Too many children continue to be removed from child protection plans too early in Surrey children's services, Ofsted has warned.
In the first monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate in May 2018, the inspectorate found that too many children continue to be removed from child protection plans before there is substantial evidence that the risks they are facing have reduced or their circumstances have improved.
"This results in many children and families being placed on a plan for subsequent episodes. Some very young children have been the subject of repeated child protection and child in need plans. This trend of cyclical ‘start again’ social work is compounded by a complex service structure, requiring numerous handover points and changes of social worker as children travel through the statutory social work system," said the report.
Ofsted added that it is unclear why child protection conference chairs continue to remove too many children from plans prematurely before evidence of sustained improvements is apparent. Senior managers are keenly aware of this practice and intend to improve both the standard of child protection conference chairing and plans.
In fact, a new, highly experienced senior management team, formed since the inspection, understands the scale of poor practice and outcomes for these highly vulnerable children. A systemic review of the practice system and service structure is in progress.
During this initial visit, inspectors reviewed the progress made for children who are the subjects of child in need and child protection plans.
Based on the evidence gathered during the visit, some limited, very recent, areas of stronger practice were identified, including an emerging increased understanding of the damaging effects on children experiencing neglect and domestic abuse. Some sensitive and thoughtful work was seen with older children affected by exploitation in their local communities.
Morale in the two area offices visited was positive and nearly all social workers seen were permanent employees who are committed to remain working in Surrey.
- Urgent child protection concerns are identified and addressed quickly.
- Social workers are thinking more about how to plan and conduct direct work with children.
- Highly sensitive, balanced and well-informed work provided by specialist workers was seen with older children experiencing exploitation.
- Morale among social workers is positive.
- There is a strong cohort of new social workers who have completed their first year in practice in Surrey’s social work academy.
However, the use and effectiveness of a well-established practice model used by case supervisors is inconsistent. Where concerns about children’s exposure to neglect, domestic abuse and other damaging adult habits and behaviours are longstanding and chronic, there is a lack of urgency in increasing the pace of interventions, including by escalating the case to legal planning meetings.
In too many cases, the impact on children of very poor school attendance over long periods is not fully recognised.
Review meetings for child in need plans are regularly held, but they are not routinely attended by all the involved agencies to provide a full, rounded evaluation of progress, measured against the main objectives of the plan.
Child protection and child in need plans do not consistently explain what needs to be done, and in what order of priority, with sufficient clarity. The use of a well-established practice model in devising child protection plans can overcomplicate rather than simplify the core plan.
The ability of workers to build continuous, constructive relationships with children and parents is disrupted by frequent team handover points and changes of social worker. This inevitably limits the level of commitment children, families and social workers give to building trusting relationships.
Further, nearly half of children who are subjects of children in need plans are not visited within the local authority’s prescribed timescales. This is likely to be a major contributory factor to drift and
delay in improving children’s outcomes.
"The new senior management team have ambitious, credible plans for wholesale and systemic improvement of the standards of social work practice for children. This involves leaders and managers from other local authorities helping design improvements to the multi-agency safeguarding hub, early help provision and a service structure that minimises case handover points and changes of social worker," said the report.
"Social workers were very interested in and aware of the improvement plans, and are hopeful that this will enable them to undertake better direct work with highly vulnerable children and their carers," the report concluded.