Longstanding and widespread failures in the quality of social work practice at Blackpool mean that many children are not having their needs responded to in the right way or at the right time, Ofsted has warned.
An inspection of children's services found that as a result, some children live in situations of chronic neglect for long periods of time. Their situations do not always improve and, for many, they deteriorate, resulting in poor outcomes and increased risk. For some children, the impact is serious, with children suffering additional harm that affects their health and development.
"Since the last inspection in 2014, the pace of progress has been too slow, and there has been a decline in strategic leadership," said the report. By the time a new director of children’s services was appointed 17 months ago, standards of practice had seriously deteriorated. Although there has been a focus on improvement since then, it has not led to the level of improvement required to ensure safe and effective services for all children.
Overall effectiveness was judged to be inadequate. Strategic partnerships have not addressed key weaknesses effectively, including chronic neglect, which leads to poor outcomes for too many children in Blackpool.
Concerns in relation to the quality of decision-making at the front door, the recognition and response to risk when children are exploited, and the drift and delay that children experience when they are subject to pre-proceedings or in the court arena were not fully understood until the inspection. This has resulted in the screening of all child exploitation cases to ensure that there are no unaddressed safeguarding concerns, and the DCS commencing reviews of pre-proceedings work and audit actions.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection is inadequate. Ofsted highlighted:
- Children in need of protection are not consistently recognised as needing support and intervention to protect them.
- The police triage of domestic abuse notifications has led to some cases being stepped down to the early help hub (EHH) inappropriately, when the threshold for intervention by children’s social care had already been met.
- Social work practice in the duty and safeguarding teams is variable in both its quality and impact.
- When children’s circumstances do not improve, timely and responsive action is not always taken to protect them.
- Children at risk of exploitation do not consistently receive holistic assessments of their needs and risks.
- In a context where child sexual exploitation and children going missing are prevalent and widely known, the absence of a strategy to respond to contextual safeguarding is a significant concern.
Yet the report highlights how children whose needs appropriately meet the threshold for early help are supported well in the families in need teams and, in some cases, joint working with social workers leads to purposeful interventions. When children are subject to child protection enquiries, in most cases appropriate procedures are followed, and children are offered immediate protection.
Children are seen regularly and they benefit from direct work with social workers.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. Inspectors noted:
- Children live in neglectful circumstances for longer than they should, resulting in their needs often becoming more complex.
- Children in care have care plans that are routinely completed and updated, but these are not always tailored to the needs of individual children, and lack clarity in relation to a plan for permanence.
- Social workers are not being well prepared to confidently present the plan for permanence to the court to achieve appropriate outcomes for children.
- For a small number of children with a plan of adoption, there is delay.
- The risk of sexual exploitation of care leavers is not sufficiently considered.
However, most children in care are living in stable placements within the North West region. When children have a plan for adoption, a timely referral is made to the adoption team to begin family finding.
Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) are appropriately accommodated in places that meet their immediate needs for support and protection. Further, members of the fostering team are knowledgeable and experienced.
All care leavers seen have a current pathway plan, although they are not always completed soon enough, or updated when a young person has experienced significant change. Most care leavers are in appropriate accommodation.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families is inadequate. The report stated that:
- The standard of social work practice in Blackpool has declined since the last inspection.
- Help and protection are inadequate. Services have not sufficiently met children’s needs for help and protection at the right time.
- Senior leaders, including the chief executive and political leadership, have had an optimistic view of practice improvement and have under-estimated the impact on children. This is a serious failure in leadership.
- The response to long-standing neglect for some of the most vulnerable families in Blackpool has not been fully addressed since the last inspection.
- A new model of social work practice has been introduced to help social workers recognise risk. This is leading to more focused consideration of risk factors, but there is still too much variability in the quality of plans and assessments, and management oversight is weak.
- Staff turnover has created a level of instability and uncertainty in the workforce, which has begun to stabilise as vacancies are filled and the reliance on agency workers reduces.
"There is an emphasis on bringing about positive cultural change in the organisation, driven by the DCS, in order to create an environment that is both supportive and challenging to staff. Supervision of social workers and support staff is mostly regular, and staff report that they feel well supported," said the report.
"However, the record of supervision is too task-focused and provides limited reflection, which is a missed opportunity to provide clearer direction to social workers who are working with challenging and complex families. Overall, social workers are not working in an environment in which good social work is encouraged and able to develop and flourish," the report concluded.
The report makes a number of recommendations to improve practice including the identification of and response to risk needs to improve particularly in relation to long-standing concerns of chronic neglect. The quality of social work assessments and plans need work.
The response to children at risk of exploitation, and those young people who are homeless needs to improve, and the extent to which their vulnerabilities are fully recognised and lead to responsive intervention to keep them safe.
Oversight of pre-proceedings work and placement-with-parent practice needs focus to address drift and delay. Training needs of social workers needs to improve in order to ensure that they are prepared for court proceedings.
Inspection of Blackpool children's services