Children are not being protected by Stoke-on-Trent children's services, Ofsted has said rating the local authority's children's services as inadequate.
Children experience serious and widespread delays in having their needs met across children’s services, the inspection found. Leaders have not sufficiently understood the extent and impact of the failures and have been ineffective in prioritising, challenging and making improvements.
"As a result of poor leadership, management oversight and an absence of clearly evaluated performance information, services for children have seriously declined since the last full Ofsted inspection in 2015,and themajority of recommendations made at that inspection andata focused visit in 2018 have not been actioned," said the report.
The last full inspection was in August 2015 when all of the judgements were requires improvements to be good, with adoption judged to be good. Since then, there has been a serious decline in all of the services.
However, inspectors met a considerable number of dedicated and committed social workers, however,they are not being supported to practise safely. No social worker is receiving one-to-one case supervision, and this means that there is little management direction and challenge to their work.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection was rated inadequate. The report highlighted:
- Children are at risk of significant harm.
- Thresholds for access to children’s social care services are not well understood by partner agencies or by local authority staff.
- Strategy discussions are not effective in coordinating the immediate response to concerns about children who have been identified as being at risk of significant harm.
- In other cases, contacts and referrals are being closed inappropriately without full consideration of risk.
- In the main, the safeguarding locality team social workers have caseloads that are too high, the average being over 25 children which compromisesthe ability of social workers to fully carry out their responsibilities.
- When risks to children increase, the public law outline (PLO) pre-proceedings process is not timely or used effectively.
- The response to child sexual exploitation is not sufficiently thorough and coordinated.
- The system for tracking children missing education is inadequate.
However, the report notes that some disabled children in need of help and protection support receive a better service and this is supported by the co-location of social care, educational and health professionals.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers is inadequate. Inspectors highlighted:
- There are widespread and serious failures, including unnecessary delays in achieving permanence, which result in the welfare of children in care not being safeguarded and promoted.
- Reactive and crisis-driven social work practice results in too many children being placed in care in an unplanned way through urgent actions being taken to protect them by the police and social care.
- Assessments are generally poor, and rarely updated when children’s circumstances or needs change.
- There are serious delays in achieving permanence for many children.
- There is a widespread lack of understanding and use of s20 of the Children Act 1989 inrelation to working in partnership with parents.
- For too many children,their journey to adoption is subject to drift and delay.
- Too many children in care are placed in unregulated placements, where the suitability of carers has not been fully assessed and approved,or when it is known that they are living in unsafe environments.
The report says that children are seen regularly, but social workers do not have time to do direct work with children due to having very high caseloads. It also notes that, given their starting points and complex needs, education outcomes for children in care have been mostly positive in comparison to national performance data of children looked after.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families is inadequate. The report states:
- Leaders and managers in Stoke-on-Trent have failed on the most basic of levels to ensure that children are safeguarded, protectedand that their permanence is secured.
- Prior to this inspection, leaders and managers had failed to recognise and manage risk at every level of the organisation.
- Children’s services managers have shown some recent understanding of some of the deficits of the services, but have not evaluated what this means for children and families.
- There are significant capacity issues. Social work staff, including social workers, newly qualified workers and IROs, have too high caseloads.
- Recording is very poor, with key documents missing on some children’s electronic files, including children in care reviews.
However, a new interim Director of Children’s Services started on the first day of this inspection. He agreed with the findings of the inspectors and committed, with the City Director(chief executive of the council), to address the issues with urgency.
Ofsted makes numerous recommendations including how Stoke on Trent should address the
urgency and robustness of the child protection response,including multi-agency attendance at strategy meetings, and child protection conferences,and ensuring contingency in pre-proceedings work.
Staffing capacity needs addressing, including for social workers, IROs, local authority designated officer arrangements and fostering support workers and the quality of case recording needs improving so that children’s progress can be properly tracked.
Support for vulnerable children, including those at risk from child sexual exploitation, going missing, being homeless, private fostering and extremist ideologies also requires improvement.