The quality of children’s services in Middlesbrough has deteriorated since the last inspection in 2015, and services are now inadequate, Ofsted has said.
There are serious and widespread failures that leave children in harmful situations for too long. Risks to children and young people, including those who are being exploited, are not appropriately recognised, and insufficient action is taken to help and protect children. Leaders had recognised that significant improvements still need to be made, but had not fully identified the extent of the inadequacy at the point of inspection.
"Children experiencing longstanding neglect come into care too late, and decisions for them to do so are made in response to a crisis. Senior leaders have recognised that there are serious delays in achieving permanence for most children in care. However, the action taken by the service to address this has not shown an impact on reducing delays for children. Management oversight in this regard is not sufficiently robust. Insufficient attention is given to ensuring timely care planning, particularly for very young children. This creates instability for children and hinders them in forming secure attachments," said the report following the Ofsted inspection of children's services.
A new senior leadership team from 2017 recognised that the quality of social work practice was too inconsistent and, in some areas, inadequate. They led improvements, including increasing social work capacity and introducing a new performance and quality assurance framework, but these have not been enough to make a positive impact for all children.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection were judged to be inadequate. Inspectors highlighted:
- Services for children who need help and protection in Middlesbrough are inadequate because there are serious and widespread failures that do not protect children, and that leave them in harmful situations for too long.
- Not all children with specific vulnerabilities, such as those who receive a short break service and homeless young people, receive a social work assessment of their needs. Thresholds to access a social care response are too high, and, as a result, some children do not get the right help when they need it.
- Risks for children vulnerable to exploitation are insufficiently explored and poorly understood. There is a high tolerance to risk, and, as a result, most safety planning is weak. Children live in situations of chronic neglect for too long before action is taken to improve their circumstances.
- Most referrals about children do not provide sufficient information to inform decision-making. There are delays, mainly from the police, in referring children quickly, even when concerns are serious.
- For children already receiving social work support, partners do not consistently attend strategy meetings, and this inhibits effective information-sharing and joint decision-making.
- The quality of assessments, including some child protection enquiries, is not good enough.
- Some disabled children do not have the benefit of sufficient social work oversight in order to ensure that their needs are assessed, identified and met.
- The quality of children’s plans is too inconsistent. Some plans are too broad to identify children’s unique needs. Others lack timescales, limiting their usefulness in identifying the right support and measuring change and progress, particularly in response to the cumulative impact of neglect.
- Timely authoritative action is not always taken to improve children’s circumstances. This includes both escalation into pre-proceedings and into court proceedings.
- Safety planning for children who go missing from home and care and those vulnerable to exploitation is mostly ineffective.
- Young people who present as homeless do not always have their needs assessed, nor are they consistently provided with suitable accommodation when needed.
However, the report highlights that since the focused visit to the front door in August 2018, which raised concerns about the quality of initial responses to children, a recently commissioned MACH now provides an improved, accessible single point of contact for all concerns.
When significant concerns of harm are received, the MACH quickly and effectively responds with timely strategy meetings and good information-sharing in order to understand risk and identify next steps.
Early help services are well established in Middlesbrough. More families are benefiting from services, and an increasing number of partner agencies are becoming more confident in leading this level of support. A broad range of services are delivered through a multi-agency family-based approach, which, for some families, is effective in meeting their needs. If concerns escalate, the dedicated early help coordinator provides advice and guidance for partners, and appropriate services are identified.
Senior managers are aware that the quality of social work practice is inconsistent. More effective practice was seen in the safeguarding and care planning teams as a result of the implementation of a back-to-basics training programme. Children are seen regularly and alone by social workers, who mostly know their children very well, and understand their needs through age appropriate direct work. Children’s plans are regularly reviewed, and critical meetings are well attended by partner agencies.
Children and families benefit from a broad range of specialist services. When families are well engaged, children’s situations improve.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers are inadequate.
The report stated:
- Services for children in care and care leavers have deteriorated. Most children come into care in an unplanned way following a crisis, which means that planning is overly focused on the immediate needs of children.
- Initial care planning is ineffective, and insufficient attention is paid to the need to achieve stability and permanence for children. Crisis management and an overly persistent focus on seeking connected carers leaves children vulnerable to poor planning and instability. The lack of effective parallel planning creates delay for most children in achieving permanence.
- Early permanence is not prioritised for children in Middlesbrough, and there is a lack of parallel planning, which creates delay in achieving stability. Missed opportunities to place children early for fostering for adoption means that babies experience unnecessary moves, and this does not promote secure attachments.
- Senior management panels and inconsistent legal advice provide insufficient scrutiny for understanding children’s experiences and to ensure that their needs are met in a timely way.
- Social work assessments of children in care and care leavers are of a poor quality.
- The virtual school is not effective in ensuring that all children in care and care leavers access education opportunities or benefit from enhanced activities to develop their skills and confidence.
- Children experience significant delay in securing permanence through adoption.
- Care leaving services have deteriorated. High caseloads limit personal advisers’ ability to see care leavers regularly and to ensure that they have meaningful contact.
- Disabled children in care do not have the benefit of early transition planning into adulthood.
The report acknowledges that Middlesbrough has a particularly high rate of children in care against national comparators, and this level is increasing. The local authority recognises that edge of care services, which are to prevent children from coming into care, are under-developed and there is more to do to ensure early, timely planning for children to avoid crisis responses.
Family networks and family time are carefully considered and promoted for children in care, which helps children to retain their important relationships, including with their brothers and sisters.
Children benefit from opportunities to meet with their independent reviewing officers, with whom they develop good relationships over time.
Children also benefit from timely health assessments, but wait too long to have their emotional health and well-being needs met by the specialist child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS).
Although, too often, children come into care in a crisis, placement matching decisions are effective for most who require foster or residential care, the report adds.
Children live out of the local area when it is appropriate for their needs. Therapeutic placements are commissioned for children who need specialist and intensive support, and, as a result, many children do well, and their risks are reduced. However, for a small group of children with more complex needs, there are insufficient placements, and these children experience far too many moves.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families was judged inadequate. Ofsted said:
- Leaders across the council and safeguarding partnership have not sufficiently addressed the serious and widespread weaknesses seen across children’s services, and this has left children at risk of significant harm.
- The local authority experienced a further setback after investing in a service to respond to high levels of care proceedings. Following feedback from partners about the quality of social work, senior managers terminated the contract in July 2019, but this created more change for social work teams and had a detrimental impact on case management. From May 2019, the service experienced staff turnover in middle management which has limited the pace of improvement.
- Scrutiny and performance management have not sufficiently focused on priority areas, and insufficient critical challenge has resulted in poor improvement work, an inaccurate self-assessment and inadequate management of services for children.
- Corporate parenting is under-developed. Aspirations for children in care and care leavers are not good enough.
- While there have been improvements in performance management and quality assurance, performance monitoring is not sufficiently focused to provide managers and leaders with a good enough understanding of the quality of social work practice and the experiences of children and care leavers.
- Quality assurance is not sufficiently effective at identifying all risks to children or at raising the quality of social work practice. The local authority continues to rate a high proportion of audited cases as inadequate, and inspectors found that some managers did not adequately explore children’s experiences and progress when auditing cases.
- Management oversight and supervision at all levels is not consistently challenging or directive, nor is it ensuring effective decision-making for all children.
Senior leaders and an experienced DCS, appointed in 2017, quickly identified the deterioration of services for children in Middlesbrough and commenced improvement activity. The improvement plan was strengthened following the focused visit in August 2018, and there followed a period where some improvements began to have a positive impact on children’s experiences. The focused visit in April 2019 identified improving compliance, the positive impact of a revised performance management and quality assurance framework, as well as increased social worker capacity to support reductions in caseloads, and thereby improving services for children. However, improvements were hampered by the introduction of the service to respond to high levels of care proceedings.
Some strategic partnerships within Middlesbrough are now better established, and there has been some positive recent impact with the expansion of early help provision and the jointly commissioned MACH. However, the main safeguarding partners are not members of the Middlesbrough improvement board, and this limits effective challenge and shared accountability from the local area to support continued improvements.
Middlesbrough should improve the identification of and response to risk, particularly in relation to long-standing concerns of chronic neglect and wider exploitation. The understanding by partner agencies of threshold decisions for social work support and the quality of referrals needs addressing.
The quality and screening of referrals needs improvement so that history is well understood, and appropriate information is sought to inform decision-making. The quality of social work assessments and plans and the extent to which they reflect the child’s history and risks to children also need work.
The local authority needs to address the response to children who go missing from home, care and education, Ofsted says, while the response to children with specific vulnerabilities, needs improvement including children aged 16 to 17 years who present as homeless, disabled children and children held overnight in police custody.
The oversight and monitoring of and response to allegations against professionals working with children should be addressed and the local authority needs to concentrate on the timeliness and effectiveness of pre-proceedings and care proceedings work, including the quality of contingency planning.
There needs to be sufficient, suitable local homes to meet the needs of children in care and care leavers and the quality and timeliness of permanence planning needs improving, including the appropriate use of early permanence.
Life-story work should be occurring for all children in care and both children in care and care leavers should all have access to emotional and mental health support.
The educational outcomes for children in care and the proportion of care leavers who are engaged in employment, education or training needs work.
The effectiveness of management direction and challenge by leaders and managers at all levels, including the effectiveness of oversight from independent reviewing officers should be addressed as should the effectiveness of strategic partnerships to work together to improve outcomes and protect children, Ofsted said.
"Middlesbrough has a workforce characterised by a significant number of newly qualified staff, and with minimal use of agency staff. Additionally, there has been improvement in staff turnover and in vacancy and sickness rates. Staff are positive about working for Middlesbrough and feel well supported. Leaders are targeting the recruitment and retention of more experienced staff and are developing a ‘grow your own’ approach to ensure they have the staff with the right skills to deliver better practice," the report concluded.
Middlesbrough Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services