guidance would offer greater consistency and efficiency in managing the LADO role and function. On this basis, the NLN welcomes the secretary of state’s announcement today to explore the creation of a LADO handbook and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the department to develop such a resource.”
In her statement on the review’s report, Keegan also pledged to bring forward work to strengthen standards and regulations governing the care of looked-after children, as well as the national minimum standards for residential special schools. She also said the DfE would work with Ofsted to strengthen its powers to hold private providers of children’s homes to account.
‘Clearly there is more to do’ – ADCS
In response to the report, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Steve Crocker said: “Clearly there is more to do and ADCS members stand ready to engage with the next stage of the panel’s review to ensure that in the future our most vulnerable children are safeguarded and cared for in safe environments and that learning is drawn out for the benefit of children and the system. Consideration of better community alternatives providing high quality care closer to home must be part of the process.”
He added: “Everyone who is involved in the system from those commissioning and providing care to individual staff, regulators and others have a role in improving standards of care and safeguarding. We need to work together and do everything we can to assure ourselves, the system and of course parents and carers that children with similar needs and in similar settings are safe, appropriately placed and receiving the high quality care they deserve.”
Riana Nelson, Doncaster council’s director of children, young people and families said: “I understand that many families who have children with complex needs and are receiving residential care will be alarmed at the findings of this national review.
“Please be reassured that strong and concise action has taken place at a local level and procedures are in place to protect both children and adults living both locally and further afield.”
In its response, Ofsted said: “It is clear that the management and staff of these homes were not open and honest with authorities, including Ofsted. But it’s also clear there are lessons for all of us to learn. We will continue to support the police investigation into the abuse, and we are already taking steps to improve what we do through inspection and regulation.”
A Hesley Group spokesperson said: “We recognise that the panel has identified serious failings in the running of Fullerton House, Wheatley House and Wilsic Hall ahead of their closure which led to people receiving unacceptable levels of care, and we are deeply sorry for the hurt caused to young people and their families over this period.
“We took swift action at the time to address concerns raised including dismissing several staff, and we made the decision to de-register all homes. To ensure the voices of the people who live in our services are heard, as well as their safety and wellbeing, we have since undergone a major restructure and made significant changes across our senior management team.
“We will carefully consider the issues raised in the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s initial report to make sure improvements can continue to be made.”