Since the last inspection of Sunderland, there have been some improvements in the management of the public law outline and care proceedings, Ofsted has said.
However, the pace of improvement remains too slow. While clear care and legal pathways are now in place, there are continued weaknesses in management oversight and the quality of social work practice, the third monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate for overall effectiveness for a second time in July 2018.
"As a result, some children receive a good and timely response, but too many children experience delays in legal action being taken when it is needed. No children were seen to be at immediate risk of harm during this visit," said the report.
Inspectors reviewed the progress made in the social work response to children who are at significant risk of harm and where legal action is being considered to safeguard them.
- Since the last monitoring visit, significant work has been undertaken to further improve the infrastructure and resources of children’s services. There has been additional and much needed financial investment, as well as recruitment to all senior management posts and further recruitment of permanent social workers.
- A higher number of permanent social workers is reducing the use of short-term staffing. Additional family support workers have been recruited to support social workers in carrying out non-statutory duties. Caseloads have decreased and are more manageable.
- Decision-making, when children need to enter care, is improving, but not for all children. A senior management panel now reviews the concerns and identifies the work needed, as well as timescales. For some children, this has resulted in timely actions being taken to ensure that they are protected. However, this is not consistent and inspectors saw delays in children’s cases coming to that panel.
- Senior managers are currently reviewing all the cases of children who are in care under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
- There were several babies who had been recently accommodated for their own safety. Care planning focused on work with parents to address long-standing issues, including drug and alcohol dependency, mental health and abusive relationships and where previous children were in the process of being adopted. While this support for parents is positive, there was a lack of wider consideration of the child’s needs beyond a return to their parents.
While there is some early evidence of improvement in the quality of social work practice, inconsistencies and weakness remain. Quality assurance auditing has not yet improved. Inspectors sampled recent case audits. Most failed to identify key weaknesses in the quality of practice or the impact of these deficits on children and families.
New monitoring systems are in place to track social work progress following the decisions of the panel. However, these do not sufficiently focus on ensuring that the subsequent actions are being taken in a timely way.
There is insufficient focus on early permanence planning for some children. Too much emphasis is placed on rehabilitation to a parent even when this is unlikely and inadvisable given the history. This is leading to further delay for some children in achieving stability.
TfC has improved its communications with the council and partner agencies and is more transparent about its progress and where it needs to improve. However, the performance and progress reporting does not always focus on what this means for the children concerned.
When children do become subject to pre-proceedings, many experience delays in their plans progressing. This is due to high social worker turnover and weaknesses in the operational management oversight in ensuring essential work is done with the requisite urgency.
Feedback received from the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) is that there have been some improvements in proceedings work.
However, there remain issues in some cases with the timeliness of work pre-proceedings, the quality of the social work and the quality of applications to the court.
Supervision of social workers remains inconsistent. Most social workers are receiving monthly supervision, although, for some, there have been gaps of several months between sessions. The quality of supervision varies, with some supervision failing to address weaknesses in practice and lacking in specificity about what actions need to be taken and within what timescales in order to drive progress in children’s plans.
"All the social workers and managers who met inspectors reported that Sunderland is an improving place to work. They report that they have confidence in senior managers and in their commitment to continue making improvements in children’s social care," the report concluded.
Monitoring visit of Sunderland children’s services