The quality of services for children in need, including those in need of protection, at St Helens has declined since the Ofsted single inspection in November 2014 found that services required improvement to be good.
Despite commitment and financial investment from political leaders, areas of significant weakness were identified that are placing children at risk of inadequate protection and significant harm, Ofsted said in a focused visit of the authority concentrating on the local authority’s arrangements for children in need and children subject to a child protection plan.
“The new director of people’s services, who has been in post since June 2018, is in the early stages of recognising what is required to improve services for the local authority’s most vulnerable children,” said the report. “The director has already revised the children’s plan and has instigated a full review of the many policies and procedures that govern the work undertaken by children’s social care.”
The director made Ofsted aware that during her first weeks in post, serious shortfalls in practice had been identified, on learning of Ofsted’s planned inspection. Indeed, the focused visit confirmed that entrenched cultural, management and social work practices are negatively impacting on children’s outcomes.
There are poor threshold decision-making and delays when escalating children’s cases to child protection plans and also to pre-proceedings processes. This was found particularly when children experience chronic neglect. The local authority fails to address poor and harmful living conditions for too many children which means that children live for too long in circumstances in which they are experiencing ongoing risk and experiencing harm.
Inspectors found that social workers do not always take effective or timely action when children are living in neglectful circumstances with their families. These weaknesses in practice are not tackled because management oversight across all levels in children’s social care is poor.
The report found:
- The application of thresholds is poorly understood across most levels of children’s services and in partner agencies.
- Thresholds for escalating children’s cases into pre-proceedings or proceedings are set too high.
- Audits for children who are assessed to be children in need or subject to a child protection plan are variable in quality and are not conducted using a consistent methodology.
- Supervision is regular but poorly recorded.
- Assessments of children and their families vary in depth and quality.
The recent review of child protection plans, undertaken by the performance unit, identified that, for children who had been on a plan for over 18 months, the rationale for children’s cases being progressed was unclear and there were no criteria for stepping down from child protection or commencing pre-proceedings being established. There was also no evidence that the threshold for ongoing work with children and their families was tested at review conferences.
However, since a restructure of the service in 2017, and recently improved performance in the recruitment and retention of social workers, caseloads are felt by social workers to have diminished to a manageable level. Newly qualified social workers praise the support provided to them during their assessed and supported year in employment by mentors, and their morale is generally high.
The local authority was also open with inspectors about the current quality of its services and the challenges that they have to meet in order to improve.
Areas for priority action include tackling the significant delays in escalating children’s cases from children in need to child protection and/or public law outline processes when risk increases. This is exposing children to further actual harm, particularly when children are experiencing long-term neglect.
The deficit in oversight of, and supervision and challenge by, leaders and managers means that children are not being appropriately safeguarded and this needs urgent action.
Quality assurance and audit processes do not appropriately challenge poor practice meaning that leaders and managers are not able to understand the quality of social work practice, and, more importantly, means that safeguarding concerns and other actions to promote children’s welfare are not identified.
In order to improve social work practice, pre-proceedings letters to families should clearly identify professionals’ concerns or provide the details of what needs to change in order to reduce risk for children. Assessments of children’s needs need to be kept up to date, and include clear contingency arrangements should children’s needs, or the risks they are exposed to, change.
Social workers, managers and key professionals from other agencies do not demonstrate an understanding of the impact of chronic neglect on children or how drift and delay can compromise children’s futures. This means that they do not take timely and necessary action to safeguard children and inspectors urge this to be tackled to improve social work practice.
Services do not meet children’s levels of need for protection and welfare. Recording of decisions by managers regarding escalation of cases to higher levels of intervention are not clear and need work.