Services to help and protect children in Medway are inadequate and most areas have deteriorated since the single inspection of services in 2015, according to a report by Ofsted.
Many vulnerable children who have experienced long-term neglect, and those at risk of exploitation and who go missing from home or care, live in situations of actual harm or are at risk of harm for too long, the report following the inspection of children's service says.
"Senior leaders have sustained improvements in the ‘front door’ single point of access (SPA) and the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) following the priority actions identified in the 2018 joint targeted area inspection," said the report.
"However, they have failed to recognise or address the serious and widespread concerns identified by inspectors in the early help hubs and the assessment and longer-term team ‘pods’. Attempts to drive improvement in these areas have had little impact, and the pace of change has been too slow."
Dedicated staff and frontline managers across teams are not being supported to practise safely. The report noted particularly high caseloads in the assessment service, with most social workers who met with inspectors being responsible for over 40 children, and some as many as 55 children.
Leaders and elected members are cognisant of the challenges within the service, but their understanding is not based on a systematic analysis of weaknesses. The primary focus of these leaders has been on process and compliance. Ineffective and uncoordinated systems impede the local authority’s ability to track and evidence progress.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection was rated as inadequate. Inspectors highlighted:
- A significant increase in referrals and high staff vacancies have reduced the ability of dedicated early help staff to provide a timely and consistently reliably safe service.
- Risks for some children who require statutory help and protection are not recognised soon enough by early help managers.
- Too many vulnerable children identified by the Medway MASH as requiring statutory assessments and interventions wait too long to be seen.
- Capacity issues in the assessment teams are considerable, with too few social workers to carry out the work.
- Caseloads are high and social workers are routinely allocated additional work as they are also responsible for providing a duty service when cases are transferred daily from the MASH.
- There are also delays in convening some strategy discussions, both in the assessment service and in the long-term team pods.
- The strategic and operational coordination of information and systems in Medway to monitor and assess the impact of work with vulnerable adolescents and children at risk of exploitation is weak.
- Checks on children missing education are not completed in a timely way to ensure that children are safe.
However, the report says that contacts and referrals for children in need or at risk are managed promptly in the MASH with all decisions are made within 24 hours. Despite the high volume of referrals, assessment timeliness has improved, although it is unclear what interventions are taking place to help and protect children during the 45-day assessment period. Better quality assessments capture the lived experience of children and draw on the views of other professionals. They include detailed observations of individual children and clearly record their views.
Most social workers receive regular supervision, but managers at all levels do not consistently identify or challenge drift and delay.
Disabled children in need of help and protection support receive an effective service. Social workers in the children with disability team demonstrate child-centred practice and a good understanding of children’s needs. Assessments are comprehensive and the co-location with adult’s social care is leading to early and comprehensive transition plans.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. The report stated:
- Decisions to bring children into care are appropriate.
- Children spoke positively about their carers, although some were unhappy with frequent changes in social worker.
- Despite staff changes, most social workers in the long-term team pods visit children in care frequently and know them well.
- Assessments are routinely updated for statutory reviews.
- In addition to regular visits from supervising social workers, adopters and foster carers are well supported through workshops, training events and support groups.
- An external review of care leavers’ services is leading to more investment and the development of a separate care leavers service.
However, fragmented systems to track and monitor permanence planning is a key weakness and is leading to avoidable drift and delay for some children. A revised permanence strategy is in place, but is not yet embedded. While improving, planning meetings are not taking place with enough frequency and are insufficiently focused on timeliness.
The report also found that not all care leavers are informed of their rights and entitlements. They do not routinely receive their health histories, national insurance numbers or photographic identification before they turn 18 years old. Emotional and mental health support provided to care leavers by the local child and adolescent mental health service and the clinical commissioning group are insufficient and ineffective. The quality and choice of supported accommodation commissioned by the local authority is variable and limited. Some care leavers are worried about breaches of privacy and poor living conditions.
Ofsted stated that the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families inadequate. It found:
- Corporate and senior children’s social care leaders were not aware of the widespread and serious concerns experienced by some of their most vulnerable residents until this inspection. Inspectors brought to the attention of the local authority 74 children from 43 families, who were either at risk of significant harm or where there were unacceptable delays in progressing work.
- A significant challenge facing the local authority is the instability within the children’s workforce. A relentless national recruitment campaign has had some success in reducing vacant social work posts from 39% to 25% across children services. Leaders have secured funding to increase the overall number of social workers. However, at the time of the inspection the vacancy rate in some frontline teams was still 35%.
- A strategic improvement plan for children’s services, developed with partner agencies and monitored by senior leaders in several forums, routinely considers the substantial staffing and high workload challenges in children’s social care. However, the plan is perfunctory. Evaluation is not based on a systematic analysis of the current service weaknesses, or on a full understanding of the present experiences of vulnerable children.
- Highly committed and skilled social workers and frontline managers work extremely hard under very difficult circumstances. They regularly work evenings and weekends to see vulnerable children and complete reports. however, this is not sustainable. Action by leaders has not been successful in creating an environment in which good social work practice can flourish. Senior leaders do not have an accurate view of the impact of high workloads on their staff.
- Corporate parenting arrangements are being reviewed by the recently appointed lead member for children. Although performance data is scrutinised, it is not clear how effectively the quality of practice is examined or understood by the board.
Yet the report notes that governance arrangements in Medway are clearly delineated, and links between the chief executive, lead member and the director of children services (DCS) are well established. Medway’s corporate transformation team and children’s services are working together to identify areas in the service that can be improved or transformed.
It adds that performance management information is readily available and analysed by senior leaders and operational leaders weekly and monthly. A comprehensive audit programme underpins the revised quality assurance framework. However, there is a significant disparity between auditors about what good practice looks like.
Ofsted says that in order to improve, senior managers’ oversight and understanding about vulnerable children’s experiences needs improvement, including through the quality, accuracy and effectiveness of audits.
Staffing capacity across children’s social care, early help hubs and leaving care teams need addressing. The response to risk for children who have experienced neglect, those exposed to parental domestic abuse and young people in danger of exploitation also needs work.
The coordination and management oversight of early help services to support children to receive the right help at the right time needs attention and the quality and effectiveness of management oversight and supervision needs improvement to make sure that children are protected from significant harm.
The effectiveness of managers’ formal permanence planning and decision-making at every point in the child’s journey needs addressing and the authority should improve the system for tracking children who go missing from home, care or education.
Services to help care leavers access suitable accommodation, education, employment and training and to understand their rights and entitlements need prioritising.
The strategic relationship with health services, and operational delivery across a range of health functions, needs work to support children and young people in care and care leavers. Leadership direction and assertive action needs to take place to improve and develop the services to foster carers and prospective adopters.
Medway Children’s Services
Inspection of children’s social care services