Decline in quality of children's services at St Helen's

There has been a decline in the quality of services for children in St Helen's since the last inspection in 2014, Ofsted has warned.
A focused visit by Ofsted in July 2018 identified areas for priority action because children were placed at risk, there was a lack of understanding in relation to thresholds and there was too much drift and delay, including for children subject to pre-proceedings.
"The local authority promptly set up an independently chaired children’s improvement board in September 2018, and a further focused visit in November 2018 identified some progress at the front door. However, there are widespread and serious failures in the quality of services for children in care due to significant drift and delay in permanence planning," said the report. "Management oversight in this area of work is ineffective, and staff have limited awareness of the need for early planning for permanence. This is compounded by a lack of tools and systems to help the local authority understand the extent of the issue and intervene to remedy the situation at the earliest opportunity."
Senior leaders fully acknowledge practice deficits identified by inspectors, but they had been unaware of the extent of the problem. This has led to a significant number of children waiting too long to secure legal permanence and achieve their full potential.
No children that require help and protection were found to be left at risk of immediate harm during the inspection. However, children and families are not yet receiving a good service.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection requires improvement to be good. The report stated:
- The arrangements in the MASH are well embedded, partners are well represented and thresholds are now more consistently applied.
- Children whose needs meet the threshold for early help are supported well, although early help assessments and plans vary in quality.
- Child protection concerns are mostly responded to effectively. Child protection investigations are thorough and strategy meetings are well attended.
- Multi-agency reviews take place regularly for children subject to child in need and child protection processes and they are mostly well attended.
- Social workers know their children well, although case records do not always consistently capture children’s views.
- The response to domestic abuse and neglect is improving.
- Children at risk of exploitation are recognised and responded to effectively.
- Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who present as homeless have direct access to appropriate support and guidance to ensure an effective response to their needs.
- The children with disabilities team was described as a service ‘in crisis’ in a peer review completed almost a year ago. Following an appropriate review of all work in this team, better arrangements are now in place.
However, the quality of assessments is not consistently good enough and they are not always updated after significant events. The quality of plans is too inconsistent and too often, plans are generic and lack clarity regarding what actions need to be completed, by whom and by when.
Management oversight of work is not consistently good across the service once work is progressed from MASH into the duty and assessment teams.
A review of all delays on case transfers in recent months was conducted during the inspection, and it identified that there had been delays of up to two months for some families.
Pre-proceedings work is under-developed and private fostering services for children are also under-developed, the report found.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers is inadequate. Ofsted said:
- Appropriate decisions are made for children to come into care when risks escalate.
- Most children are well cared for and their living arrangements are not subject to disruption.
- A recently developed permanence tracker is due to be implemented, and there are plans to re-instate a permanence panel to monitor the progress of plans for children who are yet to secure legal permanence and ensure that formal matches take place.
- When adoption is identified as the permanence plan, children receive a good and timely service.
- When children’s cases are presented to the court in care proceedings, the quality of applications is sufficiently clear to inform the court process.
- Reports of reviews provided to the child are well written.
- Children in care who are at risk of exploitation are identified promptly, and risk assessments are carried out in a multi-agency forum through MACE meetings. This is helping to reduce risks for some children.
- There have been some recent improvements to the care leaver service.
- Young people leaving care have good relationships with their PAs and receive an effective level of support once they reach 18.
- Care leavers have access to accommodation options post-18 in St Helen's, although the options and offer for those who reside out of the borough are less clear.
However, the quality of services for children in care and care leavers has declined since the last inspection. The lack of recognition of the need for permanence and the very poor quality of permanence planning by social workers and managers is widespread. Significant drift and delay is experienced by children who are left too long in situations where their legal security is unclear or unmet. The full range of permanence options, including special guardianship and adoption, is not routinely considered in a timely way, and sometimes is not considered at all.
Services for children on the edge of care are not yet offered to families in a consistent way. Although this is an acknowledged gap and significant funding has been identified to develop the service, progress to implement plans has been too slow.
Plans to return home are not supported by a full risk assessment or progressed in a planned way. There is no evidence of specific family support consistently being provided to address the complex family issues which resulted in the child entering care. This means that some children experience drift and delay in returning to their families.
The quality of plans is inconsistent and unclear, especially in relation to permanence planning. Too many care plans still fail to identify opportunities for more permanent arrangements for children, particularly through special guardianship or adoption.
The fostering service recognises that it needs to improve. Its strengths lie in the stability and commitment of its staff team, but the volume of work and staff shortages have prevented it from making the necessary changes and improvements.
More training is required, and the inspection identified issues in relation to panel quoracy, which means that the panel has not complied with regulations. This has triggered a review of all recommendations over the last two years by the senior assistant director to ensure their validity.
Most young people have a pathway plan to ensure that direct support is provided, but the quality of pathway plans is inconsistent, and not all are up to date or provide enough detail to reflect the young person’s current needs.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families requires improvement. Inspectors highlighted:
- Although there have been some improvements for children in need of help and protection since the last inspection, there remain significant inconsistencies in the quality of practice across the service, and unnecessary delays in achieving permanence for children in care.
- This is in the context of a significant increase in demand at the front door, high caseloads in some teams and workflow issues that have contributed to further drift and delay.
- During the last 12 months, the local authority has understood the need to take urgent remedial action and has recognised that children’s services require more effective prioritisation within the wider corporate agenda.
- A new DCS was appointed in June 2018 and, since then, significant financial resources have been identified to enable progress to begin.
- Funding has also been identified to create additional social work capacity within a new restructure and to establish an edge of care service, but many of these developments are not yet fully in place or are too new to have made any significant impact.
- An independently chaired children’s improvement board was set up in September 2018, and this has led to a detailed plan of improvement across the strategic partnership. A new model of practice is in the early stages of implementation.
- A new senior management team has been established in recent months by the DCS, who has played a critical role in ensuring that frontline services are now overseen by experienced managers with a social work background.
- The local authority has welcomed external scrutiny through a range of peer reviews focused on the front door, care leaver service and corporate culture.
- The local authority’s evaluation of the effectiveness of its work is detailed and honest, and it acknowledges inconsistency of social work practice and the need to improve.
- Cafcass and the judiciary report positively about improved relationships with the local authority and the work that comes before the courts.
- The quality assurance framework has been revised and is a comprehensive tool with clear objectives designed to ensure greater consistency, but it is not fully implemented.
The service operates within an environment in which there has been much change at a corporate level, and this creates additional pressures for the senior leadership team.
A sufficiency strategy and action plan are in place, but this lacks analysis to inform future capacity needs. With no edge of care service in place, the local authority is constrained in its efforts to prevent children coming into care and to adequately support them to safely return home without delay.
There has been a high level of turnover of team managers in the last year as a result of leaders and managers challenging the quality and standards of practice and making new appointments. A restructure of the service is still embedding. Although turnover of permanent staff has slowed down more recently, there is considerable reliance on agency staff, and this has led to instability and has hampered the pace of change and the quality of improvement required.
"Despite these challenges, most social workers were positive about recent changes and valued the visible support received from managers. Social workers in their first post qualifying year of practice, however, do not yet have an established, protected learning environment in which they can develop in their role fully supported. Their caseloads are too high, the support they receive is fragmented and the local authority needs to do more to ensure that less experienced staff receive an effective package of support," the report concluded.
The quality of social work assessments and plans needs to improve, Ofsted said, to ensure that intervention is purposeful, and progress with children and families can be measured. Management oversight and monitoring of services needs improvement, including in pre-proceedings, to ensure that there is sufficient grip on the quality of practice, to avoid drift and delay for children.
St Helen's should address permanence planning from the front door through to adoption, to ensure that the full range of permanence options are achieved in a timely way for all children in care.
Support for children and families on the edge of care needs work to ensure that services are timely, responsive and effective.
The quality and usefulness of pathway plans needs work, to ensure that they help care leavers address a range of issues, depending on individual needs. Independent Reviewing Officers’ (IROs’) need to challenge the quality of permanence planning, to ensure that more robust oversight drives practice effectiveness.
The quality of support to new social workers needs improvement and there should be close monitoring of caseloads for all staff, to ensure that they have the right support in place to work effectively with children and families.
Finally, St Helen's needs corporate support on implementing improvement plans with pace.
Inspection of children's services St Helen's Metropolitan Borough Council

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